Originating as a long-running book series released by New York publisher Simon and Schuster with branded imprints for romance, drama and mystery, it was the latter genre which became synonymous with the umbrella title Inner Sanctum which had covered all, inspiring an equally successful radio series and later a television series and a radio revival, but it is the six feature films starring horror icon Lon Chaney, Jr which are the primary focus of Eureka’s new Blu-ray box set.
Comprising Calling Doctor Death (December 1943, director Reginald LeBorg), Weird Woman (March 1944, LeBorg), Dead Man’s Eyes (November 1944, LeBorg), The Frozen Ghost (Harold Young, June 1945), Strange Confession (John Hoffman, October 1945) and Pillow of Death (Wallace Fox, December 1945), in each Chaney plays a different character, most often accused of murder, in tales of tortuous betrayals and the dark secrets of the mind, the “inner sanctum” of the title.
In Calling Doctor Death he is Doctor Mark Steele, a hypnotherapist accused of murdering his unfaithful wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) and unable to provide an alibi because he cannot recall the night in question, leading him to the fearful conclusion that he might indeed be the guilty party. Based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber, later the basis for the vastly superior Night of the Eagle, known as Burn, Witch, Burn! in America, Weird Woman sees Chaney as Professor Norman Reed, his career derailed by the death of a colleague and the accusations made against his young wife Paula (Anne Gwynne).
An artist blinded in an accident, Chaney next appears as David Stuart, benefactor of the convenient death of a friend who stipulated in his will that his corneas should be used as material in a transplant, the grafting of the Dead Man’s Eyes, the series pushing in a new direction which continues with The Frozen Ghost, Chaney the mentalist “Gregor the Great” who has retreated from public life following the death of a subject during a live performance, believing he has power over life and death; well lit and shot on expansive sets showcased by a crisp transfer, new director Young makes the best of a screenplay which somewhat overeggs the pudding.
A biochemist developing a new treatment for influenza who is betrayed by his employer who sent him out of the country while rushing Zymurgine to market before clinical trials were completed, the revenge of Jeff Carter is the Strange Confession told in flashback, while the sequence concludes with another dark house mystery of inheritances, secret passages, murder and burgeoning madness, lawyer Wayne Fletcher (Chaney) accused by the voice of his dead wife summoned by a medium that he suffocated her with the Pillow of Death.
The format repetitive and often featuring repeated dialogue, particularly in the voiceovers, the inner monologue of Chaney’s tortured inner sanctum, the six films are as much melodrama as mystery, B-movies rushed out on a production line to serve as vehicles for a star who gives the same performance in each, seemingly confused as to what to do with a lead role which doesn’t involve elaborate makeup. His legacy and that of the films considered by Kim Newman with his customary encyclopaedic knowledge, the set also contains a history of the radio show and several surviving episodes as well as a documentary on the wider Inner Sanctum franchise.