FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Black Sleep and Queen of Blood
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
The Black Sleep
Produced by Howard W. Koch; directed by Reginald Le Borg; written by John C. Higgins; cinematography by Gordon Avil; set decoration by Clarence Steenson; edited by John F. Schreyer; music by Les Baxter; starring Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, Herbert Rudley, Patricia Blake, and Tor Johnson. B&W, 82 min.,1956. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release, available from Amazon, Movies Unlimited, and other online vendors.
Queen of Blood
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and George Edwards; written and directed by Curtis Harrington; cinematography by Vilis Lapenieks; set direction by Leon Smith; art direction by Albert Locatelli; edited by Leo Shreve; costume design by T. Glinkova; music by Leonard Morand; starring John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Judi Meredith, Dennis Hopper, and Florence Marly. Color, 81 min., 1966. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release, available from Amazon, Movies Unlimited, and other online vendors.
MOD (Manufacturing-on-Demand) programs are useful catch basins for movies that have slipped between the cracks. Separated by a decade, The Black Sleep (1956) and Queen of Blood (1966) arrived at transition points for the horror film and, like many MOD discs, make for intriguing if not altogether satisfying viewing. There are reasons why they fell off the radar screen when TV stations abandoned the horror-movie packages that had been a programming staple and a reason or two to see them again.
The Black Sleep has five good reasons in its favor, namely, its starry cast—Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, and John Carradine. Not since House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) had so many big names been clustered on one marquee, though today we’d rearrange it so that Tor Johnson, the pro wrestler who achieved notoriety in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), received as much notoriety as the more highly-billed Tamiroff, a two-time Oscar nominee with no genre profile. Alas, rarely have so many been asked to do so little.
Bursting with luminaries who are trotted out on the trailer included on the DVD-R, the production, set in nineteenth-century London, instead centers on the low-wattage Herbert Rudley. He plays a surgeon, Dr. Gordon Ramsay, who, wrongly accused of murder, is facing the gallows. At the eleventh hour a prison visitor, the eminent Sir Joel Cadman (Rathbone), gives him “the black sleep,” an Indian drug that induces a deathlike state. The legally dead Ramsay revives at Cadman’s mansion, where he learns the price of his salvation—assistance with the elder scientist’s altruistic brain experiments. With pretty nurse Laurie (Patricia Blake) around, it’s not such a bad deal, at least until the cellar-dwelling mutants—the victims of Cadman’s failed experiments, some of them, not so bigheartedly, his former rivals—show up.
Where’s Boris Karloff in all this, you might ask? Assuming he was asked, and assuming Rathbone and Tamiroff (as Cadman’s gypsy enforcer) had already claimed their parts, the pickings were slim. As “Mungo,” Laurie’s transformed dad, Chaney, Jr., grunts and lurches toward the camera; introduced late in the proceedings, Carradine’s lunatic has only a few variations on a single line to declaim (“Kill the infidels!”). Lugosi is the saddest sack. He may not have been in the best of health for his cinematic swan song, but cast as Rathbone’s butler he surely might have been given more to do than fumble with a door and engage in some lame pantomime. (Horror fans cried foul when Wood contrived a “role” for the deceased actor in Plan 9 based on a scrap of footage, yet the “world’s worst director” gave him meatier, if daft, parts in Bride of the Monster and 1952’s Glen or Glenda, both improvements over this bum assignment.)
Or perhaps Karloff saw which way the wind was howling and gave this period horror movie a pass. Audiences wanted up-to-the-minute atomic mutants, not a bearded Carradine or a dead-eyed Tor Johnson shambling through a tacky cave set (even given Ramsay’s need to hide from the authorities, the movie, confined to a few small interiors, is alarmingly agoraphobic). There’s some slightly gruesome business with a brain that anticipates the coming domination of this territory by Britain’s Hammer Films, which pumped color, violence, and sexuality into this quaint, drawing-room format. Sometimes the only way to save a dying genre is to give it The Black Sleep, then resuscitate it.
Fast-forward ten years. Chaney, Jr., and Carradine were carrying on, Johnson was inactive, Lugosi was dead, and Tamiroff still hadn’t earned his horror bona fides (he never did; wearing an absurd bird suit in 1967’s The Vulture doesn’t really cut it). As Rathbone’s last two Hollywood credits before his death in 1967 were titled The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Hillbillys in a Haunted House, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Queen of Blood was a more sober production. And a more interesting one.
For openers it’s only a Hollywood movie in part. Executive producer Roger Corman bought the rights to some Soviet-made sci-fi spectacles and had budding auteurs Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich Americanize them into plodding B-movies. With Rathbone in tow the avant-garde filmmaker Curtis Harrington took a whack at one and (under a pseudonym) came up with 1965’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. Literally an American International picture, Queen of Blood mixes and matches the colorful, eclectically designed Soviet footage with a space-age take on vampirism.
Patience is required to get there, however. To maximize his investment Corman seems to have obliged Harrington (who signed off on this one) to recycle as much of the Soviet movie as possible, which means a lot of repetitive to-ing and fro-ing between planets and satellites in the far-off, far-gone year of 1990, when space travel is the norm and Dr. Farraday (Rathbone) the leading authority on interplanetary travel. (His character gives speeches in front of suspiciously Soviet-looking statuary and heads a space initiative that is explicitly multinational, so we don’t question the Cyrillic lettering on some of the set design.) When green-skinned aliens crash-land on Mars, a rescue mission is quickly mounted and a silent humanoid (Czech-born Florence Marly, in a “cosmic” beehive) retrieved.
Averse to the one woman (Judi Meredith) on board, the queen telepathically reaches out to the men on the rescue craft. Costar Dennis Hopper heeded a siren’s call in Harrington’s poetic Night Tide (1961) but was unwise to listen this time, as the “alien Venus Flytrap” drains him of his blood. In a plot twist reminiscent of Alien (1979), Meredith and fellow crew member John Saxon attempt to defuse the situation, but intergalactic politics complicate the issue.
Up against that wall of footage Harrington can’t be as formally inventive as Mario Bava was with his similarly themed Planet of the Vampires (1965). His script, however, has novel touches once the film comes into its own, and the performances are committed, with Marly and her glowing eyes suitably creepy. (Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman has a seal-of-approval cameo.) Bigger-budgeted sci-fi/horror combos like the Alien movies have superseded this one for thrills, but under the circumstances Harrington mustered a decent hybrid that looks ahead to the genre’s future.
While livelier hues might have been teased from Queen of Blood, the disc is more than adequate, and properly letterboxed for the first time in its home-video history. The bar was set lower for The Black Sleep and it makes it, though it is full-frame. Buffs will appreciate the recovery efforts.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3