Inner Sanctum:
Calling Dr. Death, Weird Woman, Dead Man's Eyes,
The Frozen Ghost, Strange Confession, Pillow of Death

directed by Reginald Le Borg & John Hoffman
(Universal, 1943-45)

Most film fans remember him as the man cursed to turn into a wolf "when the wolfbane blooms, and the moon is full and bright." But B-movie buffs who take the "Lon" view of cinema history remember Creighton Tull Chaney a.k.a. Lon Jr. -- as the man who from 1943 to 1945 starred in his own series for Universal Pictures, the Inner Sanctum mysteries.

Inner Sanctum had a lineage almost as outstanding as Chaney's. It began with a series of monthly paperback novels published by Simon & Shuster, then became a popular radio show that began every week with the opening of "the creaking door" and a series of ghoulish puns by Raymond "The Host" that led to more-or-less psychological horror dramas starring everyone from Claude Rains and Agnes Moorehead to Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.

In 1943, Universal launched the now-legendary series of six Inner Sanctum mysteries starring Chaney as a series of men haunted by some notion that all the logic in the world couldn't chase away.

In Calling Dr. Death, (1943), Chaney is Mark Steel, a physician who fears he has killed his philandering wife while he was in a state of amnesia. And the police, headed by '40s movie icon J. Carrol Naish, are only too happy to agree with him. So Steel decides to hypnotize himself to uncover the truth. Hmmmm.

The following year, Chaney played Norman Reed, a rational-to-the-point-of-insanity sociology professor who falls in love with and marries a Weird Woman (Anne Gwynne) he discovers while observing some kind of cult jungle ritual. Imagine his surprise when he discovers she's practicing witchcraft. Then imagine their collective surprise when dead bodies start turning up on campus and everyone turns their accusing eyes toward Reed.

Later that year, Chaney portrayed David Stuart, an artist who accidentally blinds himself -- or does he? -- in Dead Man's Eyes. His fiancee's father wills the artist his eyes, then suddenly turns up murdered, and of course the police, this time led by "Key Largo" heel Thomas Gomez, suspect Stuart.

The following year, in The Frozen Ghost, Chaney played Gregor the Great, a magician whose wish that an obnoxious audience assistant would die comes true before the trick is over. This time Chaney takes refuge in a eerie wax museum, where he's again pursued by the police (B-movie menace Douglas Dumbrille) and his own conscience.

That same year, Chaney morphed into a scientist who was working on an influenza vaccine -- or was until his boss released it before its time, leading to the death of his son. Strange Confession has what must now seem like an all-star cast by Inner Sanctum standards: Brenda Joyce, the sometimes bride of Tarzan; Naish, who went on to star in the Topper TV series; Milburn "Doc" Stone of Gunsmoke fame; and Lloyd "Looks like I picked a bad time to give up sniffing glue" Bridges.

Universal closed out the series with Pillow of Death, in which Chaney played an attorney who's having an affair with his secretary when his wife is found murdered. This leads him to the police, a creepy old mansion, a seance and the killer. Need I say more?

The Inner Sanctum movies distinguished themselves from the radio show in a number of ways. Gone, for instance, was the creaking door. Instead viewers find themselves, even before the titles roll, in the inner sanctum itself: a strange library in which a crystal ball sits on a table. Inside the ball is a detached head and -- gasp! -- it's speaking to you. "This is the Inner Sanctum," it says, "a strange fantastic world controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh, the mind," a world in which "even you, without knowing, can commit murder."

This is the kind of camp you wanted to go to when you were a kid -- at least if you were an old horror film buff like me.

For years fans had to hope these films would turn up on Dr. Shock or Double Chiller Theater. But in 2006, the Franchise Collection released a boxed set of all six films -- including Strange Confessions, which for copyright reasons was never released to television.

OK, Academy Award efforts they're not. They were made on very low budgets, and the acting -- well, when Chaney is the top of your line, that says something right there. The scripts rely heavily on internal monologue to capture the lead's ever-present self-doubt and, as in the radio show, almost every "scary" moment is punctuated by some cheesy organ music.

Suffice it to say the first three films in the series were directed by Reginald Le Borg, who until Universal gave him the keys to the Inner Sanctum was known solely as a director of musical short subjects.

But sometimes ghouls just want to have fun, and art it's not, but fun it is. For as the man in the crystal ball (or is it an upside-down fish bowl?) says, "It destroys, distorts, creates monsters, commits murder." What better way to howl on Halloween?

review by
Miles O'Dometer

30 August 2008

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