Inner Sanctum Mysteries | Universal’s Lon Chaney Jr showcase on Blu-ray
There is nothing more satisfying than settling down to a classic Universal horror when it comes to a cold, wet wintery day. I have quite a few on various formats, but when I see a new Blu-ray version coming out, I get as excited as I did when I first saw them as a kid on the big screen (as re-releases, of course!). So thank you Eureka Entertainment for adding another 1940s classic to my collection: the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr. And what a treat they are.
These six features were based on a US radio show of the same name which ran from 1941 to 1952, whose creaking door opening became legendary. Universal bought the rights as a vehicle for Chaney, who wanted to showcase his talents by starring in each film. Having watched them all and the extras on the Eureka Blu-ray, I now have renewed fondness for Chaney. Filmed before the sad downturn in his career, Chaney is in his prime here. looking ever so suave; while his internal monologues give him the chance to stretch himself as an actor.
But the revelation here is the top-class production design and camerawork, which sparkles in this restoration and reveals ‘a full palette of monochrome’ (a great observation from Peter Atkins in his audio commentary). Also noteworthy is the fantastic supporting cast that graces each chilling mystery (there’s a quite a few fan favourites on show) and the wonderfully atmospheric Paul Sawtell scores. It’s an amazing achievement, especially considering each film was shot in under 12 days.
Here’s a breakdown of Eureka’s two-disc must-have.
Calling Dr Death (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1943)
After a floating head in a crystal ball introduces us to the first story, Chaney (sporting a pencil-thin moustache) takes the lead as a neurologist who uses hypnotism to discover whether or not he killed his wife. House of Frankenstein‘s J Carrol Naish is the inspector in charge of the case, The Mad Ghoul‘s David Bruce is the man accused of the murder, and Faye Helm (the first victim of Chaney’s Wolfman) also features.
• Audio commentary: Film historian C Courtney Joyner and Regina Le Borg explore the film and TV career of Regina’s director father and how he enjoyed working Chaney. The best bit of trivia: Le Borg was up to direct Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein.
Weird Woman (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1944)
Adapted from Fritz Leiber Jr’s Conjure Wife, this mystery finds Chaney cast as a university professor who marries an exotic young woman (Anne Gwynne) who uses witchcraft to further his career – but she comes up against some other practitioners with their own agendas. If you are familiar with Leiber’s book, then you’ll know it was also adapted for the screen in 1962 as Night of the Eagle (AKA Burn! Witch, Burn!). Handsomely mounted, this a faithful take, with a Scream Queen vibe. The Wolf Man‘s Evelyn Ankers and Cat People‘s Elisabeth Russell steal the show. The best bit of trivia: Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) features.
• Audio commentary: Justin Humphreys (The Dr Phibes Companion) and Del Howison (Dark Delicacies: Original Tales of Terror and the Macabre) have great fun while unearthing lots of trivia. Justin’s Les Baxter connection really made me smile.
Dead Man’s Eyes (dir. Reginald Le Borg, 1944)
Exotic beauty Acquanetta, who is best known for her starring roles in Captive Wild Woman, Jungle Woman and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, plays the jealous Tanya who blinds Chaney’s artist with acid over his love for Jean Parker (The Ghost Goes West). Offered an operation to restore his sight, Chaney’s Dave but must wait until the donor dies. And when he prematurely conks it, Dave’s in the frame for murder.
- Kim Newman on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries – New interview
- This is the Inner Sanctum: Making a Universal Mystery Series [55 mins] Watch this after you have viewed the films on the second disc, as there are lots of spoilers
- Radio Episodes: The Amazing Death of Mrs Putnam; The Black Seagull and The Skull That Walked
The Frozen Ghost (dir. Harold Young, 1945)
In this fourth mystery, Chaney’s a stage mentalist caught up in some weird goings-on in a wax museum. He’s quit his act believing his hypnotism caused an audience member’s death, then becomes the prime suspect when his new employer, a wax museum owner, disappears. Evelyn Ankers plays his heartbroken fiancé and Martin Kosleck (The Mummy’s Curse) is the weird plastic surgeon/sculptor who may or may not behind the shenanigans (see his extra below). This one has shades of Universal’s The Black Cat weaved into the plot.
Strange Confession (dir. John Hoffman, 1945)
Now here’s a tale that’s ripe for a Covid-19-themed update. Chaney’s a dedicated scientist working on an influenza vaccine. J Carrol Naish is the tycoon who cares more for profits and safety [remind you of anybody?]. He steals the formula and has Chaney blacklisted. But when he releases it before all the proper tests are done, it results in the tragic death of Chaney’s son. Loosely based on Jean Bart’s Man Who Reclaimed His Head, this features a young Lloyd Bridges and Mary Gordon (AKA Mrs Hudson from the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films).
• Audio commentary: C Courtney Joyner and (via Zoom) Hellraiser II, III, & IV screenwriter Peter Atkins impart lots of trivia about the film’s production. It’s a great listen, though their audio becomes out of sync with the film which is rather annoying.
Pillow of Death (dir. Wallace Fox, 1945)
The title sounds like a Monty Python sketch, and this final instalment does indeed feature some comic moments. Dispensing with the disembodied head in a crystal ball in the intro, it finds Chaney cast as another murder suspect. This time suffocation is the modus operandi, and the victim is Chaney’s wife. He walks free due to a lack of evidence, then more ‘pillow murders’ take place. But everything is not is what it seems. Along for the ride is Brenda Joyce (AKA Jane from the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies).
- The Creaking Door: Inside The Inner Sanctum [15 mins] History of the radio series with author/radio historian Martin Grams Jr.
- Mind Over Matter: Archival interview (20-min) with The Frozen Ghost actor Martin Kosleck, who looks back at his Hollywood career after fleeing Germany where he was targeted by the Nazi’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. A fascinating interview with an incredibly fascinating character, watch out for the expression on his face as he describes Chaney as the most dreadful, old, rude drunk he had ever seen in his life.
- Radio Episodes: Skeleton Bay, The Man Who Couldn’t Die and Death of a Doll