❉ Universal’s twisted tales starring Lon Chaney Jr. are an interesting slice of movie history, writes Paul Abbott.
In the mid-Nineteen-Forties, Universal pictures had been riding high on its horror and mystery output for over two decades. Amongst those films were the classic cinematic takes on the gothic stories of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man and The Mummy. Household names were made of the British and European stars who came to Hollywood and dominated the screen – Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains – but it was the all-American actor, Lon Chaney Jr. who picked up these roles in later sequels and who took on the title role in 1941’s The Wolf Man. It was Chaney too, who Universal picked to star in their six-movie series Inner Sanctum Mysteries, made between 1943 and 1945, and now released by Eureka pictures on Blu-Ray.
The Inner Sanctum Mysteries concept doesn’t seem out of place in a modern entertainment landscape. Multi-Media and Cross-Platform, the idea behind the series originated with the publisher Simon & Schuster. In the 1930s Simon & Schuster began issuing books tagged as Inner Sanctum Mysteries, which incorporated both serious drama and romance, but most notably it was thought of as a mystery and crime imprint. Issued in green covers, not unlike Penguin’s crime and thriller imprint, the line ran for several decades even going so far as to incorporate several of Ed McBain’s classic 87th Precinct police-procedural novels of the late 1950s. The popularity of the Inner Sanctum name in the first decade of its existence allowed the publisher to license it to the makers of a radio series which would carry the name on the proviso that their newest books would get a mention in each episode. There was no crossover of material, however, and the radio show happily ran for 526 episodes, bringing in all manner of radio and movie talent to put across their creepy little tales.
Not content with letting their brand dominate the airwaves, Simon & Schuster also licensed the name to Universal pictures. Universal weren’t to draw on any of the pre-existing material from the publisher and instead based their six short films bearing the name on books, scripts or ideas they already had on their shelves waiting to be used and rather than produce a series with the same characters, each film was to be a stand-alone story, with Lon Chaney Jr in the lead role of each. For once, Chaney was not clad in monster make-up, but appears with his moustachioed, hang-dog face clearly there for all to see throughout.
Whilst these were cinematic releases, advertised in the manner of their horror releases, they were actually hour-long short films with a mystery theme, rather than being genuine supernatural or horror movies. Tortured men and troubled women are the key features of all of these psychological crime dramas. Hypnotism, the spirit world, voodoo and mind-control all feature in the plots of the stories, but never quite how you’d expect. All but the final film feature a creepy opening sequence with a disembodied head in a crystal ball welcoming us to the Inner Sanctum and warning that, “yes… even you, without knowing, could commit murder”. The organ-led music score takes us straight to weirdsville and the oft-used internal-monologue of Chaney takes us straight inside the head of his troubled characters.
The first three movies Calling Dr Death (1943), Weird Woman and Dead Man’s Eyes (both 1944) are ably directed by Reginald Le Borg, an Austrian who had come to the States and cut his teeth filming musical ‘band-shorts’ pictures before taking up the helm of several horror pictures. His Inner Sanctum Mysteries are an excellent example of the directors’ craft given the budgetary restraints, although they perhaps come across more like really good episodes of television than great cinema. There’s enough to enjoy in how the productions come across though – in the drama, the design and the costumes – and you can easily see the start of a lineage through to modern shows such as Inside No.9.
Le Borg departed the series after these first three films and it is somewhat noticeable that the remaining three, The Frozen Ghost, Strange Confession (both 1945) and the ludicrously named Pillow of Death (1946) are cut from slightly different cloth. The set-ups are slightly more bizarre (a stage-hypnotist thinks he’s murdered someone – to relax, his manager suggests he takes up employment in a wax-work museum?), but that’s not to say that they’re not fun to watch. At the very least it’s more film time for Lon Chaney’s marvellous suit and tie combinations, which look extraordinarily crisp and clear on the Blu-ray restoration.
There’s a certain repertory-cast feel to the selection of films, with Evelyn Ankers – who appeared alongside Chaney in several films, despite not getting-along at all off screen – cropping up in a couple. J. Carroll Naish appears in two (giving an amazing proto-Columbo performance in Calling Dr Death) and other names fill in ‘archetype’ roles such as jilted boyfriend, everyone’s best-pal, forbidding family member, across the films – including a young Lloyd Bridges pottering about with a monkey. It’s also worth watching out for go-to-’Heavy’, Douglas Dumbrille, taking on the role of a picture-straightening good-guy cop in The Frozen Ghost.
These are low-budget films, no doubt, and over the course of the six movies you start to notice a re-used set here and there, but there’s plenty to recommend them. Lon Chaney obviously enjoys his chance to portray this range of troubled characters in generally upper-middle class situations, although he’s far from stretched as an actor. But these aren’t supernatural horrors and there’s little need for B-Movie-esque hamming it up. In fact, the legacy of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries is something that discussed in the extras. Kim Newman gives a lecture on the series and another documentary seeks to contextualise the films – and Lon Chaney Jr himself – against the cinematic output of the time.
In short, these twisted tales of troubled geniuses and curious ladies are an interesting little slice of movie history which, without restoration and release in formats such as these, could easily drift into total obscurity. In fact, watching them in a domestic setting definitely makes them feel like really good television of the period and probably improves them for a modern audience. If you’re making these stories part of your lockdown viewing, though, you might want to skip Strange Confession for now – a scientist struggling against big business to produce an effective treatment for a massive outbreak of disease? Now there’s the real horror.
❉ High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all six films
❉ Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio tracks
❉ Optional English SDH subtitles
❉ Calling Dr. Death – Audio commentary from screenwriter/film historian C. Courtney Joyner and Regina Le Borg (daughter of director Reginald Le Borg)
❉ Weird Woman – Audio commentary from author Justin Humphreys (The Dr. Phibes Companion) and Del Howison (Dark Delicacies: Original Tales of Terror and the Macabre)
❉ Strange Confession – Audio commentary from screenwriter Peter Atkins (Hellraiser II, III, & IV) and screenwriter/film historian C. Courtney Joyner
❉ Kim Newman on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries – New interview with journalist, film critic, and fiction writer Kim Newman
❉ This is the Inner Sanctum: Making a Universal Mystery Series [55 mins]
❉ The Creaking Door: Entering The Inner Sanctum [15 mins] – History of the Radio Series with author/radio historian Martin Grams Jr.
❉ Mind Over Matter [20 mins] – Archival interview with actor Martin Kosleck (The Frozen Ghost)
❉ Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Radio Episodes – A selection of episodes from the original radio series
❉ PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the series by Craig Ian Mann
❉ INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES (Eureka Classics) Blu-ray released 18 January 2021. RRP £37.99. Blu-ray available to order from Eureka Store https://eurekavideo.co.
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly, and The Head Ballet Podcast which celebrates the novelty record in all its forms.. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.