After several delays, Mill Creek Entertainment is finally releasing the highly anticipated Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection on Blu-ray today. A set of six movies (all starring Lon Chaney, Jr.) based on a popular radio show from the ’40s and ’50s, the Inner Sanctum Mysteries were a pseudo-Twilight Zone like series before that even existed. Each movie is just barely over 60 minutes long, introduced by a head in a glass ball (except for the last film in the series), and deals with murder. While some would call these films horror, I consider them to be straight up murder mysteries (with the exception of the fifth film, which is more of a general drama).
Mill Creek is usually more of a value-oriented Blu-ray publisher but they’ve been dipping their toes into more specialty and semi-boutique offerings over the last year or so. Between Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection and fellow November 2020 release Hammer Films: The Ultimate Collection (our review of that title should be posted later this week or early next week), it feels like Mill Creek is stepping up their game when it comes to extras and giving historical film nerds what they want. While I wasn’t a huge fan of any of the films included in this collection (they’re a bit too slow and old-fashioned for my taste), this is a pretty good release from Mill Creek if you are a fan of the series due to some surprisingly decent extras.
Calling Dr. Death (1943)
The first film in this series was Calling Dr. Death, where Lon Chaney plays a neurologist by the name of Dr. Mark Steele. As typical for Inner Sanctum Mysteries films we hear Mark’s inner dialogue about how much he hates his wife (to be fair, she’s quite the greedy, selfish woman). We can also tell that he has an interest in his nurse and confidant Stella. After a strange dream and suddenly waking up at work early on Monday without remembering anything that happened over the weekend, a pair of detectives show up at Mark’s practice with the news that his wife had been killed sometime over the weekend. Many clues point to Mark as the murderer but as he can’t remember any details from the past few days, he can’t be sure. Another man (her secret lover) is arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to death putting pressure on Mark to figure out whether or not he was responsible for his wife’s death (or if somebody else may be behind the killing).
Unfortunately I don’t really have a lot to say about Calling Dr. Death. Outside of not being particularly unique (though I’m assuming it was probably much fresher when it came out than it is now) and maybe being a bit slow at times, there’s nothing incredibly wrong with it. It’s just a mediocre “I may or may not have killed my wife” mystery. If Calling Dr. Death were any longer than its super short 62 minute runtime, it likely would have become boring very quickly but it has just enough plot and drama to hold your interest for an hour. Lon Chaney and Patricia Morison are good in their roles and J. Carrol Naish is great as the case detective (in a you’ll love to hate him kind of way). The problem is that it is very clear that this was made on a shoestring budget (other than Chaney’s salary of course), composing of just a few scenes (mostly the detective badgering Mark to confess) padded out to create a longer runtime. Is Calling Dr. Death, watchable? Certainly. In 2020, are there better versions of this story that are more deserving of your time? Of course. That sounds like a 3/5 to me.
Weird Woman (1944)
While none of these films really go into horror or supernatural territory (like a lot of the episodes of the radio show version did), Weird Woman probably comes the closest. Archaeologist Norman Reed (Chaney) meets his future wife Paula in the South Seas. In his excitement to meet her, he also supposedly curses himself by stepping over a line that wasn’t meant to be crossed at the natives’ ceremony they were both attending. Due to this, once they return to the states Paula is overly concerned about her husband and becomes incredibly superstitious. Meanwhile, Norman doesn’t believe in superstition and in fact was researching his now published book “Superstition vs. Reason and Fact” while he was in the South Seas. Norman’s return with a wife in tow is a surprise at his university and his old flame Ilona isn’t over him yet and will do anything to get him back.
While it isn’t my favorite film in this series, Weird Woman does at least appear to have been given a slightly bigger budget as there are at least scenes that don’t take place inside offices or residencies (the ritual/ceremony in the “South Seas” in particular). There’s also a bit more riffing material to add some comedy to the proceedings including some great old-school insults as well as Norman’s brief “super enthusiastic” workout that got a chuckle out of me due to his faces he makes. I also kind of liked the ending for once, especially the “countdown” (which I can’t really talk about any more than that without spoiling things). The only problem is that Weird Woman still has far too many slow points (even at just 63 minutes long) and doesn’t feel like it has enough meat on its bones story-wise. Like Calling Dr. Death, there’s a lot of padding here. The story would have worked great as part of an anthology TV series (and a 30-40 minute runtime), but even as a shorter film, it doesn’t work quite as well. Weird Woman is slightly better than Calling Dr. Death but still worthy of the same 3/5.
Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)
In the third film of the series, Dead Man’s Eyes, Lon Chaney plays a painter (Dave) who loses his eyesight when his model (Tanya) accidentally switches the location of his eyewash bottle in his medicine cabinet with his bottle of acetic acid (it seems like an incredibly stupid idea to pour something on your eyes without checking what it is but who am I to judge). Dave is engaged to marry his fiancee Heather but it’s also clear that Tanya has an interest in him. Once his eyesight (and thus his career) is ruined, Dave breaks things off with Heather. He also learns about the potential for a corneal transplant if someone is willing to give up their eye. Luckily, his potential father-in-law is willing to give his up upon his death. You can probably guess the rest after that.
Of the first three films in this series, I would say Dead Man’s Eyes has the best mystery as it actually has multiple different potential suspects that make a lot of sense. I did correctly predict the murderer quite easily but at least there’s more thought put into the mystery element of this film. The only problem is that the movie fails in other ways. In particular, I found the romantic triangle (or whatever shape you would consider this) to be quite boring to watch. I also found Tanya’s actress (Acquanetta) to be a bit of a weak link, if not a downright liability. She was clearly cast for her looks, not her acting talent. All three of the films so far are pretty tight quality-wise but Dead Man’s Eyes could have been the best if it focused more on the mystery rather than the romantic triangle. Due to this, I would probably slot it just barely above Calling Dr. Death and a bit below Weird Woman. 3/5
The Frozen Ghost (1945)
While also not technically a horror film, The Frozen Ghost does mostly take place in a somewhat creepy wax museum making it at least horror-adjacent. In Lon Chaney’s attempt to collect every possible profession in these films, he is a mentalist named Alex who can supposedly give anyone the ability of telepathy if he puts them in a trance. This goes wrong at one of his shows when he attempts to give one of his hecklers the ability but he winds up dead instead. While this death is due to natural causes (the guy was a drunk), Alex can’t shake the feeling that he “willed” him to death for belittling his talents and show. He gives up his routine as “Gregor the Great,” ends things with his fiancee (as is per tradition with this Inner Sanctum Mysteries series), and takes a job at his female friend’s wax museum. Like many of the films in this series, someone eventually turns up dead and a romantic shape of some sort ensues.
The main thing going for The Frozen Ghost is its location. The wax museum is by far the most interesting set in this series of films and considering we spend probably about 80-90% of our time there, it’s good that it’s at least a fun location. Otherwise though, I have next to nothing to talk about for this film. It’s the weakest of the first four films and just barely avoided the first 2.5/5 of the series (it did just squeak out a 3/5 though).
Strange Confession (1945)
My personal favorite of the six films in this collection is Strange Confession, a story told almost exclusively through flashback. In this film, Lon Chaney plays a chemist (Jeff Carter) who doesn’t care about becoming rich or famous, he just wants to help the suffering humanity. Because of this, he lets his boss run all over him and more or less lives in poverty. His latest drug development (Zymurgine) is looking promising but due to some problems in testing, Jeff doesn’t want it released to the public yet for safety reasons. His boss isn’t willing to sacrifice the potential sales and releases it without his blessing or knowledge (as he has sent Jeff off to South America to study a plant that may make the medicine better).
All of the first four films had serious problems even filling out a 60-70 minute runtime, Strange Confession is the first one to have no real issues in this area as for once there is more than enough plot here. Honestly, it maybe even could have been longer (especially considering this one is even briefer than usual at just 61 minutes long). J. Carrol Naish returns and plays the really great villainous boss role. The best thing about Strange Confession is how different it is from the rest of the films in this series. It’s part Christmas movie, part evil businessman versus good-natured employee who made him his fortune story, and thankfully there isn’t much of a boring love triangle for once (there technically is one but it’s a very minor element to the story). The only problem with Strange Confession is that it really isn’t much of a mystery. As I wrote earlier, this story is told almost completely via flashback and there isn’t even a murder for most of the movie. Most viewers will likely know exactly where this story is going and how its going to end but thankfully, the execution is good enough to make up for it. While I am still giving Strange Confession the same 3/5 that the first four films in this set earned, this one is very close to a 3.5/5 rather than just squeaking out a 3/5 like the others.
Pillow of Death (1945)
Unfortunately the follow-up to the best movie in this series is by far the worst entry in the franchise. The Inner Sanctum Mysteries goes out with a whimper rather than a bang with Pillow of Death, a dreadfully boring mystery which stars Chaney as an attorney (Wayne Fletcher) having an affair with his secretary. When Wayne’s wife is found dead, he becomes the main suspect and is arrested for her murder. As Wayne’s wife had recently become fascinated by seances, death (including suicide), and life after death, the members of her family (including Wayne as well as medium Julian Julian) attempt a seance to figure out who the killer is.
This is the longest entry in the series (at a whole 66 minute runtime) but also probably has the least amount of plot to it. Pillow of Death is sluggish in nearly every way and the mystery just didn’t really interest me in any way, shape, or form. I don’t have much to write about it, mostly because it was so boring I could barely pay attention to it (and almost fell asleep at one point). Definitely the worst of the six films and only worthy of a below average 2/5.
Bonus Features and Video Quality
While Mill Creek usually doesn’t put too much effort into making or acquiring bonus features for their releases, Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection actually contains a bevy of extras, including:
- Booklet-A 24-page booklet featuring information about the films in this series, the bonus features, Lon Chaney, and trivia about the series. Similar to the booklets included in Mill Creek’s Ultraman series releases.
- Commentaries for Calling Dr. Death, Weird Woman, and Strange Confession-While I didn’t care enough about any of these films to listen to these commentaries (and I’m not really a commentary guy to begin with), I know there are plenty of people who appreciate them.
- The Creaking Door: Entering the Inner Sanctum (17:37)-Radio historian Martin Grams Jr. talks about the history of the radio show that inspired these films, even if for legal purposes it really didn’t. The series was technically more based on the books than the radio show because the producers only bought the rights to the name and they did their own stories, not adaptations of radio show episodes. While I’m not a huge fan of bonus features, I am definitely interested in entertainment history and this featurette was surprisingly informative.
- This is the Inner Sanctum: Making a Universal Mystery Series (31:47, not 55 minutes as the booklet says)-The “big” bonus feature of the bunch, “This is the Inner Sanctum” was filmed in black and white and features several different film historians talking about the production of the series and the hallmarks that made it what it is. Due to it being longer than “The Creaking Door: Entering the Inner Sanctum,” I wasn’t quite as entertained by this one but it certainly had enough interesting tidbits to make it worth watching for all fans of this film series.
- Mind Over Matter: An Archival Interview with Actor Martin Kosleck (11:00, not 20 minutes as the booklet says)-To be honest, this interview doesn’t really feel like it belongs here as Kosleck was only in one of the films in this series (The Frozen Ghost) and it’s barely mentioned here. This feels more like a throw-in to pad out the extras a bit.
- Poster Gallery
The booklet also includes instructions that will give you access to two bonus films on Mill Creek’s movieSPREE streaming service. Those two films are Lady of Burlesque (which has no real connection to this series) and Inner Sanctum (which was based on the radio series as well but put out a few years after this movie series had ended and doesn’t star Lon Chaney). You will also get access to three episodes of the radio series (The Tell-Tale Heart starring Boris Karloff, The Black Sea Gull featuring Peter Lorre, and Melody of Death with Mary Astor).
I’m not exactly the most knowledgeable person when it comes to video quality, especially in terms of older films and what they should look like on Blu-ray if a release is done properly. I don’t have the best eye for video quality to begin with and all of these films being in black and white certainly doesn’t help anything. I’m guessing this is a pretty significant upgrade from the DVD release as the picture quality is pretty clear. However, I wouldn’t exactly say these are amazing looking movies on Blu-ray as it is very hard for black and white films to stand out on the format (and these were low-budget B-movies to begin with). Again, I’m not really an expert on what to look for in this area (I don’t know the technical details or anything like that) but I would guess this release is a solid upgrade over the DVDs but not really something that you absolutely need to promote to Blu-ray in your media collection unless you are a huge fan of the films.
While I certainly appreciate film history, I will fully admit to enjoying modern movies much more than older films. I have enjoyed classics like Nosferatu, Psycho, and Frankenstein but the slower pace and older style of filmmaking of movies that are 40+ years older than me will generally lead to lower ratings than their more modern counterparts. Basically, the absolute classics are still classics (or at the very least worth watching for historical purposes) but the films that were simply good to very good have mostly been done better by similar modern movies. The films in this collection may have been good for their time (even though they were produced as B-movies), but at this point in time they are simply okay. I wanted to check these movies out because I thought they would be cheesier and more fun to riff on. Unfortunately, none of these are really that kind of film so I was stuck with mediocre mysteries, romance, and plots that can barely sustain an hour of content. Outside of Pillow of Death none of these movies are downright bad, but I wouldn’t exactly say any of them are good either (the other five are all very mediocre).
Release wise though, Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection is actually a pretty good product if you already know you are a fan of the movies. While the upgrade in video quality is just decent (mostly due to the films all being in black and white), this is sort of a boutique-lite release from Mill Creek with some actually good bonus features. I’m not the biggest fan of extras myself but even I found some of the ones on this release to be interesting. Overall, five of the six films in this set are okay but none are really essential viewing in any way, shape, or form (and the last one is just dreadfully boring). The Blu-ray release as a whole though is pretty good, likely worthy of a recommendation if you are a fan of these movies unless you don’t care that much for extras or a moderate video quality upgrade.
Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection was released on Blu-ray on November 17, 2020.
Buy Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection on Amazon: Blu-ray
We would like to thank Mill Creek Entertainment for the review copy of Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Film Collection used for this review. Other than receiving the review copy we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation. Receiving the review copy had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.