Inner Sanctum Mysteries - The Complete Movie Collection: (Calling Dr. Death / Weird Woman / The Frozen Ghost / Pillow of Death / Dead Man's Eyes / and more)
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Get ready for unlimited thrills and chills as all six of Universal's classic Inner Sanctum Mysteries come to DVD for the first time ever. You'll have a hauntingly good time with horror icon Lon Chaney, Jr., as he gives timeless performances in these spooky feature-length films: Calling Dr. Death, Weird Woman, Dead Man's Eyes, The Frozen Ghost, Strange Confession and Pillow of Death. Based on the popular radio shows of the 1940's, this collectible set is a must-own for every classic mystery and horror fan. Death, dementia, dark arts…it's just another day in the forbidding and fascinating world of the Inner Sanctum! Calling Dr. Death (1943): A distraught doctor is tormented by voices in his head that are urging him to end his unhappy marriage - forever. Weird Woman (1944): Sorcery and superstition take a walk down the aisle when a professor marries a woman raised in the jungle by voodoo witchcraft practitioners and then dismisses her ominous warnings. Dead Man's Eyes (1944): When an artist loses his sight in a freak accident, his future father-in-law promises to bequeath his own eyes upon his death - which ends up being much, much sooner than anyone could foresee. The Frozen Ghost (1945): Things are certainly not what they seem when a hypnotist takes refuge in the spectacular mansion of a female friend who made her money from a creepy wax museum. Strange Confession (1945): A brilliant chemist with the key to the cure for influenza is force to take drastic measures when his greedy boss prematurely releases the unfinished drug to the public. Pillow of Death (1945): A psychopathic killer is on the loose, so the eccentric and wealthy Kincaid family calls in a psychic investigator to put an end to the mysterious murders haunting their household.
"This is the Inner Sanctum...." And this is the world of B-movies, where Hollywood studios churned out entertaining little numbers to fill out an evening back in the Golden Age. Universal's Inner Sanctum series, released in 1943-45, was inspired by the successful radio show of the same title. They're gathered on Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection, a fun grouping of a minor cinematic achievement.
All six films star the phlegmatic Lon Chaney Jr., and most begin with a floating head in the crystal ball, welcoming us to the inner sanctum, "A strange, fantastic world, controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh... the mind." The vaguely supernatural promise of this grabby opening is rarely fulfilled by the movies, which tend to be acceptable murder mysteries with--despite the wacky titles--very little horror content. Chaney plays a man of some distinction (a professor in Weird Woman, famous mentalist in The Frozen Ghost, physician in Calling Dr. Death) who runs afoul of women (among them Evelyn Ankers and Patricia Morison) and murder. At some point in each movie he has some elaborate voice-over agony, making clear the connection to the radio series' interior monologue. The one-hour-and-change productions are handsome, considering their budget restrictions, and Universal's prints are well-preserved; the literacy of the writing is surprisingly high--although decent writing can't put much zip into the proceedings.
Weird Woman is probably the best of the bunch, an adaptation of Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife (later filmed as Burn, Witch, Burn!). Chaney is an expert on superstition who marries a voodoo-obsessed woman, whose spells might be responsible for his rapid professional rise. The influence of Cat People is as strong as the source novel. Calling Dr. Death, the first in the series, is duller, with a hypnotism-minded Chaney bedeviled by a wanton wife who conveniently dies under mysterious circumstances. Dead Man's Eyes and the amazingly-titled Pillow of Death are more fun, the former a variation on the old eye-transplant story and the latter a whodunit with lawyer Chaney accused of his wife's murder (the supernatural touch this time: séances).
Strange Confession has Chaney as an honest chemist battling an evil pharmaceutical tycoon (J. Carrol Naish), and The Frozen Ghost combines two horror staples, the unstable mentalist and the wax museum. It's just crazy enough to be entertaining, even if there's no ghost (and hardly any freezing). All in all, the DVD set is a good look at Universal's second-tier output of the era. And then there's Chaney, whose jowly steadfastness can become weirdly fascinating if you watch a few of these close together. Universal put him hard to work after the success of 1941's The Wolf Man, and alongside his monster-movie excursions and his singular triumph in Of Mice and Men, the Inner Sanctum pictures represent Chaney's best moment as a leading man. Despite his limitations, he'll always have his spot in the Universal galaxy. --Robert Horton
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Here are the films with my rating.
Calling Dr. Death, with the very pretty Patricia Morison as his office nurse 4 stars.
Weird Woman, with Evelyn Ankers as the villain! Best film with good performances. 5 stars
Dead Man's eyes, has a good twist and is my personnel favorite. 5 stars
The Frozen Ghost. Also with Evelyn Ankers and Elena Verdugo ( the gypsy girl from House of Frankenstein and years later on TV with Robert Young in Dr. Welby. ( 1969-1976) 5 stars
Strange Confession, with pretty Brenda Joyce and J. Carrol Naish as suave villain. And early Lloyd Bridges ( of Sea Hunt TV fame) 5 stars
Pillow of Death, last and least, although with supernatural element. With Chaney as psychotic killer. 3 stars
Over all a very nice collection and I highly recommend it to classic B film mystery collectors.
"Calling Dr. Death" is a good, entertaining film featuring Lon as Dr. Mark Steele, a man trapped in a loveless marriage and entangled in a romance with his lovely secretary. Soon, Dr. Steele's wife is murdered & the good doctor is caught up in an investigation that leads to the wrong man being convicted until the real killer is caught.
"Weird Woman" is another goodie, dealing with voodoo superstitions & of course, murder. Murder would be a prevalent theme throughout the Inner Sanctum films.
"Dead Man's Eyes" and "Strange Confession" were my favorites of the collection. Very strong films & J. Carrol Naish was almost unrecognizable to me at first, I'm so used to seeing him as Daniel from "House of Frankenstein." He was suitably slimy in his role & the mystery of "Strange Confession" is just what exactly is inside the bag Lon Chaney's character has with him.
The last film "Pillow of Death" was a little more routine, but overall, I rate the Inner Sanctum mysteries a full 5 stars.
Still, if you like murder mystery movies of this era you don't have a lot to lose. The Amazon price as of this writing is under $9.00 for 6 movies and you will likely find at least a couple of these to your liking. I don't regret the purchase but this will probably be moved to the back of my shelves not to be seen again for quite awhile. Next time I want to see Chaney Jr. I'll pull out the Universal Legacy Wolfman Collection.
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.