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Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection

Universal // Unrated // September 19, 2006
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted September 14, 2006 | E-mail the Author
It seems like the perfect match: "Inner Sanctum Mysteries," one of the most popular mystery/thriller series from the golden age of radio; Universal, whose monopoly on movie horror in the 1930s and early 40s created some of the best frightfests ever; and Lon Chaney, Jr., ranking among the all-time great horror legends, even if only for his appearances in the "Wolf Man" series alone.

From 1943 to 1945, Universal cranked out six movies under the "Inner Sanctum" banner, all of them starring Chaney and using the radio series' name to hook in audiences. The films have more in common with the "Inner Sanctum" line of books that inspired the radio show than with the radio show itself, but never underestimate Hollywood when it comes to exploiting a famous name brand.

Gone in the movies are such keystones of the radio series as the creaking door sound effect that opened each episode and the playful tone of the sinister host, the sort of winking punning that paved the way for the Cryptkeeper decades later. Instead, we get a generic introduction - the exact same clip disappointingly plays at the start of five of the six films, meaning there's no personalized lead-in to be found anywhere - featuring a head floating in a crystal ball, welcoming us to the Inner Sanctum, a place where anyone can commit… murder!!!

The films are simple B efforts, all of them barely topping an hour in running time, all of them relying on a few basic sets, some beautiful actresses prone to histrionics, and Chaney, who does his best to brush off his sad sack image cemented by his turns as Larry Talbot and Steinbeck's Lennie, although we never really buy him as a prestigious chick magnet.

For the first Inner Sanctum outing, Universal had screenwriter Edward Dein ("Jungle Woman") whip up an original yarn about a prominent expert in hypnosis, a murder, and a gap in the doctor's memory. "Calling Dr. Death" (1943) finds Chaney as Dr. Mark Steel, whose marriage to the catty Maria (Ramsay Ames) is a joke - she married for money and spends all of her late nights out, entertaining other men. Unable to take any more, Mark storms out in a fit of rage, attempting to find where his wife has gone for the weekend. But the weekend's all a blur of montage editing and rear-projection driving scenes, and Monday morning, Mark wakes up in his office, having no recollection of how he got there or where he was for the past few days. And then, of course, the police arrive and tell him that his wife is a victim of… murder!!!

Not counting a curious scene in the middle that has the camera providing Mark's (and, in one shot, a detective's) point of view, which gives the scene an extra kick just when it needs it, there's not much that director Reginald Le Borg (who would also helm the next two entries in the franchise) does that elevates this past the level of B movie rush job. The mystery is tight and involving, with a few red herrings tossed in for good measure, but most of "Dr. Death" is little more than an average thriller padded out to fit feature length, unimpressively presented.

That is, with one exception: veteran character actor J. Carrol Naish's performance as the nosy detective keeps things snappy enough to lift the project and keep us watching. Everything else here is a bit too self-serious - the impending execution of the wrongly accused suspect (David Bruce), the unfulfilled romance between Mark and his assistant (Patricia Morison) - but Naish takes a lighter approach, talking fast and keeping things zipping ahead. It's because of him that this mystery ultimately works.

The generically titled "Weird Woman" (1944) was the first follow-up, this one an adaptation of the novel "Conjure Wife" by Fritz Leiber, Jr. The book has since been remade twice: in 1962 as the well-received "Night of the Eagle" (aka "Burn, Witch, Burn!"), which came with a script from genre icons Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, and again in 1980 under the title "Witches' Brew," which reimagined the story as a comedy with Teri Garr and Richard Benjamin.

For "Weird Woman" (adapted by Scott Darling and scripted by Brenda Weisberg), Leiber's notions are toned down, doing away with the coven-on-campus notions and themes of men's fears of women and boiling the story down to its simplest essentials. Here, Chaney plays Professor Norman Reed, author of "Superstition Versus Fact and Reason," a title which pretty much sums up the whole plot. You see, on a trip to the South Pacific, Norman met and fell in love with a high priestess of a native tribe, who, for wartime-era audiences, gets to also be a lily-white American (Anne Gwynne). (It's a stretch to keep her in the tribe yet also an at-the-time socially acceptable match for the leading man, so the more quickly we overlook this stumble and move on, the better.) They're the original odd couple: she believes in voodoo, omens, and all things supernatural, he's a noted skeptic with a straightforward book title. When he conspires to destroy all of her spiritual trinkets, the resulting bad luck leads to… murder!!!

The whole thing's hopelessly ridiculous - the mere sight of Chaney in flak jacket and pith helmet is absurd enough, not to mention the lengthy "native ritual dance" sequence designed to show viewers Hollywood versions of exotic locales. And yet, again, it works. The melodramatics on campus (subplots include a meek professor bound to be passed over for promotion and a gun-toting student jealous of Norman's way with the ladies) are beyond silly yet always watchable, the inescapable trip into the supernatural following Norman's strict decrees that science trumps all making for some kooky fun. The whole thing whizzes by in a breeze, never really offering much suspense but always ready with a solid amount of light entertainment.

Not so successful is "Dead Man's Eyes" (1944), a mystery with a terrific premise and little else - unless you count the valuable lesson of never storing acid and eye wash next to each other, especially if they come in identical bottles. Oh, sure, that seems like a common sense household tip, but for artist David Stuart (Chaney), keeping the two so close on his shelf was surely a time saver of some sort. That is, until he absent-mindedly grabs the wrong container and splashes his peepers with some cornea-eating goop.

The good news is that he's been wooing the lovely Heather Hayden (Jean Parker), whose zillionaire father (Edward Fielding) promptly promises to donate his own eyes to David after his death. How convenient for David, then, that the old man suddenly falls victim to… murder!!!

An original story from Dwight V. Babcock (his first in a long career of B scripts), there's just not much there. The mystery is slight and uninteresting, while the majority of the screen time is given to more soap opera-centric plotlines involving David's model (the exotic beauty Acquanetta) and the ensuing love triangle. It's too flat all around, and it becomes apparent that little effort went into the project beyond the title and premise; everything's rather interesting until we get to the murder, then it all fizzles in a series of bland suspense and blander melodrama, nobody apparently interested in finishing up the tale.

Hypnosis once again plays a key role in the series with "The Frozen Ghost" (1945), as Chaney plays Alex Gregor, alias Gregor the Great, the famed mentalist. When a drunkard interrupts his radio show and then croaks after Alex wishes he'd just die, Alex becomes convinced his great powers have become an instrument of… mu-- oh, wait, hold on, the drunk guy just had a lousy ticker, and the whole thing's just a wacky coincidence.

But don't tell that to Alex, who's convinced he's a brutal killer. He retires from showbiz, breaks off his relationship with his lovely assistant (Evelyn Ankers), and takes up residence in, of all places, a wax museum. The artist on hand (Martin Kosleck) is a bit too into his work, the owner of the establishment (Tala Birell) and her niece (Elena Verdugo) both have eyes for the new man in their life, and the local detective (Douglass Dumbrille) pops in when one character goes missing - a victim, perhaps, of (finally!)… murder!!!

It's a great big mish-mash of ideas and tones - one minute we're knee-deep in romance, the next we're stumbling through a typical wax house thriller. Yet it all works, as everything here clicks on their own separate levels. Granted, there's a whole lot of silliness on display (for one scene to go off properly, the niece must become the dumbest human alive), but it's all in good fun, and by the time the villain reveals a talent for knife-throwing, we can't help but smile as the thrills whiz by at breakneck pace.

"The Frozen Ghost" benefits from a new director (Harold Young, best known for the 1934 "Scarlet Pimpernel") who's able to juggle the wildly diverse concepts served up by a busy script (credited to four separate writers) without pushing the film off track. Young would only deliver one entry in this series; following Le Borg's departure, the rest of the franchise would feature a revolving door for directors. For "Strange Confession" (1945), directorial duties were handed off to John Hoffman, who made this the first of only five films in his short B movie-filled career.

"Strange Confession" offers up the least suspense and most melodrama of the entire series - barring two key scenes, there's nothing here that really fits the Inner Sanctum brand. Why, there's no trace of murder!!! at all until the whole thing's over, unless you count the mysterious opening sequence in which Chaney strolls into a friend's house with a bag, the hinted-at contents of which bring up memories of Brad Pitt screaming at Kevin Spacey about a little something in a box.

The film is an extremely loose reworking of "The Man Who Reclaimed His Head," a play by Jean Bart that was previously made into a film in 1934, marking Claude Rains' follow-up to "The Invisible Man." That story involved a pacifist writer whose work was retooled to promote war; for "Strange Confession," screenwriter M. Coates Webster ("The Brute Man") turned the whole thing into a tirade against the pharmaceutical industry. Talk about a sharp left turn.

Jeff Carter (Chaney) is a quiet chemist who happily lets his boss (J. Carrol Naish, returning to the "Sanctum" series, this time as the heavy) take credit for his findings, much to the chagrin of Jeff's wife (Brenda Joyce), who'd rather her husband reap in the hefty pay raises such credit would entail. After a set-up that takes nearly half the film to run through, Jeff's sent away to South America (along with Lloyd Bridges, of all people, in the comic relief role) to research some new medicine, while the boss is busy swiping Jeff's formulas from under him and, worse, rushing a product onto store shelves without waiting for test completion.

If you can sit through the very sluggish first half hour (which, beyond that grabbing opening scene, deals mainly with Jeff's home life and maybe a dinner party or two, and that's about it), you'll be rewarded with some high-handed yet biting commentary on corporate greed at the cost of public interest - a theme that's depressingly relevant today. Of course, you also have to sit through Bridges' constant wisecracking, but hey, it's Lloyd Bridges, so that's fine.

Oddly, the film ends rather suddenly; the abrupt turn in mood in the finale is not given a chance to lift, or, at least, we're not given the chance to grow accustomed to it. Normally this would leave the film on a powerful final note, but here, it just leaves the movie feeling lacking. "Strange Confession" is twenty minutes of pretty good movie mixed with ten minutes of a pretty good movie of an entirely other kind, then spread across thirty more minutes of drabness. In other words, it's highly interesting in spots, but is it worth the hassle?

The name of the final film in the series, "Pillow of Death" (1945), has to rank as one of the most ridiculous titles in movie history. One imagines a whole franchise coming from this: "Comforter of Doom!" "Ottoman of Fear!" "Curtains of Terror!" "Futon of Darkness!"

Anyway. With "Pillow of Death," directed by longtime B movie veteran Wallace Fox and penned by George Bricker (working from a story by Dwight V. Babcock, a name you might remember listed above under "Dead Man's Eyes"), we finally get a movie that feels, from start to finish, like a true Inner Sanctum Mystery. Mystics, séances, creepy houses that are said to be haunted, and yes, let's not forget all about the… murder!!!

Attorney Wayne Fletcher (Chaney) comes home to find cops swarming through his house - turns out his wife was just found dead, a victim of suffocation. An accident? Suicide? (After all, she was fond of a book called "Famous Suicides in History.") Foul play? And if it's the latter, is Wayne the guilty party? Or does a snooty psychic (J. Edward Bromberg) have something to do with it?

This is possibly the best of the series, thanks to a story that cuts right to the chase (the death is revealed only a few minutes in), a fairly sturdy mystery, a healthy dose of effective comic relief (the medium's name is Julian Julian), a healthier dose of follow-up crimes to keep things moving steadily ahead, and plenty of atmosphere to go around. Curiously, this is also the lone entry in the franchise to not feature the familiar floating head prologue - and yet it's the one that needs it the least, as the old dark house mood rarely lets up. It's a fun way to wrap up an uneven series.

The DVD

Universal collects all six films in their "Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection," a two-disc set with three movies per disc. Don't worry - these are single-sided discs, so we don't have to get stuck with all the problems the studio tossed our way with all their DVD-18 releases. The two discs come in a small digipak housed in an attractively embossed cardboard sleeve, similar to other Franchise Collection sets.

There are no chapter menus, although each film does contain four or five chapter stops apiece.

Video

Three movies on one disc doesn't affect the quality here - remember, these are only an hour a pop. Once again, Universal delivers sparkling transfers of library titles. The black and white photography shines, with solid blacks and fine, crisp visuals; grain and other expected defects are almost entirely absent. All six movies are presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame formats.

Audio

Original mono on all six films, and they all sound quite fine. No hiss, no pops, no crackles. Dialogue, music, and effects all come through cleanly. Optional subtitles in English and French are available on all six titles.

Extras

None.

Final Thoughts

Although the collection is a mixed bag and bonus material is completely nonexistent, even the weakest efforts have something fun to offer, while the better titles certainly make everything worth it. The low price and the excellent presentation make this set certainly Recommended, especially to fans of Chaney, 1940s-era thrillers, and, of course… murder!!!
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