“This is the Inner Sanctum, a strange, fantastic world…” says a floating head in a globe (actor David Hoffmann) that introduces all but the last of the movies and the themes that will dominate: greed, devastation, guilt, jealousy, suspicion and other mental and psychological powers, afflictions and events. The Inner Sanctum movies, six quickies made over two years at Universal are often and unfairly pointed to as some of the worst output of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s career. What should’ve been his chance to break out of monster roles and into some deeper acting, is instead seen today by many as a brief patch of his career that needs to be hacked through, like trekking through dense brush, and that’s a shame because it’s a decent set of enjoyable little B movies that can be enjoyed for what they are, not for what they should or could have been.
The movies came at a critical but bumpy period for Chaney because, while he was hoping to stretch as an actor, he was also getting deeper into his struggle with alcohol. Both things complicated his approach to the material, and though that material certainly wasn’t Oscar-caliber, with the right circumstances and with a director who pushed him to do more, Chaney could have contributed to and benefited from these movies’ full potential. As a result, what he was able to do, and what he did do with the roles is a real point of debate with critics. He did bring the bewilderment, confusion and tortured sensitivity that made the Larry Talbot character tick in The Wolf Man. Maybe he brought too much of that and not enough of anything else, according to those who charged that he was miscast and unbelievable as an intellectual/ professional (a chemist, a neurologist, a professor, a painter, a lawyer, a mentalist) or a roguish ladies man (multiple women are after him in a couple of the Inner Sanctum stories). Perhaps he was also starting right off the bat with a strike against him, by going into such a well-established book-then-radio series, where expectations would provide a higher and tougher hurdle for the man already being typecast as a monster movie star.
But if the movies don’t fully succeed, you can’t blame it all on Chaney. Universal seemed to take the unambitious and cheap route to the series from the start. They bought only the rights to the name Inner Sanctum, not to any of the novels or the radio plays that made the name worth buying and using. Instead, they used whatever original screenplays were sitting on the shelf, adapted a novel whose rights they optioned, or remade an older Universal movie. Many critics charge they assigned subpar directors, but Reginald LeBorg, who did the first three was capable. Again we can only speculate that if studio had put more work and vision into the movies, they’d have not only better quality but also done their part to help shift Chaney into a noir star.
So now that we’ve gone through the catalog of common complaints you’re bound to encounter when reading up on the Inner Sanctums, let’s look at what there is to like about them; goodness knows I sure do. I didn’t pick them to pick them apart, and having cut that thick brush out of our way we can take a walk through some of these movies. You can enjoy the lesser ones as campy fun and the better ones as short, light psychological thrillers, whodunits with a spoonful of horror, a good amount of style with the undeniable (to me, irresistible) Universal horror production value and atmosphere, good-to-great casts, good writing, a few memorable surprises, even some influential filmmaking. As for Chaney: I’ll grant his critics that he is at times of limited range and struggles to put across nuanced pondering, anguish or Bruce Banner-grade murderous rage, but his strength was as a highly sympathetic screen personality. Hurt, desperate, sad, mistreated and beaten by life were all things he could convey exceptionally well, and since that’s what most of these Inner Sanctum movies require for starters, he is more often than not is a convincing as an introspective victim, and almost always is a warm, comfortable presence which is necessary to make a series work.
Of the series of six movies, let’s look at the first, the best and the worst (if you believe the critics estimations).
CALLING DR DEATH
“Nothing is impossible where the mind is concerned!” The first of the series casts Chaney as a neurologist who, in a period of amnesia, is suspected of having murdered his wife (as with most of these short movies I can’t write more than one sentence of the plot without giving the whole thing away). Here we’re introduced to a common feature in this series, a remnant of the radio show, that of Chaney engaging in a whispered stream of consciousness voice over, even when there’s nobody else in the room or in his brain to hear him. I don’t know about you, but when I talk to myself in my brains I have no problem shouting and practicing comebacks and impressions. The voice over is made fun of a lot; it can be difficult for an actor to know just what to do in those scenes other than twist his eyebrows, wrinkle his forehead and stare into space. To me, used here with Chaney, it’s not that bothersome, and even makes sense for a character so given to self-analysis. Some took it as evidence of Chaney’s drinking, lack of talent and trouble remembering lines, and those claims were disputed by Chaney’s co-stars and directors. The script was written by Ed Dein, part of the RKO Val Lewton crew, who’d worked on Cat People, The Leopard Man, as well as the Falcon and Lone Wolf series and when he became a director did a great job Shack Out on 101.
A couple things here should catch the attention of those who like to track movie memes. There is the then-novel use of a subjective camera from Chaney’s point of view when he arrives at the lodge to identify the body of his murdered wife; everyone looks into the camera (Chaney) and we only see him when it’s his interior monologue time. This technique was to be used a few years later in the noirs Lady in the Lake (Calling Dr. Death was said to be a direct influence on Robert Montgomery’s decision to use subjective camera) and Dark Passage.
Many a movie detective has been compared to Peter Falk’s Columbo, but J. Carrol Naish’s inspector here has to be one the most similar predecessors. He’s a clever, persistent and determined detective with a gleam in his eye, a way of appearing out of nowhere, a preoccupied distraction, a last-minute question that only seems absentminded, and who, it turns out, is skilled at maneuvering and using the suspects as chess pieces to suss out the killer. All in all a fun and promising start to the series.
THE FROZEN GHOST
This one, filmed in 12 days, was meant to be the second Inner Sanctum but got delayed to come out fourth. It’s widely considered the worst of the bunch, so predictably I really enjoy it, not for the embarrassing goofs in editing, plot holes, people pretending rather unconvincingly to be wax statues, and some laughable FX, but for the atmosphere and the excellent performances by supporting actors. During a radio mind reading act, Gregor the Great (Chaney) whose friends call him Alex, is trying to disprove a loud drunken skeptic: “not me! you’re not gonna mesmerize ME!” No, Chaney manages to wish him dead at audible volume, after which the skeptic promptly does just that. Chaney believes himself a murderer through the power of suggestion, then banishes himself from his fiance and his occupation, and wanders the dark streets obsessed, chanting to himself that everywhere he goes he sees death, death, death…Death!! Chaney gets a job in a waxworks, where he manages to repeat his look of death feat (or so he’s led to believe).
The best parts of the movie happen at that museum, for Chaney’s initiated into the practice by the fabulous Martin Kosleck (above) as Rudi, a former plastic surgeon ruined by an impatient patient, doomed to ply his trade on wax figures… or are they? They are. Or ARE they? Kosleck seems to always travel with his own low angle lighting, and is so good and creepy, talking to his dear statues, that he steals the movie and has to redeem it for any B movie lover. Equally fun is Douglas Dumbrille as a dandy detective; he’s suave, perceptive, enjoys nice furniture and apparently spends more time inspecting Shakespeare’s works than murders. The museum is a fantastically gothy, dark and scary setting, and with those elements I am more than happy to suspend my disbelief so high I’ll need a cherry picker to get it back down. By the way, as Nelson Muntz might say, there are two things wrong with the movie’s title. A mere five months later saw the release of…
“You’ve never heard anything like I have to tell you…”
This fifth movie in the series is the best, and even emerges as a strong candidate for one of Chaney’s best career performances. The story and style look like more than just an afterthought, so much so that it doesn’t even seem to fit into the tone of the whole series. In the dead of night, Chaney arrives at the mansion of an old school friend who’s now a lawyer, uttering the quote above and punctuating it by showing him a bag with J. Carrol Naish’s head in it. From there we’re propelled back… back to a happy Christmas flashback and the tale of how Chaney the brilliant, trusting (maddeningly so) chemist loses everything he loves and values by cooperating with a lying Naish who manipulates and uses Chaney over an untested drug. The story unfolds slowly, deliberately, no longer a whodunit but a waiting game to see the buildup of tragedy, abuse, rage and justification. Credit to director John Hoffman (goodness knows he could use the extra, seeing as he has only seven credits for directing at IMDB).
Here Chaney parlays his natural affability and geniality into a believably loving, sacrificing husband and father, a convincingly self-effacing, gullible and suffering man who finally cracks as dramatically as those who deny and eat their anger tend to do. When he loses it, he is genuinely terrifying. The element of a child in jeopardy adds a lot to the suspense; the music box notes that ring as Chaney returns home from South America to see his sick little boy are heartbreaking. Naish is excellent (he always was) as a monster disguised in enough culture and elegance, articulate enough that he manages to fool Chaney and his wife. Lloyd Bridges provides good support and, with none of the horror or supernatural touches that marked the other Inner Sanctums, the movie could easily stand alone as a suspenseful drama. It certainly stands as a great Chaney role.
* actually yes you have heard something very much like what he has to tell you, if you’ve ever seen 1934’s The Man Who Reclaimed his Head, a Universal film starring Claude Rains, Joan Bennett and Lionel Atwill. Strange Confession was a re-boot or re-imagining, as the execs now like to call it, and this very approach not only made this installment feel unique in the series, but also doomed it to a long period of obscurity. The Man Who Reclaimed his Head was in turn based on a play, a melodrama starring Rains with Jean Arthur, which had as its plot device, its Macguffin, not a drug but pacifist writing (the resulting twist of having a committed pacifist pushed to deadly violence sounds even more compelling to me). The story goes that when Chaney’s version came about, the right of the studio to make this remake of the remake were disputed by the playwright, which caused Strange Confession to remain in limbo for years; it was re-released as The Missing Head in the 50s, and wasn’t even included in the Inner Sanctum series package that was released to television.
Yes, it was indeed a “strange, fantastic world controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh, the mind. It destroys, distorts, creates monsters, commits murder! Yes, even you without knowing can commit murder!” It’s also a world of essential viewing for Lon Chaney Jr. fans and yes, despite being controlled and a bit distorted by a mass who didn’t quite pull them off, even you who know how to enjoy a good B can enjoy them.
The Inner Sanctums I *didn’t* mention above are: Weird Woman, Pillow of Death, and Dead Man’s Eyes, which is covered as part of this blogathon by Cliff here
this post is proud to be a part of the CHANEY blogathon, which you should further investigate by clicking on this: