|The Golden Age of Radio coincided with the Golden Age of Hollywood, despite the two media being rivals, but then, they often used the same talent therefore complemented one another nicely: a common trick would be to use movie material in condensed radio plays, often with some of the cast of the picture. But it could go the other way too: some radio series and serials would be successfully transferred to the movies, and Inner Sanctum was an example of this. Beginning with a disembodied head in a crystal ball, set on a boardroom table intoning about how we were all capable of murder (gulp!), the stories were actually more thrillers with macabre elements, with only one really embracing the horror genre. But because of the regular star, Lon Chaney Jr, they have long been embraced by classic horror fans, and the studio that produced them - Universal - were enjoying a resurgence of interest in their fright films, this in the nineteen-forties as well.
The first of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries was, like them all, a B-movie lasting around an hour, and paired the hulking, decidedly non-handsome Chaney with a selection of beautiful actresses as co-stars. In 1943's Calling Dr Death, released in time for Christmas that year, it was Patricia Morison who was his leading lady, famed for her long hair but probably best recalled as a musical star of Broadway as her movie career was somewhat underwhelming. Here we have to believe that she was romantically interested in her psychiatrist boss Chaney, which was something of a stretch (not least because the never-married, gay rights advocate Morison raised the occasional question about her private life which stayed very private), but she was game for the hypnosis-based plotline that sees the doc's wife murdered with a blunt instrument and her face erased with acid (!), with J. Carroll Naish dogging his every move to get him to confess. Low budget, but stylish with it.
The style was down to director Reginald Le Borg, who also helmed the next entry, Weird Woman in 1944. This was the first screen adaptation of Fritz Lieber's novel Conjure Wife (filmed later as Night of the Eagle) and had Chaney as a "brilliant" professor who picked up a wife, Anne Gwynne (grandmother of Hollywood star Chris Pine) while on an excursion to the South Seas. She is very superstitious, he really isn't, and it seems she is correct in her beliefs when someone conspires against him as everything goes wrong once he forces his wife to reject her magical thinking. The not very well-hidden villainess here was Evelyn Ankers, having a whale of a time as the conniving ex of the professor - it was one of her favourite roles, possibly because she got to torment Chaney, who is rather unconvincing as the object of all this female attention, and his co-stars knew it. This was the entry in the series that hewed closest to horror, despite a supposedly reasonable explanation.
Le Borg was back later that year for Dead Man's Eyes, with Chaney as an artist, one of a number of not-quite convincing occupations the franchise set up for the husky star. At the end of a hard day's artistry, he will bathe his eyes but what do you know, the bottles get mixed up and for some reason he puts acetic acid in his peepers, blinding him. His career ruined, as well as his demeanour, he decides to put off his wedding to Jean Parker, but her father Edward Fielding suggests he donate him his corneas - after the old man dies. Cue murder and mayhem as jealousy drives the plot, with Chaney's model the epicentre of the chaos; she was played by minor cult icon Acquanetta, the Arapaho beauty who enlivened a handful of Universal programmers, unhindered by any discernible talent but was very easy on the eyes, dead man's or otherwise. It was all very silly and again, was more of a thriller than a horror, but you could see why Lon was pleased to be centre of attention in these given his other regular gig at the time was his hated Mummy series (he was that Mummy).
1945 brought The Frozen Ghost, and this time, under the direction of Harold Young, Chaney's unlikely occupation was a famed hypnotist who has his own radio show. Rather than making his victims eat an onion in the belief it was an apple, he acts more like a clairvoyant, but he is convinced he has special powers, so when one of the public collapses and dies at a show, he suffers a crisis and goes to work in... a wax museum. So that's mesmerism and a chamber of horrors, all in one film, what more do you want? Evelyn Ankers was back as his love interest and stage assistant who he decides not to marry because he is so ashamed, while in the museum Martin Kosleck was a staff member a little too close to his charges - it should be pointed out that he and Chaney couldn't stand each other, and Kosleck badmouthed him for the rest of his life. Involved throwing knives, more jealousy (Lon really was beating them off with a stick in these pictures) and a hilarious denouement.
The same year Strange Confession was released and was the least seen of the series thanks to rights issues - naughty Universal had remade their previous 1934 film The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (which had starred Chaney's dad from The Wolf Man, Claude Rains) without permission, so the film swiftly dropped out of circulation. It barely qualified as a horror until its final five minutes, being more of a flashback melodrama about a brilliant chemist (you guessed it, your man Chaney) who is exploited by the company boss (J. Carroll Naish, back again on the other side of the law) who is keen to develop a vaccine against a virulent influenza. Brenda Joyce, best known as Johnny Weissmuller's second Jane in the Tarzan series, was the boffin's wife who persuades him to swallow his pride after walking out on Naish and accept his old job back, not realising part of the deal is the boss wants to romance her, and Mary Gordon, Mrs Hudson from the Sherlock Holmes series, was housekeeper.
Also in 1945 was the last in the series, Pillow of Death which decided to leave out the celebrated introduction with the disembodied head, possibly because there was a variation on the common theme of at least the first four entries, not to give anything away. Chaney's occupation this time was a lawyer, but he is quickly accused of murdering his wife (by smothering, hence that title) and arrested, though he denies it. Actually, this was closer to an "old dark house" thriller of the previous decade since Chaney is romancing Brenda Joyce, back as an heiress to a fortune and a mansion that has a ghost in the attic and hidden passages behind sliding doors, as you would want, along with some eccentric relatives played by reliable character faces of the day, including Auntie Em herself, Clara Blandick. Funnily enough, in light of the twist this was probably the instalment that suited Chaney the best; he was regarded as unconvincing in these, but he worked hard at them even if that resulted in his usual angst-ridden performances. And he carried a lot of pulp cachet, despite A pictures in his resume, so watching him in the Inner Sanctum was to see him in his element.
[Eureka release this series on Blu-ray, throwing the limelight on a selection of B-movies that more often than not are a bit of a hoot. Those excellent extras listed in full:
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]