"This is the Inner Sanctum. A strange fantastic world controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh, the mind. It destroys, distorts, creates monsters, commits murder! Yes, even you without knowing can commit murder!"
So informs us the floating head and bulbously distorted nose of actor David Hoffman, conveniently placed in a crystal ball in the middle of a table in an empty boardroom at the beginning of the first five (of six) of Universal's Inner Sanctum mysteries. Only loosely inspired by the popular radio series and dispensing with its frequently jocular tone, they veer more towards traditional mysteries and light noirs rather than gothic horrors, all headlined by Lon Chaney Jr. as he neared the end of his Universal contract. The parts aren't exactly within his usual comfort range, calling for brilliant doctors/professors/professionals who have women fighting over them (which may be why he's often recommended having a workout and a shower in the gym in a few of them), but he acquits himself surprisingly well and taken as a whole it's a surprisingly enjoyable if resolutely undemanding series.
Calling Dr. Death is a decent enough little noir with mild horror undertones as Lon Chaney Jr.'s psychiatrist who can see into the mind of his patients but not through the women in his life starts to wonder whether he's broken his Hippocratic Oath and is responsible for the murder of his unfaithful wife after he has one of his blackouts. A tale of hypnosis, amnesia and obligatory stylised dream scenes with much of the opening section of the picture carried by Chaney's voice over inner monologue, it's a slick programmer with a couple of decent twists even if it is straining credibility a tad that the ladies just can't resist him. But it's J. Carrol Naish's detective on the case who makes the biggest impression and has the best moment with his mournful summary of his lot in life: "Some place at this very moment a crime is being committed. All I can do is sit and wait. I start with death, I look for life and, when I find it, I've got to destroy it."
Weird Woman is easily the best known of the series, though it's a less impressive take on Fritz Lieber's novel Conjure Wife than the later Night of the Eagle, not least because it ultimately explains away the supernatural element that drives the story and gives the villain a very different motive. Chaney is once again the kind of professor who just drives women wild, returning from a field trip with a superstitious young wife and incurring the jealousy of a former fling. When he spurns his wife's charms and protections, things suddenly start going very wrong for him, but is the reason a witch or a bitch?
For a story built around what people will willingly believe, it's particularly hard to suspend your disbelief enough to buy into every gal on campus chasing Chaney, but that's not the only shortcoming. It's not so good at ratcheting up the paranoia that the story required and the supernatural aspect is poorly served, not least in the opening pagan ritual that looks more like a Luau put on for the tourists, while the ending is a definite copout. But on its own terms it works well enough and you do get a chance to spot Elizabeth Russell, Simone Simon's striking sister under the skin in Cat People, in a more substantial supporting role for once.
Dead Man's Eyes has the most outrageous premise of the series, with Chaney's brilliant artist once again just catnip to the ladies - even his prospective father-in-law thinks he's "a real man" and offers him his own eyes as replacements after Lon loses his sight in a freak eyewash accident. Of course, he means after his death, but that comes a lot sooner than he expected, leaving Chaney the chief suspect in his murder...
It's a silly plot played straight, which adds to the charm, and it's nice to see Paul Kelly in a rare non-creepy guy role, though Acquanetta as the model he fancies but who naturally has the hots for Chaney - so much so that she fears losing him if he regains his sight - is a definite liability: she's fine at the standing still bit but not so hot at anything involving moving or connected speech.
The Frozen Ghost is perhaps the most enjoyable of the Inner sanctum movies, yet again offering Lon Chaney Jr. as a tortured hero the entire female cast find absolutely irresistible - all three of them just gotta have him (must be the pencil moustache) - here a rich mentalist who suffers a crisis of confidence when he hypnotises a drunken sceptic he wishes dead into a hypnotic trance only for his subject to promptly drop dead, and on live radio too. Even though exonerated by the coroner, his guilt drives him to ditch his beautiful assistant and fiancé Evelyn Ankers and, on the advice of business manager Milburn Stone, seek refuge in Tala Birell's wax museum, which is exactly the kind of soothing, calm environment he needs even if Martin Kosleck's creepy discredited plastic surgeon-cum-waxworks sculptor goes out of his way to make him feel unwelcome. Of course it's not long before Birell disappears after an argument with Chaney, and it's not long before her niece Elena Verdugo - who naturally also has the hots for Chaney - goes missing too and he's once again wandering the streets wondering if he's killed her, and this time Douglas Dumbrille's Shakespeare-quoting detective ("I'm not paid to think!") agrees with him - if only he could find the body... It's as silly as it sounds, but highly enjoyable in its resolutely untaxing way.
With a seriously wounded Lon Chaney Jr. telling an old school friend and now successful lawyer "You never heard anything like I have to tell you," you can't help expecting rather more from Strange Confession than it delivers. What you actually get is 55 minutes of increasing motive for an eventual murder. Chaney isn't catnip this timed but a happily married research chemist selflessly working for the benefit of all mankind (as he never tires of reminding everyone) alongside Lloyd Bridges as his hearty assistant. Unfortunately his boss, J. Carroll Naish in smooth Edward G. Robinson mode, is dedicated to selfishly cashing in on his discoveries and blacklists him when he tries to stop his work being abused. After years in the wilderness and only able to work in a drug store he foolishly goes back to work for Naish, who promptly packs him off to Africa so he can cash in on an impending influenza epidemic with Chaney's unproven wonder drug and also move in on his wife Brenda Joyce. Tragedy inevitably strikes and our mild-mannered hero finally snaps and, furious that his ideas are in Naish's head, decides he wants them back...
It's an okay entry, but nothing hugely imaginative, confining its ambitions to the ranks of the second feature rather than the main attraction. Once again Universal's DVD offers a good transfer, albeit with the Realart reissue end credits.
Dispensing with the floating head intro, the absurdly titled final Inner Sanctum film, Pillow of Death, is the weakest despite throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. Lon Chaney Jr is once again the object of desire, though he's only got one woman chasing after him - Brenda Joyce's secretary - and his wife is dead before we meet her, smothered in her bed. Naturally, she's not the last to go that way in a mystery involving a bickering family in a rambling house with a chain-rattling ghost in the attic, a Peeping Tom neighbor with the hots for Brenda constantly appearing out of secret passages and a phoney psychic who may or may not be faking the ghost of Chaney's wife to point the finger at him. As you'd expect from a film with a title that ridiculous, the script is rather ragged at the best of times and it has the feel of contractual obligation hanging heavily over it (as well as being the last in the series, it was Chaney's last film as a Universal contract star). The most divisive of the series - people tend to think it's either the best or the worst - it does at least throw in a bit of a surprise revelation at the end by making perhaps the most suspicious character for once turn out to be the guilty party.
There are no extras on the set, but all six films have very decent transfers.Read more ›
Based on the radio series of the same name, this is a complete collection of six low-budget psychological dramas from the 1940's, mostly made up of whodunits, with familiar themes including murder and mystery. Universal horror stalwart Lon Chaney Jr is handed the lead role in each tale. A number of familiar Universal players co-star, including Evelyn Ankers, with the performances being OK. Although I wouldn't describe this collection as vintage Universal, I still found the storytelling to be enjoyable old-fashioned entertainment, and I have a bit of a soft spot for them. IMO the stories are of variable quality (hence the four stars instead of five). The picture and sound quality on this black and white collection is good, there are no extras. The subtitles are in English and French.
With each tale running for a little over an hour, the collection kicks off with CALLING DR. DEATH (1hr 3mins). Chaney Jr plays a wealthy doctor, a doctor in distress thanks to his scheming, unfaithful wife. The voices swirling around his mind encourage him to end his marriage - permanently, in this whodunit with a twist ending.
Up next is WEIRD WOMAN (1hr 4mins). When a professor (Chaney Jr) marries a woman raised by voodoo practitioners in the jungle, superstition, suspicion and death follow.
Story number three is DEAD MAN'S EYES (1hr 4mins). following an accident, an artist (Chaney Jr) loses his sight. His future father in-law decides to bequeath his own eyes upon his death. Another whodunit, this time involving jealousy.
The next story is THE FROZEN GHOST (1hr 2mins). Gregor The Great (Chaney Jr) presents a mind-reading act. Following a disastrous show, and wracked with guilt, the tortured hypnotist is invited to stay at the mansion home of a friend, Madame Monet, who owns a creepy wax museum.
The penultimate story is STRANGE CONFESSION (1hr 2mins). A 'pharmaceutical' drama in which a brilliant chemist (Chaney Jr) faces a battle with his unethical boss, who places a cure for influenza on sale to the public before the drug is finished, with tragic consequences.
The final tale is PILLOW OF DEATH (1hr 7mins). The home of the Kincaid family is a creepy old mansion with sliding panels and secret passages. With a psychopathic killer at large, the family call upon a psychic medium in an attempt to bring to an end the unexplained murders haunting the household. Married Wayne Fletcher (Chaney Jr) is romantically involved with one of the Kincaid women. When his wife is murdered, Fletcher immediately becomes a suspect.Read more ›