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Sunday, March 13, 2011


Universal, the House of Horror, couldn’t have been pleased with the successful poetic/psychological horror pics Val Lewton was producing for a pittance over @ RKO. So, they fired back with this series, based on the radio anthology show, all starring their fast-fading Werewolf, Lon Chaney, Jr.

  • First out was CALLING DR. DEATH/’43; bare bones stuff, even for Universal. Chaney’s a doctor who uses hypnosis, Patricia Morrison (later the original Kate of B’way’s KISS ME KATE) is the nurse he loves, and his wife is a murder victim. Staring at your radio would hold more visual interest.
  • Number two, WEIRD WOMAN/’44, is the best of the lot, it’s even got Elizabeth Russell, Cat Woman from Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE/’42! They’ve bumped up the budget (look at the people milling about!) and the mix of voodoo & college backstabbing make for a tasty little treat. But did Universal really think college co-eds would swoon for Prof Chaney?
  • DEAD MAN’S EYES /’44 brings us back to bare bones production values with lots of master-shots covering entire scenes. And the story (Chaney tries to regain his sight with the eyes of the father-in-law he may have murdered) doesn’t have a surprise in it.
  • By the fourth title, THE FROZEN GHOST/’45 the plotting has become completely arbitrary and they’ve even dropped the goofy floating head in a crystal ball prologue. Chaney plays another hypnotist, but now it’s a stage act. He reads minds, or rather, his hypnotized subject does. (Huh?) But when one of his ‘volunteers’ dies onstage, Chaney suffers a nervous breakdown and goes to recover at the local Wax Museum. (Wha’?) Spooky lighting, a blonde docent with a mad pash on him, a high-strung wax sculptor; it’s the perfect spot for some R&R. At least, character actor Douglass Dumbrille has some fun as an off-beat detective and the ladies sport makeup & hair styles that look like the back of a Cadillac.
  • THE STRANGE CONFESSION/’45, isn’t really an INNER SANCTUM story at all, but a wanly produced tale of a chemist (Chaney) who refuses to bring a new drug to the market before it’s properly tested. Not so his boss, who wants it out in time for the flu season. Guess whose little boy catches the flu? Young Lloyd Bridges makes an enthusiastic lab pal, but this is a legit story that could have been developed into something better.
  • Finally, the deliciously titled PILLOW OF DEATH/’45 has the unhappily married Chaney longing for his cute young secretary. She’s the niece of a wealthy clan; in fact her aunt is . . . Auntie Em! Yep, that’s Clara Blandick playing a high society dame. When Chaney's wife turns up dead, Aunt Clara knows who to blame.
After this, Chaney was off the screen for two years. When he returned, he’d been demoted to supporting player for the rest of his long career. NOTE: There’s a Grade ‘Z’ indie pic titled INNER SANCTUM/’48 that isn’t part of this Universal series.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Just about any of the Val Lewton pics would be grand. THE LEOPARD MAN/’43 is a particular fave.

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