The Sixth Annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon Begins!

I hear a faint, desperate howling on the wind, accompanied by a persistent piano melody… Is that a mask outside the window, its hollow eyes gazing into mine? Is that a Shape lurking among the shadows in the dark corner of my room? As a chill raises goose bumps across the back of my neck I begin to comprehend the horror creeping along fringes of my mind… it is the ghost of the Halloween Horror Movie Marathon 2014 returned to haunt me. The 2014 marathon wrap up that never was bears a year long grudge against me…. But what was I, father to a demon child, to do? I’m now caught between the ferocious claws of a beast and the ghost of Michael Myers…

Yes, I failed to produce a wrap up post… oh well… last year’s fall was a busy one, with a one year old terrorizing the home while a close family member stayed in the hospital waiting for surgery. The good news is that the family member is now well and continuing on with their daily routine almost as if nothing happened while the younger of my two demons is at least somewhat easier to maintain these days. His spells and sacrifices involve me and his mother less often. He now focuses his diabolical energy on his older demon brother. The satanic siblings are still a force to be reckoned with as their battles are epic. But at least they sleep more often than they used to, perhaps weary from the energy spent attempting to destroy each other.

I reread last year’s reviews and if I were to give a quick, single paragraph wrap-up of last year, as best as my memory will allow, it might be this: Of all of the Halloween films, the original is the best. The most brutal kill was of the nurse played by Octavia Spencer in Zombie’s second Halloween film. The worst Halloween film was, predictably, Halloween III, although Resurrection came pretty close. The worst film from last year overall was Annabelle. Yeah, hard to believe it could be worse than III, I know… Favorite campy performance was by Donald Pleasance as Doctor Loomis. Scariest performance by Nick Castle as Michael Myers in the first film. Special shout-out goes to The Corridor, which was about as unique a horror film as I’d seen in a while.

But now we’re back to horror movie season 2015 and it’s time to get things started. I’ve already got one movie under my belt and that is…

The Black Sleep (poster)

The Black Sleep (1956) — Directed by Reginald Le Borg. Starring Basil Rathbone, Herbert Rudley, Akim Tamiroff, Patricia Blake, Phyllis Stanley, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Tor Johnson, George Sawaya, Sally Yarnell.

The Halloween Horror Movie Marathon tradition is to kick things off with an older film. This year I picked The Black Sleep because I was intrigued by its large cast of classic horror film actors and… well, it was one of the few older horror movies I could find while perusing the catalog on Netflix.

Basil Rathbone is Sir Joel Cadman, an esteemed neurosurgeon of the late 19th century who helps former student, and wrongfully accused, Dr. Gordon Ramsay escape death row. To accomplish this he fakes Ramsay’s demise by feeding him an East Indian drug that simulates the death of whoever ingests it, a state Cadman refers to as the eponymous Black Sleep.

Dr. Ramsay, his “body” brought to Cadman’s estate via the machinations of Udu the Gypsy (Akim Tamiroff) and revived by Cadman, becomes an assistant to his mentor. Through operations performed on human bodies, they set out to map the human brain. Of course Dr. Ramsay will soon learn that nothing is as it first seems and he’ll soon be wishing he became an angry chef instead of a gullible surgeon.

As with any mad scientist, Cadman cannot be trusted with this powerful substance. He has tricked poor Gordon into operating on living subjects, not the expected cadavers. His home is filled with subjects of his failed experiments, including Mungo (Lon Chaney Jr.), Casimir (Bela Lugosi), “Bohemund” (John Carradine), and Curry (Tor Johnson). They’ve all been induced with the Black Sleep and then operated on, resulting in either their madness, disability, or deformity. Although Cadman haughtily huffs and puffs about tossing aside common morals for the sake of scientific progress, it is all done as a lead up to operating on his comatose wife who suffers from a brain tumor. It appears that even a cold, callous man of science can be swayed by tender matters of the heart.

The Black Sleep is a run of the mill mad scientist tale that isn’t quite campy enough to merit ironic viewing, nor does it contain any of the tension or compelling drama of the films it is a tribute to. Basil Rathbone, ten years after his final turn as Sherlock Holmes, is fine. Although he’s not very menacing, his slick stiffness manages to convey some sense of evil in the well-worn role of the mad scientist who eschews morals for the sake of progress. You know, how most films of this era tend to portray scientists. Or of just about any era, come to think of it.

Although it is novel to see all of these classic actors together in one film, they’re under-utilized. I love Chaney so much in The Wolf Man that every time I see him I feel like I’m revisiting an old favorite uncle. Here his talents are wasted. With no lines, he grunts, lurches about, and attacks random characters. Bela Lugosi has some amusing facial expressions but, his character being mute, he has no dialogue either.

It’s not all so disheartening. Akim Tamiroff provides some comic relief as Udu the Gypsy and John Carradine is fun for the scant minutes he’s around. There’s also a brain operation with effects convincing enough that they might induce some squirms and queasiness. But overall The Black Sleep might be more interesting as a historical horror curiosity.

Here’s a post on the film with a lot of cool promo stills.  And, if you have the time, another review that is quite well written.

If you don’t have a Netflix account, you can watch The Black Sleep here on Dailymotion, along with many other old horror films. Don’t expect high definition quality on any of them…

I couldn’t post this without mention of the passing of horror legend Wes Craven. It’s fitting that I should revisit some of his classic films this year. I’ll be starting with a special showing on Friday night of what is perhaps his most famous film.

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