Doctor Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) is in a bad way, what with being in Newgate Prison in the London of 1872, sentenced to death for a murder he denies he ever committed. Unfortunately for him, the authorities didn't see it like that and he is due to be executed tomorrow; however, he does have one final visitor, one of his old colleagues Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone) who commiserates with the prisoner but tells him to take heart for there may be a way out of this dilemma. Simply take a draught of a potion Sir Joel calls "the Black Sleep", an arcane narcotic he found in India which creates the semblance of death...
Ah, but Ramsay does not die as planned, for the next day the gaolers think he has collapsed and expired when it is really the potion taking effect, and soon he is sitting up in his coffin attended to by Cadman and his henchman, Odo the Gypsy. Now, Odo was played by Akim Tamiroff, a cult actor in his own right, which would bring us to pretty much the sole reason for watching this over-chatty film, and that was the cast, which in many instances was one of a kind to watch all these much beloved actors filling out various roles. There had to be a snag, and it was a difficult one to get over: The Black Sleep was not exhibiting them at their best, indeed there were those who thought the whole production an embarrassment.
Not a fun embarrassment like Edward D. Wood Jr's self-directed movies which at least two of that cast had recently appeared in, but one which asked those masters of menace to play mentally challenged heavies thanks to the experiments of Cadman. Rathbone emerged from this relatively unscathed, having the best part and at least an opportunity to show off the accustomed, incisive intelligence he brought to his work, but what of Bela Lugosi, here in what amounted to the last part he would ever play, since he died later that year? Poor old Lugosi was never even awarded any lines: not only was he stuck in a nothingy butler role such as he had been too often relegated to in the nineteen-forties, but he didn't get to speak either.
Thus robbing his fans of hearing that accent one last time - the supposed conclusion to his career, Plan 9 from Outer Space, was actually just a short clip of home movie footage Wood had shot and Bela never knew what would be in store for it. He didn't speak there either, but he had been in Wood's Bride of the Monster where he set about things with as much gusto as his failing health would allow, also appearing alongside his new pal Tor Johnson. Tor was in this as well, perhaps not as wasted as the other horror icons since he was essaying the sort of mindless bruiser he always played at this stage in his career, and was winning fans because of it, not least because of the Halloween mask bearing his visage which cemented his late period fame.
Then there was Lon Chaney Jr as another unlovely character hanging around the castle Cadman smuggles Ramsay to, who we are told used to be a brilliant scientist until he became the shambling wreck we see now, reduced to throwing himself at the maid with unintentionally comic effect every chance he gets; Chaney had no lines either. Someone who would have balked at staying silent was John Carradine, so his mentally deranged role saw him spouting random phrases and gesticulating wildly, no more dignified than his co-stars, really. The plot, amidst the science fiction craze gripping the world in the fifties, was a throwback to the mad scientist movies of yore which Hammer would make a fortune with shortly afterwards, but there was none of that style or wit, any effect here was to make the audience shudder with its brain operations and supposed fear of the mentally incapable who predictably resort to violence. It was all rather tawdry, but will forever be one to watch for vintage horror fans just to see these favourites interact, however meagrely. Music by Les Baxter.