This is the Inner Sanctum...'

Ever in search of movie series material, Universal Pictures' launch of the "Inner Sanctum" programmers in late 1943 held the promise of being more than just whodunits designed to keep star player Lon Chaney Jr. occupied in between assignments as the studio's great monsters. With an emphasis on interior conflict faced by the protagonist in each of the series' six entries, the Inner Sanctums boded well as a potential competitor to the classier Val Lewton-produced horror films from RKO Radio Pictures.

But as pointed out by John Brunas, Michael Brunas and Tom Weaver in their exhaustive UNIVERSAL HORRORS: THE STUDIO'S CLASSIC FILMS 1931-46 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1990, pp. 393-394), Universal's tight-fisted approach to the Inner Sanctums doomed them to be, to put it charitably, missed opportunities, or in the view of others, an outright waste of time; "feebly conceived," as the Brunases and Weaver opined about the films.

Yet for all of the criticism, ranging from the B movie restrictions to the perceived miscasting of Chaney as the movies' lead player, the Inner Sanctums do possess the qualities of Universal's trademark atmosphere found in its horror flicks, excellent casting in support of the star and, in the case of WEIRD WOMAN (1944), a somewhat unusual plotline derived from a literary source -- one of two entries to boast one. Repeated television showings since the 1950s and release of the series on DVD a decade ago have made the Inner Sanctums a familiar and comfortable legacy of a film studio at its peak, when it provided enough product to theaters to allow for a change of program at least twice a week.

The Inner Sanctum label had distinguished mystery novels published by New York-based Simon & Schuster Inc. since the 1930s and continued well into the 1960s. Among the most noteworthy works the firm issued as an Inner Sanctum was Robert Bloch's PSYCHO in 1959, which Alfred Hitchcock quickly optioned for production. In 1941, famous radio program packager Himan Brown developed a show using the Inner Sanctum title that offered unusual suspense stories, many bordering on the horrific and hosted by the jovially sinister "Raymond" (Raymond Edward Johnson), whose weekly closing line of "pleasant dreams ... hmm?" to listeners whose nerves had been jangled by the preceding drama became one of the classic catchphrases of radio's golden age.

The audio drama was running strong when Universal and Simon & Schuster reached agreement on the use of the title for the studio's new line of mysteries, overseen by Ben Pivar, its resident King of the Bs. Brother of Maurice Pivar, a fixture in Universal's editorial department for decades, Pivar had been a producer at Columbia, Grand National and Republic when hired by Universal in 1938 to produce an adventure series starring Richard Arlen and Andy Devine, the films themselves using significant chunks of footage from previous studio efforts to keep costs low.

For its part, Universal already had a track record with a literary tie-in from a set of films produced in 1938-1939 utilizing Doubleday's Crime Club designation; entries such as THE BLACK DOLL and THE WESTLAND CASE (both 1938) were well-received. Those films and the other Crime Clubs were adapted from novels, but the Inner Sanctums were designed as original stories, none based on any of the Simon & Schuster titles, another concession to the studio's stingy outlay for second features during the war years. Yet, one Inner Sanctum movie was based on a pulp magazine story and the other on a play.

The persistent psychological underpinnings to the Inner Sanctums were established in the first and perhaps best of the bunch, CALLING DR. DEATH. The film introduced audiences to the brief segment that set the stage for series entries (and used in all but the final number), opening with a shot of what appears to be a board room. Atop a meeting table is a crystal ball. This is followed by a closeup of the same, in which a distorted face regards us eerily. The face then speaks, and its opening comments are worth repeating here: "This is the Inner Sanctum. 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." This sequence is then followed by the credits.

The face and voice seen in this preface are those of actor David Hoffman, who earlier in the year appeared with Robert Benchley in the linking scenes of the multi-story FLESH AND FANTASY, an all-star affair co-produced by Charles Boyer and Julien Duvivier, and directed by Duvivier, that was one of Universal's more expensive productions of the time. Unlike FLESH AND FANTASY, in which Hoffman's character discussed the stories with Benchley prior to their unspooling on the screen, Hoffman's role in the Inner Sanctums was only limited to the opening. His comments on the mind and its susceptibility to homicidal suggestion formed the basis of not only the plots but the mental state of the lead character who finds himself accused of killing.

CALLING DR. DEATH concerns itself not with celebrated assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian but Mark Steele (Chaney), a successful yet unhappily married neurologist. His cool wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) mocks him with her numerous extramarital affairs, the latest with architect Robert Duval (David Bruce). Following a weekend in which Mark apparently blacks out from the stress caused by his marital discord, he returns to work and is informed by the police that Maria has met a violent end at their country getaway cabin.

Troubled by his inability to recall the weekend's events, Mark doubts his innocence and sanity, even as Duval is arrested and tried for the slaying. The pesky cop on the case (J. Carrol Naish as a 1940s Columbo, only better-dressed) doesn't help matters with his belief that Duval didn't do it and Mark is the killer. With the help of his dedicated nurse Stella (Patricia Morison), who's also in love with her boss, Mark uses hypnosis and the real culprit's accumulated guilt to clear himself and Duval.

Like many of the Inner Sanctum heroes, Mark is prone to introspection and our guide to his mental distress is the voiceover narration Chaney delivers in hushed tones. This device has been roundly criticized in the years since the films' release, and while it gets monotonous in succeeding entries, it works quite well in CALLING DR. DEATH. Since Mark must be sensitive to the problems of his patients (as demonstrated in the opening scene in which he uncovers the root of a girl's sudden inability to speak), it follows he's in tune with his own feelings as he tries to control his rage at Maria's repeated assaults on his masculinity. The audience, like Mark, begins to wonder if even a nice guy like Mark can commit murder, given sufficient provocation, and then erase the crime from his mind.

Edward Dein's screenplay exploits this ambiguity for all it's worth, upping the ante with Naish's persistent Inspector Gregg pushing Mark's buttons with actions bordering on harassment. Director Reginal LeBorg, who had recently been promoted to features from Universal's shorts department, worked in some nice visual touches to accent the hero's stress factor despite a short shooting schedule. One of the best is shot from Mark's viewpoint as he approaches the murder scene, his gaze (and the camera) falling on the faces of detectives, reporters and bystanders who regard him with contrasting expressions of suspicion, sympathy and dismissal.

Chaney's performances in the Inner Sanctums are often taken to task because it's believed he didn't possess the acting range to be a star player. True, his Count Dracula in SON OF DRACULA earlier in '43 sounded more midwestern America than Bela Lugosi's authentic Central European, but he gave it the old college try when he was offered something different. Chaney craved diversity after having tried his hand at Universal's great monsters, including the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy, and responded well to the conflicts faced by Mark in CALLING DR. DEATH. As scholar Alan Warren pointed out, the actor "seems at home in the role of Mark Steele, making the physician's anguish believable throughout." (From "Calling Dr. Death" in Gary J. and Susan Svehla, eds., MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS' SERIES: LON CHANEY JR., Baltimore, Md.: Midnight Marquee Press, 1997, p. 98).

For the next Inner Sanctum, WEIRD WOMAN, the stakes of psychological doubt and torment are raised considerably in a tale of rational scientific beliefs confronting ancient superstition and witchcraft. The opening establishes that newlyweds Norman (Chaney) and Paula Clayton Reed (Anne Gwynne) are at odds as she returns home one windswept night after a secret assignation. Her return is observed by her academic husband, a New England college professor who's made a name for himself with a book challenging belief in the supernatural, its thesis declaring that "(m)an's struggle upward from his dark past is the struggle of reason against superstition."

It develops that Paula, whom Norman met on a field expedition to a South Pacific island ruled by idol and spirit worship, clings to the beliefs of the people who raised her after her missionary parents died. Norman falls in love with Paula on the spot, marries her and brings her back to the campus where he's employed, only to face the wrath of his longtime lady friend, librarian Ilona Carr (Evelyn Ankers). In direct conflict with Norman's attitudes toward witchcraft, Paula practices the ancient arts she learned on the island to protect her spouse and promote his career. Ilona, still desiring Norman, recognizes Paula's simple beliefs and uses them against her in a campaign of terror to drive her and Norman apart.

Norman follows Paula on one of her midnight rambles to discover she's getting earth from the local cemetery, one of the ingredients for her spells. He forces Paula to abandon her practices. But with the protection gone, seemingly all hell breaks loose for Norman, culminating in a possible murder indictment when hysterical student David Jennings (Phil Brown), convinced Norman's making time with his girl (Lois Collier), pulls a gun on the hotheaded professor. In the struggle that follows between the two, David is fatally wounded. Ilona, making use of the boy's jealousy, has been responsible for planting suspicions about Norman.

The mental conflicts affecting the Reeds' marriage have been the story's focus up to this point. When Norman correctly deduces that Ilona is the source of all the mayhem, he and Paula exploit Ilona's own fears by convincing her that death will soon claim her, despite it flying in the face of Norman's disbelief in voodoo-like tactics. Trying to escape as the deadline nears, Ilona accidentally kills herself, but not before admitting her guilt to all concerned. In this final series of events, dread and psychological terror are shifted onto Ilona for a satisfying wrap-up, although we're still not sure, even as the film closes happily, if Paula has come over to Norman's side in the battle of science vs. superstition.

This more unusual storyline was adapted by veteran scenarist W. Scott Darling (who had scripted Chaney's GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1942) from the story "Conjure Wife" by Fritz Leiber Jr., published in the April 1943 edition of Street & Smith's science fiction-fantasy magazine UNKNOWN WORLDS. (Leiber's Shakesperian actor father, Fritz Sr., had portrayed Franz Liszt in Universal's remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, also in '43). The conflicts of the Leiber story were a matter of course for readers of UNKNOWN WORLDS, but were definitely different for the Inner Sanctum audience, even in the simplified script Brenda Wisberg spun out of Darling's adaptation.

WEIRD WOMAN provides Norman and his wife each with a crisis of faith in their respective beliefs, although it's Norman who internalizes his fears through the whispered voiceover soliloquies. The plot introduces another couple, Reed's colleague Millard Sawtelle (Ralph Morgan) and his neurotic wife Evelyn (Elizabeth Russell), who unlike her unambitious husband, seethes with envy at Norman's success. Crafty Ilona uses their dysfunctions to further her grudge against the Reeds. In a larger sense, WEIRD WOMAN presents a unique portrait of repressed emotions ready to burst in the somewhat suffocating world of a small college community, with the unstable David's display of violence toward Norman a shocking if not unexpected demonstration of the need for release. (In a moment of anger, Norman even refers to David as a "young psychopath").

Chaney's Norman is less sympathetic than his Mark Steele of CALLING DR. DEATH, coming across as more bull-headed than reasonable in his opposition to ancient practices, seen when he thoughtlessly breaks a taboo during a native ceremony in the island flashback sequence and then causes an islander's death. Chaney was nobody's idea of an intellectual, but he was unable to overrule his character's lack of sensitivity to cultures that don't fit in with his view of the world, and a proclivity for roughing up everyone who irks him.

Yet, as Thomas Reeder aptly advised viewers about Chaney (in STOP YELLIN': BEN PIVAR AND THE HORROR, MYSTERY AND ACTION-ADVENTURE FILMS OF HIS UNIVERSAL B UNIT, Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2011, pp. 291-292): "Fortunately, he's a likeable lug, so make do with the recurrent moments of awkwardness and accept him as the lead, warts and all."

Gwynne makes us appreciate Paula's apprehension at being a campus wife, something alien from her previous experience, while Ankers excels at playing an agitator, making a convincing switch to panic as fear of the unknown closes in on her.

Reginald LeBorg repeated as the director, bringing a tense atmosphere to the proceedings. The opening scene, as Paula returns home from one of her nightly rounds, supplies a nicely autumnal feel and puts us in the right mood for the upcoming developments.

Leiber, who became one of America's leading literary fantasists, eventually expanded "Conjure Wife" into a novel of the same title, first published in 1953. It would be twice more turned into a feature film, as the British-made BURN, WITCH, BURN! (1962) starring Janet Blair and Peter Wyngarde, and as WITCHES' BREW (1980) with Teri Garr and Richard Benjamin.

The next Inner Sanctum with an emphasis on the mind driving a reasonable individual to violence was actually the next-to-last in the string, STRANGE CONFESSION (1945). Chaney was provided with a congenial role here as chemical researcher Jeff Carter, who appears one night at the doorstep of an attorney (Wilton Graff). Bloodied, disheveled and lugging a traveling bag containing a gruesome piece of evidence from the fight he's just been in, Carter begs the legal eagle to hear his story.

Years before, Jeff was employed by greedy, unscrupulous pharmaceutical manufacturer Roger Graham (J. Carrol Naish), who's exploited Jeff's discoveries, taken the credit and made millions while keeping Jeff humble and underpaid. Jeff puts up with this mistreatment because he loves his work, while restless wife Mary (Brenda Joyce) pushes Jeff to stand up for himself. When he does, Graham hands Jeff his walking papers, and Jeff is forced to fill prescriptions to support Mary and their son.

When the oily Graham asks Jeff to return to his employment, he refuses, but relents when Mary convinces him that Graham needs Jeff to maintain his success in the field. Charged with developing a new medicine for common complaints, Jeff is sent to South America to research the effect of a certain plant as an ingredient. Graham, who's taken a fancy to Mary, begins courting her in Jeff's absence. An epidemic prompts Graham to push the new product on the market while Jeff is still testing its safety.

Learning this, Jeff returns home to discover the imperfect medicine has been used on his boy -- with fatal results. Finding Mary with Graham, Jeff cracks, and in a struggle, uses a machete to decapitate Graham, whose head Jeff stuffs into the bag. The story ends with the attorney agreeing to help Jeff as the authorities take him away.

STRANGE CONFESSION is another unusual entry in the series, not a murder mystery as are the bulk of the Inner Sanctums, but a drama of accumulated tragedies sending a normal, hard-working family man over the edge. Poverty, lack of recognition and marital discord combine to push Jeff into a confrontation with the relentlessly slimy Graham, who even after firing Jeff keeps him under his thumb by blackballing his former employee to rival companies. Loss, betrayal and the corruption of his work drive an eminently decent man to an uncharacteristic slaying.

M. Coates Webster's screenplay is based on Jean Bart's 1932 play THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD, which after a short-lived Broadway run was optioned by Universal. The 1935 film version cast Claude Rains, who had headlined the stage version, as a poor idealist exploited by a seemingly peace-loving publisher (Lionel Atwill) who in reality plans to profit from the conflict that becomes World War I. Atwill's actions prompt him to lose his head when the driven-to-distraction Rains gets wise to his perfidy. Legal issues raised by Bart's estate led to STRANGE CONFESSION being withheld for decades until a resolution was reached, allowing it to be included in the DVD collection of all Inner Sanctums issued by Universal-MCA in 2006.

Scholars who discovered STRANGE CONFESSION following its long absence were taken by Chaney's performance, which stressed his likeable side; Jeff Carter is an agreeable sort, the kind of guy you'd want for a neighbor, and his descent into a homicidal rage is convincing and unsettling. It was a good role for Chaney (1906-1973), who was pushed into supporting roles by the studio when not otherwise occupied, and he rose to the occasion to offer a thoughtful performance. More roles like Jeff Carter might have kept the actor happier, and not long after completing this and a few other unsatisfactory assignments, he and Universal, which had put him under contract in 1940, parted company. Additionally, STRANGE CONFESSION benefits from John Hoffman's direction and the work of the cast. Incidentally, the interior monologues found in the previous Inner Sanctums are missing from STRANGE CONFESSION.

Psychological content takes a back seat in the other three Inner Sanctums, which were closer to formula if just as entertaining. DEAD MAN'S EYES (1944), which followed WEIRD WOMAN into theaters, is a straight whodunit about a blinded artist (Chaney) accused of killing the man (Edward Fielding) who pledged his eyes to restore the artist's sight upon his death. Reginald LeBorg's last Inner Sanctum, DEAD MAN'S EYES flows quickly and is the most well-cast number in the series, with Jean Parker, Paul Kelly, Thomas Gomez and George Meeker all contributing outstanding work.

THE FROZEN GHOST (1945), directed by Harold Young, is closer in spirit to Universal's horror one-offs, an enjoyably hokey yarn that casts Chaney as Gregor the Great, a a stage and radio hypnotist who goes into shock when a drunken heckler (Arthur Hohl) who's agreed to be a subject of his dies after being put under. Cleared of any blame, Gregor then retreats to, of all places, a wax museum operated by an old friend (Tala Birell) to regain his composure, only to incur the jealousy of the creepy resident sculptor (Martin Kosleck). Although Gregor occasionally doubts his sanity and powers in the course of the show's catalogue of betrayal and accidental death, there's little doubt he's basically okay.

The final Inner Sanctum, PILLOW OF DEATH, is likewise more of a ghost story than a tale of psychological conflict. Released as a Christmas 1945 double feature attraction with Chaney's HOUSE OF DRACULA, PILLOW OF DEATH confines itself under the direction of Wallace Fox to the seemingly supernatural doings in an old family mansion. Chaney is the husband of a murdered woman trying to evade any guilt in the matter and other deaths that follow. As a sign of Universal's declining interest in the series, both the head-in-the crystal ball introduction and voiceover comments were dropped for this movie.

It is universally agreed that the Inner Sanctum series could have been much more with an infusion of time and money, but such was not to be and we are left with six highly variable movies, three of them different enough to merit attention. The Inner Sanctums could have risen to the level of the Lewton productions that mined suspense and horror from the viewer's imagination, but such an approach, which Universal was capable of producing with its A-list directors, didn't fit in with the studio's second features. And those second features kept the studio afloat when the A productions did not. The Brunases and Weaver, in UNIVERSAL HORRORS, noted that Reginald LeBorg's lone attempt at crafting a Lewton-type thriller on a budget, 1944's JUNGLE WOMAN (the second of the three-film Paula the Ape Woman series), fell flat on its face doing so.

As the movie series expired, the Inner Sanctum radio show continued until 1952. Two years later, Himan Brown adapted the concept to a television series filmed in New York and syndicated by NBC, lasting a single season, with barely a handful of episodes available today on DVD. Brown brought INNER SANCTUM's spirit back to life with his popular CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER from 1974 until 1982, with host E.G. Marshall keeping alive the tongue-in-cheek tradition of wishing all to have "pleasant dreams" until next week.

And Hollywood wasn't done with the idea yet, for in 1948 Film Classics released an independently-made feature version of the show, INNER SANCTUM, dealing with a killer (Charles Russell) trapped in a flood-stricken town and trying to bump off the youth (Dale Belding) he believes witnessed the slaying. Lew Landers directed the yarn, told in flashback by a mysterious stranger on a train played by the senior Fritz Leiber, whose son authored the original story adapted for WEIRD WOMAN.

Universal's Inner Sanctum series may have been hastily planned and produced, the psychological thriller elements that distinguished its better entries tossed around almost carelessly, but it remains one of the more durable set of films from that period, thanks to TV showings and love of all things Universal by fans of the studio's classic period.

And when you come right down to it, they're quite a bit of fun, too.

Pleasant dreams, all.


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