While Basil Rathbone, Herbert Rudley & Akim Tamiroff pull their weight in this talky 1956 monster mash, it’s incomprehensible that Lon Chaney, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi & Tor Johnson have all been consigned to shuffling mutely in the corners. 5/10
The Black Sleep. 1956, USA. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. Written by Gerald Grayson Adams, John Higgins. Starring: Herbert Rudley, Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Patricia Blair, Lon Chaney, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson. Produced by Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch. IMDb: 6.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Set in London in 1872, The Black Sleep follows Dr. Gordon Ramsey (Herbert Rudley) who is wrongly committed of murder and sentenced to hang. On the eve before his hanging, he is visited by the ominous Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), who administers to him a drug he calls “Nind Andhera” “The Black Sleep”, seemingly an equivalent of puffer fish tetrodotoxin used by voodoo priests to create suspended animation. The “dead” Ramsay is then brought to Dr. Cadman’s murky old mansion, filled with secret passages, hidden doors, a monster-filled dungeon and a state of the art neurosurgery room. With the help of Gypsy tattooer and bodysnatcher Odo (Akim Tamiroff), Ramsey is passed off as dead to the world, and begins a new life as the assistant of Dr. Cadman.
The plot hinges on the fact that Dr. Cadman is experimenting with brain tumour removal in order to save his wife Angelina (Louanna Gardner), who has been in a coma for seven months. But in order to do so, he also needs healthy test subjects for his experiments — procured by Odo who slips them “The Black Death”. Those who do not die on the operating table usually sustain brain damage and become “monsters”. For contractual reasons, most of these lose the ability to speak, because of union rules that meant actors in non-speaking roles could be paid less than those in speaking roles. Thus we get a mostly mute monster menagerie including Lon Chaney, Jr. as Mungo, Tor Johnson as Curry, Sally Yarnell as “female monster”, Bela Lugosi as the mute butler and last but not least John Carradine as Borg the Bohemond — the only speaking monster. Lon Chaney’s character Mungo turns out to be a former surgeon himself, a Dr. Monroe, who has come in for a tumour removal gone wrong. Lurking the corridors of the castle, he is commanded by the stern mistress Daphne (Phyllis Stanley), a throwback to the matrons of the old dark house films. Also working as an assistant in Cadman’s lab is Dr. Monroe’s daughter Laurie (Patricia Blair), who helps Ramsey uncover the mystery of Cadman’s experiments. The driving force of the film is Dr. Ramsey tumbling ever further down the rabbit hole, trying to decide what to make of Dr. Cadman and his experiments — is he a hero or a villain? And how many lives are worth sacrificing in order to save thousands in the future?
Produced for Bel-Air productions (Howard Koch and Aubrey Schenck), The Black Sleep was one of four films the independent company made for United Artists. The film was in black and white, partly to evoke the feeling of the old Universal horror movies, but primarily, one suspects, for budgetary reasons. The movie was produced in early 1956, following the success of Maila Nurmi’s The Vampira Show on TV, which brought about a resurgence of the popularity of old horror movies from the 30’s and 40’s. It had a budget of 225,000 dollars, which was not bad for a B-grade horror movie in the Monogram mold, and certainly the biggest production Bela Lugosi had done in years. Allen Miner was the original director, but he was quickly replaced by Reginald Le Borg, who had more experience with horror movies. The Gypsy Odo was originally to be played by Peter Lorre, but he was too expensive, so the role instead went to Akim Tamiroff, who did a bit of a Peter Lorre impersonation with the character. The movie was released as a double bill along with Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1956, review), billed in the US as The Creeping Unknown. The double bill was a success, raking in 1,2 million dollars in profit.
The Black Sleep is a throwback to the golden age of Gods and Monsters. For nearly two decades, American science fiction on screen was carried by the mad scientist horror movies, starting with Frankenstein (review) in 1931, and ending, more or less, with House of Dracula (review) in 1945. Despite the addition of the Wolf Man in 1941, by the 40’s the genre had pretty much run its course, and limped on with the help of Universal’s monster mashes of ever diminishing quality of Z-grade schlockers made by Poverty Row studios like PRC and Monogram. The genre spilled over somewhat on the Atomic Age, but by the mid-50’s the gothic horror movie was passé — now suited better for matinée TV than the big screen. Just a year efter the release of The Black Sleep, Screen Gems bought the rights to 52 Universal horror movies and syndicated them under the moniker Shock Theater. That same year, British studio Hammer reinvented the gothic horror genre in lavish colour, with new actors taking up the mantle of the old guard, with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The Black Sleep can be seen as a final swan song for the Universal-style horror movie, and having so many of the old mad scientists and monsters together in one final film, would naturally have excited the fans of the classic horror films.
Of course, one name is sorely missing from the credit sheet — Boris Karloff. Karloff must have probably just been unavailable, since he later did three other pictures with Bel-Air Productions. The two main characters are played by Herbert Rudley and Basil Rathbone. Rudley is the only one of the main cast without any prior horror history. A stage and occasional film character actor, Rudley tells film historian Tom Weaver that one of the producers had seen him in something and called him up. He happily agreed, since this was something he had never done before. Rudley is better than most of the bland leading men in these kinds of low-budget horror outings, and it’s clear he has some real acting background. However, his character is thinly written, and he doesn’t quite have the looks of charisma to carry the role on charm alone.
Basil Rathbone, the distinguished Shakespearean actor, wasn’t exactly a horror staple, although he was best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in 14 movies, which often dipped its toes in horror territory. However, he did have the distinction of having played Dr. Frankenstein himself in the well-regarded sequel Son of Frankenstein (1939, review). Rathbone, with his somewhat stiff British countenance, is professional as always, and if he felt any disdain for falling down to the rung of mad B-movie scientist, he doesn’t let it show. Akim Tamiroff also had little horror connection, but is well suited in the role as the oily tattoo artist and dealer in all forms of “services” for Dr. Cadman. One has the feeling that Tamiroff had a lot of fun with the role, allowing him to ham it to the max. It is also Tamiroff who brings life to the film, even if his monologues are somewhat long-winded, as so many of the lines in The Black Sleep.
Horror fans must have been somewhat disappointed, though, in seeing the menagerie of horror greats being reduced to little more than glorified extras in the film. The most prominent role went to Lon Chaney, that is in terms of screen time. However, when he is on screen, he does very little. As in many of the films of his later career, he plays a mute. There are different accounts on to which extent Chaney was capable of speaking roles at this stage of his alcohol-fuelled career, but whatever the case, there is little left of the magic that made him a superstar in The Wolf Man (1941). Chaney mostly shuffles around the sets making grunting noises. Chaney, of course, was the “replacement ghoul” when Boris Karloff bowed out of monster roles after three Frankenstein movies. In the thirties and forties, Chaney portrayed not only Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Dracula (kind of), but also the Wolf Man.
You feel most sad, however, for Bela Lugosi, once such a vital and powerful presence on screen, reduced here to a mute butler who does little more than walk past the screen a couple of times, looking confused. The actor who radiated such sexual energy and dark mystery in his trademark role as Dracula in 1931 is now old and frail. Lugosi was just out of rehab for his morphine addiction, and according to interviews with production staff had to be literally carried in and off set by Tor Johnson.
The rest of the monster menagerie isn’t revealed until the very last scenes of the film, so for most of the time the audience has to make due with the two most washed-up alcoholics in the Hollywood horror field, neither of which feel like much of a threat to the protagonist. The revelation of the deformed test subjects is a very effective scene, though. As Ramsay and Laurie search for a way out of the castle, they stumble upon the dungeon, where the monsters are revealed, one after the other, in their booths. First, they discover George Sawaya’s sailor, who we have previously seen as one of the “living dead” test subjecs – he now has horrible facial deformities, and then Sally Yarnell’s female monster – a half-naked woman with a half-bald head and hideous tufts of hair growing from her body – cackling a deranged laughter. Next it is John Carradine’s bearded hermit, who thinks he is living in the time of the Crusades, urging his fellow “knights” to “kill the infidels!”. Last but not least, they find the mass of meat and muscle that is Tor Johnson. Just his scowling face is scary enough, but it gets even worse when he opens his eyes, and they are blank, save for a small black pupil. This is probably the most effective scene in the film, and must have been thoroughly scary for kids back in the day.
In fact, the film offers up a small number of scenes that are surprisingly gruesome for its day – like when Daphne gets set on fire, or when the film actually shows Dr. Cadman cutting into a brain, and we see the cranial fluid ooze out. In an interview with Tom Weaver, producer Aubrey Schenck says he consulted a brain surgeon to make sure he got the medical details right, and actually had a real brain surgeon’s hands in the frame when filming the scene, for added realism. In the past, these kind of scenes had always been done off screen, and something like fluid oozing out of a brain when cut into had probably never been seen on screen before.
Carradine is superb, as always, but he is on screen little more than a couple of minutes. Tor Johnson is always an impressive presence, here perhaps scarier than in any other film he made, but gets even less screen time than Carradine, and Sally Yarnell is also a treat as the she-monster. It’s just too bad that these actors, who could actually have delivered powerful performances in the movie, are so underused – ceding screen time instead to the two monster actors who were at the time too drunk or sick to deliver any sort of intelligent performance.
You might ask yourself, then, what this 82-minute movie actually gets up to, as the monsters in this monster movie barely register on screen. Well, for one, there’s a whole lot of Basil Rathbone giving lengthy lectures on brain structure and neurosurgery, as well as the history of medicine. Akim Tamiroff fills out several minutes of runtime with flowery wordings that eventually adds up to very little information, and John Higgins seems to have written all lines in the script around double as long as they actually need to be to get the information across. The movie is entirely studio-bound, and mostly takes place in cramped, dark rooms, seldom opening up to wide shots. Director Reginald Le Borg was a competent director, and knew how to light and shoot a gothic horror movie – he had had ample opportunities to do so at Universal, until he quit, because he didn’t like directing horror movies. The movie was shot on just 12 days, and while Le Borg hits the right cues, he does so without any real passion for the subject or the genre. One of the best things in the movie, though, is Les Baxter’s eerie music, that is actually one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a classic horror movie.
The Black Sleep received good notices in the trade press upon its release. Variety called it “a good entry for the special exploitation spook bill”, noting that the script “plays the horror tale fairly straight so what’s happening is not too illogical until the finale wrapup, when all restraint come off and the melodramatics run amok”. Critic Brog praised the acting of Rathbone, Rudley and Tamiroff, and opined that Chaney, Carradine and Lugosi “prove okay bogeymen”. Harrison’s Reports warned that those with weak stomachs, “particularly women”, might become nauseated with some of the scenes, “especially those that show exposed brain matter”. However, the magazine wrote; “The picture has been produced well — so well, in fact, that it is sure to cause chills to go up and down the spines of all who see it”. The Exhibitor wrote: “Sure, a lot of it is corny, but it is all good fun in a grisly, frightening manner”. Distributor United Artists went all out in the marketing department and had makeup artist George Bau make eerily accurate life-size wax figures of Carradine, Chaney, Rathbone, Lugosi and Tamiroff (oddly enough, not Johnson), which went on tour with the film across the US. The wax figures reportedly cost 20,000 dollars to make.
The Black Sleep has a 6.0/10 audience rating on IMDb and not enough reviews for a Rotten Tomatoes consensus. Phil Hardy in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies calls it “surprisingly plodding”. AllMovie gives it a mere 1.5/5 stars, with Craig Butler writing: ” Only Tamiroff gives a decent performance, and his work is all that gives Sleep any real worth. Certainly the by-the-numbers direction and the dreadful script don’t help matters, nor does the obviously cheap production. Diehard horror aficionados may enjoy The Black Sleep, but most others will be disappointed and then irritated by it.” TV Guide wasn’t impressed, either: “It’s a whole lot of hokum and an amateurish attempt to unite all of these marvelous horror actors in one film–a far miss”. Film historian Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies! writes that he saw the film as a kid: “Though not much of a movie otherwise, The Black Sleep did deliver the goods as a horror movie. For years I thought of it as one of the most frightening movies I had ever seen.”
Dennis Schwartz calls The Black Sleep “a mediocre film that has earned a rep for wasting an all-star caliber cast of some of the greatest horror actors”. Richard Scheib at Moria gives the movie a 2/5 star review, writing: “The main problem is that The Black Sleep is still a low-budgeted film and director Reginald LeBorg lets it take place amid limited sets, which leads to a film that is talky and static at best. Nevertheless, the film stands out somewhat because of its better production values and passable direction that elevates what otherwise might have been hackneyed material.” DVD Savant Glenn Erickson concurs: “The Black Sleep is far too talky, with almost every scene taking place in an enclosed, small space. The overall sameness to the settings and the lack of story pacing combine to make the show feel sluggish and shapeless.”
While this film gets a lot of flack, I’d like to point out that it is in no way as bad as the horror cheapos that Monogram and other low-budget studios pumped out in the thirties and forties. These films are perhaps more fondly remembered for featuring a Bela Lugosi in full swing, and for their tongue-in-cheek attitude. The Black Sleep instead plays it straight, and with some quality, which makes it hard to enjoy as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, simply because it is not bad enough. The acting is good to decent, with the exception of ingenue Patricia Blair. Granted, it’s not a thankful role, but Blair seems a bit out of her element here — she went on to better things in TV in the 60’s. Reginald Le Borg and cinematographer Gordon Avil create some good atmosphere and the special effects (uncredited) are quite good, as is the character design by Nick Volpe. Low-budget legend Jack Rabin and Louis DeWitt also create some nice visual dream effects. I like the grounding in science, for once the basic premise of a film is actually rather sound, even if the movie becomes full-blown hokum at the end. And as stated, the music does a lot to sell the eerie atmosphere. The biggest problem with the film is the slow-moving and overly talky script, which over-elaborates the points, lingers too long on irrelevancies and just takes too damn long to get anywhere. Le Borg’s direction is not bad either, and has a few flourishes here and there, but the cramped sets and the director’s lack of enthusiasm do much to drain the joy out of the experience. The biggest problem, of course, is that as a film that is sold on the merits of its all-star cast, it ends up being a huge disappointment, as all the monster actors are more or less wasted. Partly, this could have been a budgetary decision, as speaking roles were better paid than non-speaking ones. But producer Aubrey Schenck tells Tom Weaver that Basil Rathbone got 10,000–15,000 dollars for his involvement, – Bela Lugosi, in contrast, got the minimum salary for a featured actor, 350 dollars, and reportedly begged Le Borg to give him a couple of lines. But speaking or non-speaking, the monsters play little part in the proceedings, which are ultimately taken up by endless babble between the four main characters, much of it rather pointless.
Director Reginald Le Borg was born in Austria as Reginald Grobel (not Groebel as some sources claim) in 1902 to a wealthy banking family and studied music — and finance, at his father’s command, and soon entered the banking world under his dad in Paris, where he also took time to study art and literature. His father lost his entire fortune on Black Monday in 1929, which left Grobel free to pursue his cultural ambitions. He worked in theatre and opera with various tasks and began to write and direct for provincial theatres. In 1932 he left for Hollywood, where he slowly worked his way up the career ladder to achieve his goal of becoming a movie director. Well-educated, fluent in English, knowledgeable in the world of finances, he had a knack for writing, played several instruments, and had experience in directing for the stage. His broad experience and talent left him several avenues to pursue, and he worked as as script writer, personal assistant to fellow Austrian director Joe May and rehearsed singers in arias for films. He soon started to direct — sometimes uncredited — opera numbers for movies. One of his first writing assignments came was Universal’s tasteless but bland SF/melodrama film Life Returns (1934, review), which hinged on 10 minutes of actual footage of resuscitation of a dog (which had been deliberately killed in the name of science). However, he was replaced by another writer and received no credit. On the side, he directed musical shorts (the music videos of the day), which caught the eye of Universal. In the 30’s Grobel also officially changed his name from the Germanic Grobel to Le Borg (which, of course, is Grobel spelled backwards). In 1937 he became a US citizen, and aided the campaign against the Nazis in Germany. During WWII he directed educational films for the army and propaganda films for the Office of War Information.
In 1941 Le Borg was hired by Universal to direct short films, and the studio was so impressed by his output that in 1943 they offered him a 6-year contract as a feature film director. In 1944 a film that he had previously written for MGM, Heavenly Music, won the Oscar for “best two-act play”, so Universal offered him an A-movie, San Diego, I Love You, starring Buster Keaton (1944), which had a budget of half a million dollars, and became his biggest commercial success. However, rather than showing his teeth as a visionary director, Le Borg proved extremely adept at bringing in films according to script, budget and schedule, which made him very useful in Universal’s B-movie department, where he was often assigned to mystery and horror films. He made Calling Dr. Death (1943) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and J. Carroll Naish, the cult classic Weird Woman (1944) with Chaney, Anne Gwynne and Evelyn Ankers, the SF horror film Jungle Woman (1944, review) with Ankers, Naish and Acquanetta, the classic The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) with Chaney and John Carradine and Dead Man’s Eyes (1944) with Chaney and Acquanetta. Realising he had little chance of doing the sort of films he wanted to do at Universal, he terminated his contract prematurely in 1945 and went freelance. However, his career didn’t pick up much, as Hollywood hit a slump after WWII, and he found it hard to get commissions. He wound up doing mostly comedies for Monogram and other Poverty Row studios. In the fifties he returned to make B-movies for Universal and other major studios, as well as independent producers, such as Bel-Air, for whom he made the lambasted Voodoo Island (1957) with Boris Karloff. He made a third and last dip into SF with the 1961 movie The Flight that Disappeared, and in 1963 directed the loose Guy the Maupassant adaptation Diary of a Madman with Vincent Price. In 1965 he also directed a couple of scenes for the infamous patch-up film House of the Black Death, with Chaney and Carradine, which was eventually released in 1971. With the advent of TV, Le Borg’s reputation for efficient shooting led to many offers from TV studios, and he directed over 100 TV shows from the 50’s to the 70’s.
People who worked on the film describe Reginald Le Borg as a nice and pleasant man, but a bit of a character. Assistant director Paul Wurtzel tells Tom Weaver he was a “suave, dapper type” who “could be very serious”. Phil Brown, who worked on Weird Woman and Dead Man’s Eyes says that Le Borg was “perfectly pleasant” but “a strange man”, who could be somewhat arrogant because “he thought he was a bigger man than he was”. Aubrey Schenck says to Weaver that Le Borg was a very talented director, but too afraid to cross the producers and studios to stand up for his vision: “[he] could have been one of the greatest directors out there. He had great taste and he was a very sensitive guy, but he was afraid of the schedule, he was afraid of everything.” Conversely, Le Borg himself says to Weaver in an interview that while at Universal he was labelled as a complainer, for having opinions on bad scripts and actors. Lead actor Herbert Rudley, again in an interview with Weaver, says he became good friends with Le Borg, and they wrote an unfilmed script together. According to him, Le Borg’s problem was that he tried to “buck the system”, but didn’t have the credentials to get away with it, so became shunned by big studios: “I think his ability was far above what his success was”.
For a while in the mid-to-late 50’s, Schenck-Koch productions was something of a phenomenon, first under the moniker Aubrey Schenck Productions, and later Bel-Air Productions. For United Artists, the duo churned out westerns and war films on minimal budgets between 1953 and 1956. The Black Sleep was their first film as Bel-Air, their largest production and by far their most successful (partly, one surmises, thanks to the pairing with The Quatermass Xperiment). Schenck entered the film business as a lawyer in the late thirties and, and in 1943 started producing pictures for Fox, later Eagle-Lion. However, he hit it off with Howard Koch, who worked as an assistant director on one of his films, and they went into business together. According to interviews with both Schenck and people who worked with him, it was Schenck who was the “visionary”, and the one who came up with almost all the ideas and many story treatments behind the movies, despite the fact that he almost never took story credit. According to himself, when the cameras rolled, he left Koch and the director alone. Koch, on the other hand, is described as the man who did everything else — location scouting, production management, even directing. Together, the two went on to produce such films as Voodoo Island, Pharaoh’s Curse (1957), Hell Bound (1957), The Dalton Girls (1957), Macabre (1958), Up Periscope (1959) and the TV show Miami Undercover (1961). In some of these collaborations, Koch was credited as director and Schenck got sole producer credit, these included the girls-in-prison film Untamed Youth (1957) and the infamous Frankenstein 1970 (1958).
However, Schenck’s and Koch’s ways parted in the early sixties, and Koch was recruited as the executive producer of Frank Sinatra’s film company, for whom he produced John Frankenheimer’s classic dystopian spy-fi thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962), among others. He got picked up by Paramount, first as a producer and then head of production, and later founded his own company which produced movies for Paramount. He produced such classics as The Odd Couple (1968), Airplane! (1980), Dragonslayer (1981), Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and Ghost (1990). He also branched out successfully to TV, among other things as the producer of the televised Oscars gala, for which he earned three Emmy nominations. In 1990 he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars and in 1991 a lifetime achievement award by the American Directors Association. According to Tom Weaver, he was by all accounts regarded as one of the best-beloved men in Hollywood. Aubrey Schenck, however, continued to make films in his own crazy way, never straying far from his pulp sensibilities. For Paramount, he made the surprisingly good Ib Melchior-penned Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which remained one of his own favourites, and then returned to supplying films for United Artists. He made the westerns More Dead than Alive (1969) with Vincent Price and Anne Francis and Barquero (1970) with Lee Van Cleef. His last films were made in the Philippines; Superbeast (1972) and Daughters of Satan (1973). On his later films, Schenck collaborated with his son George, who later rose to prominence as a writer and producer of NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service (2003-).
As stated, The Black Sleep was Bela Lugosi’s last film, unless you count his brief cameo in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Just out from morphine rehab. For fans of Lugosi, it is heartbreaking to see him shuffle around the sets with a confused look on his face. All of the vitality, vigour and exotic sexual charm from his thirties has seeped out of this sick, frail old man. Lon Chaney, Jr. still had 15 years of acting career ahead of him, despite the fact that people counted him down and out year after year. In 1957 he went on to a co-starring role as the mute Chingachook in the TV series Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans and in 1958 played opposite Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones. Chaney is described by his co-stars and colleagues as a sweet and intelligent man, who nonetheless ruined his career with his alcoholism. Basil Rathbone was into the downhill period of his career, taking any roles he was offered, regardless of quality, reportedly to support his wife’s lavish lifestyle. From starring roles in the 30’s opposite Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Tyrone Power and Greta Garbo, and his iconic turn as Sherlock Holmes in the 40’s, Rathbone suddenly found himself uncastable in A-movies in the 50’s because of his Holmes fame. Much of his later work was done in TV, and he had the occasional role in decent big-budget movies. However, come the 60’s, he was almost exclusively working with the cheapest outfits in Hollywood, like Bert I. Gordon and Roger Corman, for whom he made Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Queen of Blood (1966), both cobbled together from Soviet SF movies. He ended his career with The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillies in a Haunted House (1967).
Georgia-born Armenian Akim Tamiroff visited New York with a Soviet theatre troupe in 1920, and stayed. From Broadway, he entered Hollywood in the early 30’s, and his baritone voice, charisma and versatility quickly made him a sought-after character actor for films big and small. He earned two Oscar nominations for best support, first in the yellowface role as General Yang in Lewis Milestone’s The General Died at Dawn (1936) and later opposite Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in the war movie For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). In the 50’s and 60’s he appeared in three of Orson Welles’ movies; Mr. Arkadin, A Touch of Evil and The Trial. While not exactly an SF staple, he did have starring roles in two other science fiction movies, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Lawrence Huntington’s The Vulture (1966).
John Carradine, of course, had behind him a long career as a Shakespearian actor and character actor in movies of both A and Z grade quality. A part of John Ford’s “stock company”, he had large roles in Stage Coach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), as well as in The Hound of the Baskervilles – Rathbone’s first turn as Sherlock Holmes. He later appeared in such movies as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). But he he particularly well known for lending his towering, craggy appearance and his booming voice to horror movies, appearing in small roles in Universal’s The Invisible Man (1933, review), The Black Cat (1934), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), before donning the white frock of the mad scientist himself for the first – but definitely not the last – time in Revenge of the Zombies (1943, review) and Captive Wild Woman (1943, review). All in all, he appeared in close to 70 horror films and nearly 40 science fiction movies, and according to his own words, over 500 films altogether, making him one of the most prolific actors of the sound era. He generously admitted that a lot of the films he appeared in were abysmal – 17 of his SF movies have an IMDb rating of under 4.0/10. One of the reasons he took on almost any role offered was the fact that he ran a, by all accounts, well regarded but amazingly unprofitable Shakespearean company, into which he funnelled much of his movie earnings. Although severely crippled by arthritis, he kept on working – what else would have been possible for a man who was known for walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard reciting Shakespeare? – until his death at 82 in 1988. He left behind him an acting dynasty, with all his five children and many of his grandchildren and their children entering the movie business.
Rathbone, Carradine and The Black Sleep’s lead actor Herbert Rudley had all worked together previously in the Danny Kaye costume comedy The Court Jester (1955). Herbert Rudley was a stage actor in New York before he got his first taste of the big screen when he reprised his role in the film version of the successful Broadway play Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). However, it was his second film four years later, the propaganda movie The Seventh Cross (1944), that made him relocate, at least partially, to Hollywood. The Black Sleep provided what was probably his only leading role, although he appeared in close to 30 films between 1940 and 1983, most of them made in the 40’s and 50’s, and around 100 TV shows. He made no other SF movies, but appeared as a guest on half a dozen SF tv shows.
For a generation who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, Tor Johnson was best known as the best-selling Halloween mask of the era. While Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood (1944) suggests that it was Ed Wood that first gave show wrestler Johnson his chance in the movies, the fact is that Johnson had appeared regularly in films since the mid-30’s. Born Karl Erik Tore Johansson in Stockholm in 1903 to a working-class family, Johnson made his first trip to the US in 1919, according to an article by Elisabeth Thorsell in the journal Swedish American Genealogist. Some sources claim that Johnson became a professional wrestler in his early teens, a preposterous claim, as there was no such thing as professional wrestling in Sweden in the 1910’s. Upon his arrival in Ellis Island in 1919, his profession is recorded as “electrician”, which is probably what he was. He returned to Sweden in 1922, and came back to the US in 1923, now together with his future wife Greta. In 1925 their only child, Tore Karl, was born. According to immigration papers, the Johnsons spent some of their early years in the US in Chicago, where they had relatives, but Tore Karl is listed as being born in New York, and the family seems to have lived both there and in Boston for a while. In the 1940 census, Tor Johnson’s profession is given as construction worker, rather than wrestler, suggesting wrestling was not his full-time job at that time at least. Exactly when Johnson took up professional wrestling is somewhat unclear, and different wrestling databases list his debut as between 1931 and 1933. Johnson had a full head of blonde hair, but decided to shave his head in order to look more menacing, and took the moniker Super Swedish Angel — a tribute to French acromegalic wrestler Maurice Tillet, known in the US as The French Angel. There was another Swedish wrestler who got started around the same time, and like Tillet was acromegalic, named Nils Philip Olafsson, or Phil Olafsson, who went by the moniker The Swedish Angel, and Johnson’s moniker was a ripoff of the ripoff. Johnson appeared, mainly uncredited, in a handful of films between 1934 and 1936. After a break in film appearances, he returned to the silver screen 1941, after which he racked up at least one film a year between 1941 and 1961.
Without being an expert of 40’s and 50’s American show wrestling it is difficult to assess the star power of Johnson in the ring. He was no doubt a solid heel and a crowd pleaser with his imposing physique — he was 6’3 or 191 cm tall, and his weight varied between around 300 and 400 lbs or 130 to 180 kg. Looking at his stats at wrestlingdata.com, his wrestling career was somewhat patchy, though. While most wrestling stars would fight almost non-stop throughout their careers, Johnson — even in his heyday — seems to have gone several months in a row without a single fight almost annually, reinforcing the notion that he probably backed up his wrestling not only with acting, but also with some “civilian” profession. And while he is probably one of the most famous old-time wrestlers today, his fame stems more from his movie career than his career in the ring.
All in all Johnson fought close to 700 matches between 1931 and 1955. In the movies he usually played an uncredited wrestler or strongman – sometimes in rather prestigious films, where he rubbed shoulders with Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Janet Leigh, Charles Laughton and the rest. However, his lasting fame is based on his later acting career with Ed Wood, who created his mute, lumbering Lobo character who was featured in Bride of the Monster (1955, review), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) and Night of the Ghouls (1959), as well as in Boris Petroff’s The Unearthly (1957). He also infamously portrays the title character in the ultra-bad The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961). The meagre income from these films probably helped him to partially compensate for the lost income after retiring from wrestling. By all accounts, Johnson was a kind, soft-spoken man, very different from his onscreen monsters. In the mid-60’s the Don Post Company, a professional movie makeup and masquerade costume company, had Johnson model for his own Halloween mask, which became an instant best-seller. Johnson gave his last film performance alongside The Monkees in the 1968 film Head. he passed away in 1971 from heart failure. Johnson’s son also worked as a wrestler for some time, under an assumed last name, and was given a handful of bit-parts in his father’s pictures. However, his day job was as a detective as the San Fernando police department.
Texan Patricia Blair, playing the female lead in The Black Sleep, was one of the many starlets entering Hollywood through the world of modelling. Her movie career amounted to a few second female leads in B-movies in the 50’s, but she had better luck in TV, where she was peg holed for westerns. She had a recurring role on The Rifleman (1962-1963) and rose to national fame playing the wife of the titular character for six seasons of Daniel Boone (1964-1970). However, work trailed off in the 70’s and she gradually retired from acting, in order to instead arrange trade shows.
The characters in the basement were “designed” by Nicholas Volpe, an up and coming artist who had done some work in Hollywood for a few years, and whose talents as a portrait painter had started to get wider recognition. It was around this time that Volpe got a lifetime commission to paint the winners of the best actor and actress Oscar. During his career he not only painted celebrities like Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and Johnny Cash, but also politicians like John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and David Ben Gurion. Set designer was none other than Robert Kinoshita, who famously built Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956, review) and worked as art director on the TV show Lost in Space (1965-1967), and designed the show’s iconic bucket robot.
The Black Sleep. 1956, USA. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. Written by Gerald Grayson Adams, John Higgins. Starring: Herbert Rudley, Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Patricia Blair, Lon Chaney, Jr., Phyllis Stanley, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Sally Yarnell, George Sawaya, Claire Carleton. Music: Les Baxter. Cinematography: Gordon Avil. Editing: John Schreyer. Set design: Robert Kinoshita. Set decoration: Clarence Steensen. Character designer: Nick Volpe. Makeup creator: George Bau. Makeup artist: Ted Coodley. Sound editor: Michael Pozen. Visual effects: Jack Rabin, Louis DeWitt. Produced by Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch for Bel-Air Productions.