By Doug Gibson
I have always wanted to sample Universal's "psychological mysteries" that called itself the Inner Sanctum films. When I was a youngster I watched "Calling Dr. Death" in the middle of the night but I recall nothing other than Lon Chaney Jr. seemed mentally tortured throughout. I finally grabbed the six-film DVD set from my co-blogger Steve Stones and watched three of the films, the aforementioned "Calling Dr. Death," "Weird Woman," and "The Frozen Ghost."
They're not bad mystery programmers (the three I saw timed in at 63, 63 and 62 minutes). What struck me in all three films is that one could take way the picture and the audio dialogue would work for radio, with minor shifts, such as reading newspaper headlines. By the way, a strange little man-head in a crystal ball introduces all the films. Although it must have been a given for viewers, 70 years ago Inner Sanctum was also a popular radio show.
Chaney is also miscast. He appears, respectively, as an academic, medical professional and suave rich man who dallies in mind-reading. He's also allegedly appealing to nearly all his pretty female co-stars. The truth is while Chaney was always a better actor than many have given him credit for, he was already starting to morph into the brutish, lumpish figure he would become for the last 20 years of his life. He doesn't pull off "suave," sophisticated" or the "ladies man persona." Of course, there is irony here -- if Chaney had not starred in this mystery series, the films would be largely ignore; there would be no recent Universal DVD release.
So, here are capsule reviews of the three films I viewed:
WEIRD WOMAN, 1944: This was my favorite of the three I viewed. Directed by Reginald LeBorg, Lon plays an academic who while on "safari," picks up an marries a cute woman (Anne Gwynne) who was raised by natives and believes in white magic. When the pair returns to university life, Lon's angry ex-girlfriend, played well by Evelyn Ankers, does a little bit of "gaslight" on Lon and his bride, pitting students, colleagues and colleagues wives against the pair. Among the supporting cast Elizabeth Russell, who was great as Lugosi's insane wife in "The Corpse Vanishes," plays the ambitious wife of a weak university colleague of Lon and Evelyn's. This is a good watch despite the fact that Lon best acting is when he is violent, rather than thoughtful or intellectual. The film never drags, and Ankers' acting is excellent at the climax. (Above is a strong scene with Gwynne and Russell from the film.)
THE FROZEN GHOST, 1945: In this entry, directed by Harold Young, Lon plays Alec Gregor, rich man who enjoys performing as conjurer "Gregor the Great." One night, his drunken plant in the audience annoys Lon so much that he wants him to die. While Lon is "hypnotizing" him, the plant falls dead. Despite evidence the death was natural, Lon goes semi crazy and ends his show as well as his relationship with his wife-to-be, played by Evelyn Ankers. Somewhat improbably, Lon is sent by his business agent, Millburn Stone, to live with Valerie Monet, played by Tala Birell, who runs a wax museum and carries a torch for Lon. She lives there with her pretty niece, Elena Verdugo, and creepy wax dummy creator, played by Martin Kosleck. Meanwhile, once-intended Ankers tries to see Lon again. Eventually, things get a little weird as Valerie Monet disappears, and apparently there's a plot to drive Lon into the loony bin and gain access to his money. The film gets convoluted near its end, but Kosleck is great in his role.
CALLING DR. DEATH, 1943: This is the worst of the trio I sampled. Lon plays a tortured neurologist who pines for his pretty nurse Patricia Morison. The problem is, he's married to a callous sociopathic gold-digger wife, Ramsey Ames, who blatantly advertises her infidelity to him. One weekend, when Ames is away, Lon follows her. He loses all memory of the weekend, waking up in his office. His wife is murdered that weekend. A persistent detective, J. Carrol Naish, continues to torment Lon, even as another man, David Bruce, is arrested, convicted and sentenced to die for the crime. Desperate to know if he killed his wife, Lon asks his nurse to hypnotize him and then interrogate him. Unfortunately, this film, directed by LeBorg, plods, and Naish's character is unprofessional and annoying. When the "twist" ending is announced, there's a hole in its logic that a viewer could drive a Hummer through.