Sunday, February 23, 2014

Saturday, January 22, 1972: The Black Sleep (1956) / The Brute Man (1945)

Synopsis: Dr. Gordon Angus Ramsey (Herbert Rusley) has been convicted of murder. On the eve of his hanging, he is visited by one of his old medical school professors, Sir Joel Cadman.  Ramsey swears to Cadman that he didn't commit the crime, and Cadman seems sympathetic. He gives Ramsey a vial of powder and instructs him to mix the powder with water and drink before dawn on the morning of his hanging.  This, Cadman promises, will put him in a such a state of torpor that he will not be aware of the hanging at all. He also assures Ramsey that his body won't be turned over to the medical college for dissection, as is normally done with convicts' bodies; instead, the body will be turned over to Dr. Cadman himself.

When the guards come for Ramsey the next morning they find his dead body lying in the cell.  The body is transferred to Dr. Cadman, who once back at his lab gives it an injection.  At once the body goes into convulsions; minutes later, Dr. Ramsey has come back to life.

This, Dr. Cadman tells an astonished Ramsey, is the work of an ancient drug known as the Black Sleep; it perfectly simulates death; and as long as the antidote is given within 24 hours, the patient can be revived. A grateful Ramsey agrees to assist Dr. Cadman with his brain research.

While at the Cadman estate, Ramsey witnesses young Laurie (Patricia Blair) being attacked by a wild-eyed patient, Mungo (Lon Chaney, Jr). Mungo seems deranged and is apparently carries a visceral hatred for Laurie.  Ramsey tells Cadman that Mungo reminds him of someone he once knew, Professor Monroe, who was one of his instructors in college.  Cadman tells him that Mungo is indeed Professor Monroe; moreover, Laurie is his daughter.

Dr. Ramsey assists in experimenting with the brain of a cadaver when he notices cerebral fluid running down the surface of the brain.  How can this happen on a cadaver? he asks Cadman.  It isn't a cadaver, Dr. Cadman replies.  The man they are experimenting on is alive, kept in a state of suspended animation by the Black Sleep.

When Dr Ramsey protests, Cadman tells him that this is the only way to conduct the research that will benefit all mankind.  He reminds him that Dr. Monroe will benefit when he is able to unlock the mysteries of the human brain; so will Dr. Cadman's wife, who has been in a trance-like state since a brain injury.

But little does Dr. Ramsey know that Cadman was the one who arranged for him to be tried and convicted of murder, in order to recruit him as an assistant in his ghoulish experiments....

Comments: This is the second showing of The Black Sleep on Horror Incorporated. I'm not really sure why I dislike this indie production as much as I do; maybe it's because I suspect that it isn't so much paying homage to Universal's old horror stars as it is exploiting them for its own purposes. The movie is decidedly exploitative to start with, and seeing Lugosi and Chaney muddling through their non-speaking roles is painful. Neither actor was capable of memorizing much dialogue by this point in their careers (that is to say, the end of their careers), but I suspect the real reason they don't speak is that there wasn't enough money in the budget to allow it.

  It may be that all the actors involved were happy just to pick up a paycheck under any circumstances, but at the same time it must have been humiliating, and I don't like seeing people humilated. To the movie's credit, it does offer perfectly respectable production values (though not as good as those at Hammer, which really knew how to make a penny scream) , and boasts two very good actors in key roles: Basil Rathbone as Joel Cadman, and Akim Tamaroff as the gypsy. 

The problem with this movie (as with most bad movies)  is rooted in the script. The Black Sleep is dreary, derivative, and unforgivably talky.  Joel Cadman's motivation for experimenting on innocent people -- including his own colleagues --  is silly and impractical, and even worse, it's entirely unoriginal.   Cadman is willing to engage in any sort of unethical medical practices needed in order to get what he wants, and his tactics are so extreme that they become risible.   His throwaway motivation has more in common with the ramshackle productions of Monogram and PRC than the horror films of Universal, a studio that could at least provide character motivations that held up for the length of a feature film. 

The aforementioned Basil Rathbone and Akim Tamiroff do very well in their roles, but the other actors in the ensemble are surprisingly bland and forgettable. Herbert Rusley and Patricia Blair turn in workmanlike performances but they serve as a reminder of how brilliant Hammer was at casting. Hammer always had a keen eye for talent and could reel in young up-and-comers and build them over time into a surprisingly solid repertory company.  And they knew too how to get the most from established talents as well, something that seems to have eluded the producers of The Black Sleep.

 The Brute Man

Synopsis: The city is being terrorized by a spine-snapping brute called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), a grotesque character who prowls the streets at night and seemingly kills at random. The police are under enormous pressure to capture him, but so far they don't have a name, or even a clear description.

One night the killer strikes again, and this time his victims are a professor at Hampton college and a woman named Joan Bemis, whom the Creeper seems to know.

The police manage to corner their suspect in an apartment house; in order to escape, the Creeper enters the apartment of a young woman named Helen (Jane Adams). Because Helen is blind, she isn't repelled by his appearance. He asks for her help, and she agrees, saying that she has a gift of sensing a person's true nature.  When the police knock on her door, she tells them that she hasn't seen anyone suspicious in the area.

Helen knows only that she's met a man who is in some sort of trouble, and she is certain that he is innocent of whatever he's been accused of.  For his part the Creeper is glad to know someone who doesn't scream and run away when he enters the room, and a rather unlikely friendship ensues.

Soon enough the Creeper has murdered a delivery boy who brought groceries to the waterfront storage shed he's been living in.  Here the police discover an old newspaper clipping of three college chums, circa 1930: Clifford Scott, Virginia Rogers and Hal Moffat. 

When the police look for Clifford Scott and Virginia Rogers they discover the two are now married; and that the third person in the photo, Hal Moffat, was Clifford's college roommate as well as a rival for Virginia's affections. The late Joan Bemis was also a close friend of the trio. A star athlete, Hal's face was hideously disfigured in a lab accident.  The accident seems also to have affected his "glands and nerves", not to mention his mind; because all these years later Hal has decided to get revenge on all those who spurned him in college.

Meanwhile, learning that Helen needs $3,000 to pay for an operation to cure her blindness, Hal decides to get her the money -- even though he knows that she will be repelled by him if she's able to see him.  Nevertheless, he goes to Clifford and Virginia and demands money.  Clifford gives him a box of expensive jewelry, but manages to put a couple of .38 slugs into him before he's murdered himself.

Wounded, Hal delivers the jewelry to Helen, determined that she go ahead with the operation. But when the police find her and tell her who she's befriended, she agrees to help them find their quarry. Angered at her public betrayal, he decides that Helen too must die....

Comments: The Brute Man marked a sad end to Universal's lengthy dominance of the horror genre.  The studio hadn't been eclipsed by a rival  (rival studios in Hollywood never did more than dabble in the genre anyway, and the embryonic Hammer wasn't doing horror films yet); rather, Universal's  increasingly cheap and crass products seemed exhausted, and more importantly didn't yield the financial returns they once did. As a result the studio made a conscious decision to hang it up.  The Brute Man  suffered the ignominy of being sold off to PRC shortly after Universal's merger with International Pictures.  William Goetz, the newly-minted head of production at the newly-minted Universal - International had resolved to clean up the studio's act and get it to behave like a respectable outfit. That meant the trips to the boneyard were, for the time being, over and done with.

It's easy to see why UI decided to sell off the property.  The Brute Man would have been an embarrassment to any major studio's release schedule.  It suffers from a general seediness typical of the poverty-row cheapies, and Rondo Hatton, whose Creeper character had lurked in the background of three previous Universal outings, was now pushed into the forefront of the picture.  Hatton was the least-talented actor to appear on a Universal one-sheet since Acquanetta, and the script is particularly unsavory stuff.  Hal Moffat kills with little provocation and even less remorse; yet we, like Helen, are supposed to feel sorry for him, and imagine that he is in some sense a good but misunderstood man. But even with the Creeper's improbable origin story, he isn't even close to the tragic monster that Frankenstein and the Wolf Man were.

Ben Pivar produced this opus, as he had the previous Creeper vehicle House of Horrors, the Inner Sanctum series of programmers starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and the mummy films of the 1940s.  His indifference to quality suited the film-factory mentality of the times, but he might have been a bit too indifferent with The Brute Man.  Pivar's busy career was pretty much at an end. He would only produce a few more movies over the next decade, collaborating once again with the workmanlike Jean Yarborough on a Bulldog Drummond programmer and a thriller called The Creeper (1948). But the titular Creeper here bore no resemblance to Rondo Hatton.


kochillt said...

THE BLACK SLEEP is indeed guilty of humiliating the very stars it promotes (at least John Carradine is permitted dialogue, as the least scary of the doctor's experiments). Lugosi would grouse on the set that he used to be 'the big cheese,' but I certainly wouldn't consider VOODOO MAN worthy of kind reminiscence ('gosh all fish hooks!'). THE BRUTE MAN wasn't the last Universal horror produced, as SHE-WOLF OF LONDON and THE CAT CREEPS were still to follow, but being the final release, and by another company no less, deservedly puts the nail in the Universal coffin. This was indeed Rondo Hatton's screen farewell, less than three months before his death, while his first victim Joan Bemis is played by Ja Nelle Johnson, who was married to actor George Dolenz, and mother of The Monkees' Micky Dolenz.

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