GORE IN THE STORE
INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES: THE COMPLETE FILM SERIES ****
Directed by Reginald Le Borg.
Harold Young, John Hoffman, Wallace Fox. Starring Lon Chaney Jr, Evelyn Ankers, Lloyd Bridges, J Carroll Naish, Patricia Morison, Ramsay Ames.
USA, 1943-45, 382 mins., Certificate: PG.
Out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Classics.
INNER SANCTUM began in 1930 as an imprint of Simon & Schuster for a monthly series of crime mysteries from a range of writers, beginning with Claude Houghton’s “I Am Jonathan Scrivener” and subsequently accommodating titles like Patrick Quentin’s “Puzzle for Players” and Craig Rice’s wonderfully named “The Big Midget Murders”. A decade later, the book series made the transition, like other radio thrillers of the period, to the wireless (not that kind of wireless, millennials!) when Hiram Brown licensed the name for “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” with the proviso that the current monthly paper release would get a plug in each broadcast. With its host Raymond bringing gallows humour to the intros (and, to some degree, prefiguring later horror hosts), it ran for a decade, attracting a series of big-name, often horror-affiliated guest stars and was reworked as a TV series in the 1950s.
Seeking a vehicle for their WOLF MAN star Lon Chaney Jr, Universal commissioned a sextet of hour-long INNER SANCTUM films to be released at regular intervals in the last three years of the war at the point where their major horror franchises were increasingly pitched toward a younger audience. All were introduced by David Hoffman’s distorted, disembodied head-in-a-crystal-ball, offering ominous musings on man’s capacity for murder and promising nothing less than “a strange, fantastic world controlled by a mass of living flesh”.
Austrian filmmaker Reginald Le Borg, who later directed Universal’s third Kharis movie, THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944), directed the first three INNER SANCTUM films, beginning with CALLING DR. DEATH, itself prefiguring a 50s trend for horror pictures incorporating hypnosis. Chaney Jr. sets the scene for most of the films to follow by portraying a sad-eyed, thin-moustached, waistcoat-clad protagonist fond of smoking and drinking, prone to guilt-ridden interior monologues and seemingly irresistible to all women. Here, he’s a neurologist harassed constantly by his controlling, unfaithful wife (Ramsay Ames) and in love with sympathetic secretary Patricia Morison. We know we’re meant to hate Ames because early on she smugly celebrates the financial security and societal respect that his job brings her while chiding him for not even being courageous enough to bump her off. When she (inevitably) shows up with a crushed skull, Chaney Jr. starts to doubt his own innocence and inspector J Carroll Naish bids to catch him out. Not a million miles away from THE WOLF MAN’s Larry Talbot, Chaney Jr. does extreme inner turmoil (and the concern over possible murderous fugues) very well, complete with a pre-PSYCHO guilt-wracked drive and a pre-Tennessee Williams cry of “Stellllllaaaaaaaa!” The outcome is guessable but fun, and Le Borg makes great use of shadows and skewed angles as the hero / possible murderer’s mind fractures.
WEIRD WOMAN brings more anxious Lon voiceovers and is notable for its origins in Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel “Conjure Wife”, later the inspiration for British horror classic NIGHT OF THE EAGLE. This has college professor Chaney Jr. fretting over his wife’s (Anne Gwynne) late night walks: when they first met in the South Seas, where he had to be saved by white magic after scoffing at local customs and offending the native Gods with his ignorance. Unnaturally glamorous librarian Evelyn Ankers fancies him and begins spreading rumours about Gwynne being a witch while pretty students almost literally swoon over him and jealous male peers warn of “educated wolves” like the good professor. The story offers Chaney Jr accusing Gwynne of turning the clock back to the Dark Ages despite his efforts to settle her into the world of 1940s academia, while she feints when receiving death chants through the telephone line. All good fun, though the ending is a bit sappy.
The brisk, macabre DEAD MAN’S EYES has a less sympathetic role for its star, essaying an arrogant psychiatrist who keeps bottles of acid in his bathroom cabinet and, after the you-saw-it-coming blinding accident, becomes a stubborn, bitter wreck even when offered replacement eyes by his fiancée’s (Jean Parker) philanthropist father. When the latter is bludgeoned to death and Chaney Jr. receives his new eyes earlier than anticipated, everyone’s a suspect, including the young beauty (Acquanetta) who lusts after Lon but prefers him to be blind and entirely dependent on her. The dialogue is witty and the well-paced mystery shot through with more humour than usual, from the ageing security guard distracted by pretty girls (“What about the missing eyes?!”), some farcical business with the missing eyes and sensationalistic newspaper headlines: “Will view world through eyes of alleged victim!”
Harold Young directed THE FROZEN GHOST, in which women still fawn over Chaney Jr.’s sham hypnotist / rising star, even after his efforts to one up his routine – and overcome naysayers – results in an onstage death. Once again, the star plays a guilt-ridden possible murderer, this time convincing himself he might have willed the spectator to death despite a natural causes verdict. The plot diversions include the suspiciously realistic wax sculptures of the splendidly sinister Martin Kosleck, whose ambitions to be a famous plastic surgeon ended in scandal and whose malevolent smirk is good for at least a couple of extra frissons. Love rivalry, petty jealousies, knife throwing, key characters in a state of suspended animation and Shakespeare-quoting inspector Douglass Dumbrille all figure in a spirited story with a jokey “all done with mirrors” wrap up.
John Hoffman’s STRANGE CONFESSION, the second of the three SANCTUM features released in 1945, has Chaney Jr at his most genteel and soft-spoken as a loving family man who would do anything for his loved ones and neighbours – cue cuddly scenes of Lon and the next of kin at Christmas while his greedy wife (Brenda Joyce) just wants to know about potential salary increases. This all-round good American is exploited by his bastard boss (J Caroll Naish), who is happy to speed up his employee’s diligent efforts for an influenza cure while putting further lives at risk. This one, a reworking of the Claude Rains / Lionel Atwill vehicle THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934) is light on horror – though the climax has some off-camera extreme violence – but boldly takes a stand against self-serving big pharmaceutical companies and Naish has fun as the snide face of capitalist menace. It’s also great to see a fresh-faced Lloyd Bridges in a lab coat as Chaney Jr.’s chipper colleague.
The final film in the series, PILLOW OF DEATH, directed by Wallace Fox, reunites Chaney Jr with Brenda Joyce for an atmospheric old-dark-house offering that allows for plentiful gun-toting old ladies, screams in the night, candlelit searches, secret rooms and red-herring racoons. Attorney Chaney Jr. clearly has a thing going with his secretary (Joyce), so there’s plenty of speculation when his wife is found smothered to death. While mocking the amusingly named (‘Julian Julian’) psychic the late wife used in “one of those silly seances women too often attend”, our possibly-guilty hero starts to change his outlook when hearing the ‘voice’ of the dead woman rumours of the ghost get everyone on edge. George Cleveland steals the show as the tyrannical, outspoken old patriarch, spending much of the film up in the attic with a double-barrelled shotgun while listening out for rattling chains. There are spooky graveyard walks and incidental characters with their own nefarious agendas, while Lon is typically watchable as perhaps the least likeable of his INNER SANCTUM characters.
Eureka’s collection of these breezy, easily digested wartime thrillers is typically comprehensive, with beautiful HD transfers of the six films and audio commentaries on three: C Courtney Joyner and Regina Le Borg – daughter of director Reginald – have some charming interaction on the chat track for CALLING DR DEATH and HELLRAISER sequel screenwriter Peter Atkins and Joyner have fun dissecting STRANGE CONFESSION. A collection of episodes from the original INNER SANCTUM radio series is valuable, as is the hour-long ‘This is the Inner Sanctum: Making a Universal Mystery Series’ feature, but Kim Newman’s 26 minute talking head piece is a characteristically enthusiastic and informative guide to the series. Newman brings a welcome emphasis on affording Chaney Jr. overdue respect, comparing the actor’s work here with Karloff’s stint for Columbia and Lugosi’s Monogram contract and concluding that the two genre legends could not have played Chaney Jr.’s SANCTUM roles without seriously unbalancing the films.