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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 Gerry Putzer | posted September 19, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Universal has reached deep into its horror vaults to assemble "Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection," a two-disc set containing all six of the forgotten series' titles. Released between 1943 and 1945, the program pictures were an offshoot of a popular radio series of strange tales; the radio show, in turn, came out of a series of mystery novels (the title screen of each film credits Simon & Schuster).

The first five of the movies carry the same intro: a disembodied head floating in a large crystal ball, its features distorted funhouse-mirror style, welcomes us to the mind's inner sanctum, where "yes ... even you ... without knowing ... can commit ... murder." The movies that follow, all starring Lon Chaney Jr., are rarely as creepy as that slow-talking head.

Few stars of the golden age seemed less comfortable in front of the camera than Chaney. This big, imposing former farm worker and meat-cutter really seemed to labor when it came to acting. The man of a half-dozen faces longed to succeed without his famous paternal connection — he was born Creighton Chaney and only grudgingly agreed to be billed as Lon Chaney Jr. — but following his 1941 hit "The Wolf Man," his horror-film fate was set.

In the "Inner Sanctum" movies, Chaney plays men of various professions, including neurologist, chemist, hypnotist and artist, but it's always Chaney. His slow, buttery line deliveries and impeccable politeness are interrupted by angry outbursts followed immediately by bashful apologies and hand-wringing. But he did have one effective feature — sorrowful eyes with tightly knitted brows, shown in super-closeup — and it's relied on frequently here. There's poignancy in seeing Chaney struggle; it's the reason this otherwise ungainly actor became a cult favorite.

The "Inner Sanctum" movies, each barely an hour long, were not made to stand up to scrutiny, and they don't. The mysteries are usually easy to figure out, the dialogue often stilted, the logic of the plots frequently insane. But, yes, even you, sophisticated viewer, can still enjoy them.

THE MOVIES

Calling Dr. Death (1943, 63 minutes), directed by Reginald Le Borg. Chaney plays a neurologist whose chief tool is hypnosis (cue those eyebrows!). When his unfaithful wife winds up dead, Chaney, who can't remember anything from the past few days, worries that he may have killed her. His pretty assistant (Patricia Morison), who has a crush on her boss, is there to help him sort it all out. Of all the films in the series, only this one comes close to being a genuine noir.

Weird Woman (1944, 64 minutes), directed by Reginald Le Borg. Chaney's a professor who on a visit to Polynesia meets a beautiful Anglo girl (Anne Gwynn, so not weird) who has been raised by natives, with all superstitious beliefs intact. He brings her home as his wife, which doesn't sit well with the blonde academic babe (Evelyn Ankers) who has always assumed she would be a professor's wife.

Dead Man's Eyes (1944, 64 minutes), directed by Reginald Le Borg. In probably the best known film of the series, Chaney plays a painter who accidentally blinds himself with acid. His future father-in-law promises that on his death, he will bequeath his corneas to Lon. You shouldn't be so generous there, Pops.

The Frozen Ghost (1945, 62 minutes), directed by Harold Young. Chaney is Alex Gregor, aka Gregor the Great, a hypnotist with a hit radio show. During a program, a drunken audience member angers Gregor -- "I could kill him," he mutters to his assistant and girlfriend (Evelyn Ankers again). After he puts the loudmouth under, the jerk dies on the air. The distraught Gregor ("I murdered that man mentally!"), seeking refuge, goes to live for a time in the wax museum owned by a friend (Tala Birell). Look for a very young Elena Verdugo, future nurse to Marcus Welby, M.D.

Strange Confession (1945, 62 minutes), directed by John Hoffman. Chaney plays the most altruistic underpaid chemist of all time, wanting nothing but to cure influenza. Wife Brenda Joyce admires his goodness but would like a nicer home for themselves and their little boy. There's nothing supernatural here, just an evil pharmaceutical exec (J. Carroll Naish) capitalizing at the cost of people's lives. A young Lloyd Bridges plays Chaney's work partner.

Pillow of Death (1945, 67 minutes), directed by Wallace Fox. The series' final entry is its most successful as a mystery, with a barrel full of red herrings squeezed into its brief running time, and with a genuinely surprising climax. Chaney is a married attorney whose relationship with his secretary (Brenda Joyce) angers the girl's wealthy family.

THE DISCS

The six tidy films sit easily on two one-sided discs. The attractive main menus feature reproductions of the original lurid one-sheet posters, as does the interior of the package. The menu for each film offers just the Play or Languages options (English audio; English or French subtitles). There are no menus for scene selections, but there are four chapters for each film.

The major studios of the golden age, even when they made junk, made it look good. The "Inner Sanctum" titles all feature fine black-and-white cinematography, with scenic design tending toward very enticing, richly appointed old homes. ("The Frozen Ghost's" wax museum is effectively gloomy and unsettling, though "Weird Woman's" jungle scenes are patently artificial looking.) It's all been perfectly transferred to disc; there are no scratches, pops, dirt or end-of-reel raggedness. The picture on all films is in the standard of the day, the 1.33:1 (full-screen) ratio. The clear, hiss-free sound is Dolby Digital 2.0. Using the mono left or right, or stereo options on your player doesn't alter the sound significantly.

There are no extras beyond the subtitles.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The "Inner Sanctum" movies, virtually unseen on TV, are reminders that golden-age Universal's horror franchises extended beyond "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man." The movies are no one's idea of great, and they're not that frightening, but they are a welcome sight for film buffs. They're also representative of the day-in, day-out workings of the old studio system, in which plot devices, sets and characterizations were comfortingly familiar, and company players (such as Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone and J. Carroll Naish) popped up repeatedly in different roles.

The most that could possibly be made of Lon Chaney Jr.'s skills is accomplished here, and he is a sympathetic, if strange, figure throughout. He does look good in a dark suit, but we're far from a world in which pretty girls got hot over craggy-faced, middle-aged, manly men. (Chaney, unbelievably, was only in his 30s when he made this series.) As "The O.C.'s" Summer would say if Lon made a move on her: "Ew!" "Inner Sanctum Mysteries," then, is recommended for Summer's cine-savvy boyfriend, Seth, and the rest of us.

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