Out of circulation for many years, this 1956 B-level cheapie (made in 12 days for $225,000) is notable for bringing together a number of horror flick icons – Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi in his final role). However, the stellar line-up is mostly wasted in smaller roles and the genuine thrills are fairly creaky, even by the standards of its era.
Basil Rathbone dominates the film as Victorian England’s most prominent surgeon. He carries a painful secret – his wife is in a deep coma created by a brain tumor, but the lack of knowledge in that era prevents him from operating without risking severe brain damage. In order to gain a greater understanding of the topic, he employs a Gypsy tattoo artist (Akim Tamiroff) to kidnap unsuspecting subjects who are used as human guinea pigs in Rathbone’s hit-and-miss surgery experiments.
Rathbone clearly enjoyed the return to a blatantly villainous role and tore into his performance with full-throttled gusto. However, the real horror stars have little to do here – Lugosi (as a shuffling, elderly butler), Chaney and Johnson (as the freakish results of the failed brain surgeries) are mute, while Carradine booms out bizarre lines relating to the Crusades. Considering the congregation of talent, the casting was a wasted opportunity.
Indeed, except for a brief glimpse of open-skull surgery (complete with a mini-Niagara of cerebral fluid spilling from its brainy source), “The Black Sleep” is a forgettable “B” with no sting.