Monday, February 29, 2016

Saturday, September 9, 1972: The Black Sleep (1956) / Bury Me Dead (1947)

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: The mid 1950s were an unusually fallow period for horror films. Universal had quite deliberately walked away from the genre more than once, re-entering the boneyard only when the money seemed too good to resist (first, after the smash re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein on a double bill in 1938; then after Creature From the Black Lagoon's success pointed toward a lucrative franchise). What horror there was to find in Hollywood in the 50s was usually dressed up in the trappings of science fiction: Tarantula's economy-sized arachnid was the product of an experimental radioactive nutrient.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like It Conquered the Worldplaced its horror within the framework of an alien invasion plot. Even The Mole People began with an odd pre-credit sequence in which a hapless real-life academic (Frank C. Baxter, a professor of English at USC) attempts to convince the audience that a subterranean race of humanoids is scientifically plausible -- or at least, not as crazy as it might first seem.


In England, Hammer Studios was working in the other direction; their science fiction tropes were seen as a gateway into horror, not the other way around. The Quatermass Xperiment  (aka The Creeping Unknown) imagined a trip into outer space causing an astronaut to change slowly into a monster. That film yielded a follow-up (though not a sequel) called X the Unknown (written by novice screenwriter Jimmy Sangster) about gloppy radioactive sludge that threatens to envelop the world. By 1958 Hammer would abandon science fiction entirely for the Technicolor stylishness of The Curse of Frankenstein, the first stop on the studio's remarkable run of gothic horror films.

But Hammer didn't simply ape the period dramas of Universal's golden age; it reinvented them, adding blood, sex appeal and a good dollop of tongue-in-cheek humor. 

Humor is something sorely lacking in The Black Sleep, and I can't think of a film more in need of it. Even the Universal classics it imitated knew better than to take it all too seriously; but The Black Sleep does take it too seriously, every tedious, cliche-ridden minute of it.

The movie is so derivative that there's not a surprise to be found anywhere in it. From the moment Cadman "saves" Ramsey's life we already suspect what he's up to; and as for the secret lab, the somnambulant wife and the colleagues turned to vicious maniacs by unnecessary surgery -- well, we've seen those plot devices in a dozen poverty-row quickies. The only novelty the movie has to offer is the all-star lineup of horror actors, and even that is botched. The Black Sleep markets itself as something of a monster rally, but instead of beloved horror stars in an over-the-top competition for screen time (which could easily have been arranged) the actors  are instead relegated to the smallest and most inconsequential roles in the film. 

It doesn't bother me in the slightest that John Carradine is stuck down in a basement cell shouting some nonsense about the Crusades; I'm sure it didn't bother him. And Tor Johnson standing around with his mouth hanging open was pushing the limits of the man's acting range. But Lugosi, crippled and drug-addled though he was, surely could have been offered more than the role of a mute butler (faring even worse than he did in The Body Snatcher). It's hard to watch him in these scenes. Rail-thin, stoop-shouldered, seemingly defeated, it is difficult to believe that the part was anything more than an afterthought. It's also difficult to believe, seeing him here, that he had once been one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.

Lon Chaney, Jr. was younger than Lugosi (about 50 when he worked on The Black Sleep); and while his alcoholism had taken a significant toll on him he was still working steadily; his ability to memorize dialogue was impaired but he could have been given more to do than to charge around as the ridiculous Mungo, a part that could have been played by anyone. 

Basil Rathbone, of course, was not a horror star per se but horror fans of the time would have remembered him from Son of Frankenstein, and he is perhaps the best thing about the film, in spite of the standard-issue mad scientist plot he is dropped into. I greatly admire Akim Tamiroff, who would play Uncle Joe Grande in Orson Welle's Touch of Evil two years later. 

Bury Me Dead

Synopsis: A funeral is being held for heiress Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart), a woman killed in a stable fire on her family's estate.  But almost as soon as this fact is established, we learn that Barbara isn't dead at all.  She attends the funeral hiding behind a black veil, musing that her husband Rod Carlin (Mark Daniels) doesn't seem very broken up about her death.  When the graveside service has concluded, Barbara approaches the family attorney, Michael Dunn (Hugh Beaumont) and reveals to him that she's still alive.  She tells him that she believes someone started the fire in an attempt to kill her, but got the wrong person; the body recovered from the horse barn was burned beyond recognition and identified only by a diamond necklace that belonged to Barbara.

Barbara is particularly troubled by the question of who was actually killed in the fire, because she thinks it might be her younger sister Rusty (Cathy O'Donnell).  Rusty has a history of mental illness and often disappears for extended lengths of time. But she finds Rusty safe and sound, though still embittered that she was cut out of her father's will because she was adopted. With Rusty eliminated as a possible victim, she goes to confront Rod, who claims to be delighted that Barbara is still alive -- even though he has been carrying on with goodtime girl Helen Lawrence (Sonia Darren), who had previously told Rod that she'd like to be the next Mrs. Carling. 

Barbara had had a dalliance of her own with dim-witted palooka George (Greg McClure), who'd previously been seen around with Helen. Rusty still harbors a grudge against Barbara for stealing the big lug away from her, but it might be that Barbara was trying to save Rusty from a bad situation. 

Barbara finds there are plenty of people who might have wanted her dead. But not only does she not know who committed the murder, she still doesn't know who the victim was....

Comments: I've written about Bury Me Dead before, and as often happens I wound up feeling more charitable toward the film on subsequent viewings.

Don't get me wrong. The movie has plenty of flaws; it's cheap and a bit dreary, its second act is muddled and a lot of plot points appear to have been thrown in simply to pad its 65-minute running time. 

But it does have a few things going for it. June Lockhart, who seems a good deal older than her 22 years, effectively anchors the film as Barbara, and Hugh Beaumont is convincing as the buttoned-up family attorney Michael Dunn. I've written favorably in the past about Cathy O'Donnell's portrayal of Rusty, and I also liked Sonia Darren, who didn't have a huge role but still managed to stand out as Helen.

The movie also gets off the blocks quickly with the fire that supposedly kills Barbara. It's an exciting way to start a movie and the central mysteries -- who started the fire, and who died in it? -- are raised in the first few minutes, and for a poverty row quickie, that's a definite plus. Don't look too closely at the stock footage used for the fire, though -- it's clear that the structure that's burning is a house, not a barn.

Something that strikes me as a little unusual for a film from this era is its understated but unmistakable sexual politics. Barbara's estranged husband Rod is carrying on with Helen -- not an unusual plot point in a movie from this era -- but what is unusual is that Barbara gives as good as she gets, engaging in a fling with George. The fact that George is Rusty's boyfriend at the time makes her seem all the more wanton by the standards of 1947. Also, Barbara is not only the protagonist but an active agent throughout, which wasn't the case in Lockhart's starring role in She Wolf of London -- a film in which the woman presented to us as the protagonist had almost no influence on the events around her.

Bury Me Dead is often listed as a noir but I don't think it qualifies; in spite of its title (and a central plot gimmick reminiscent of D.O.A.) it really plays more as a light-hearted murder mystery. Barbara never seems terribly concerned or upset that someone has tried to kill her; she just turns up to face a series of  potential murderers one by one, to see if their reaction to seeing her alive will betray their guilt. This makes her seem more like she's a character in a murder mystery party than someone trying to corner a would-be assassin.

A full restoration of this film would be nice, but is probably unlikely to ever happen. John Alton's compositions are intriguing and were no doubt perfectly lit, but you can't tell that from the muddy prints used to strike the DVD copies.