This is the movie where Rondo Hatton’s (The Spider Woman Strikes Back) shambling frame comes to the fore and I personally think that it works in this instance. There are some critics that felt at the time and retrospectively feel otherwise, and that the giant killer concept is awkward and laughable.
For me, there is a similarity to Of Mice And Men with the Lenny and and George characters, two misfits in society, outcasts if you will. The Lenny character in this case aligned with Hatton’s character, The Creeper, instead of a good heart, misguided by those around him, he’s a malicious cold blooded killer seeking to please he’s supposed friend, Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck – The Mummy’s Curse, The Frozen Ghost).
Marcel is an art sculptor and the subject of ridicule among his community. Tired of being savaged by critics, he seeks his vengeance and just when all seems lost he has a chance encounter and saves The Creeper from drowning.
Now Marcel has a human killing machine at his beckoning call, to carry out his demands on those who’ve wronged him.
The only person who could potentially stand in his way is a female reporter, Joan (Virginia Grey) who Marcel is also infatuated with.
But will love or vengeance lead to ruin for the scared artist?
Once again, Universal were trying to champion a new horror series in The Creeper, but after receiving fairly low reviews, unlike it’s antagonist failed to unleash the horror into the world and the third strike out would leave them stumbling towards the end of the decade.
Unfortunately for the sixth and final instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mystery feature films produced by Universal Pictures starring Lon Chaney Jr. I found that the delivery was incredibly formulaic and as such all I wanted to do was reach for the snooze button. Upon reflection, my opinion may have been marred from watching each instalment within close succession and it may have warranted a little bit of space between each viewing to allow each film to strike up its own identity. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the one strength that Pillow of Death has over its predecessors is the twist finale, going against the grain of our expectations.
This time around Chaney Jr. stars as an attorney, Wayne Fletcher, whose heart belongs to his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce – Strange Confession), who also happens to be from a fairly wealthy family.. Bound by wedlock, Fletcher is in the midst of filing for a divorce so that he can be with Donna when his wife is found murdered, suffocated by the titular weapon of choice. This makes Fletcher prime suspect number one and must now fight to prove his innocence.
The one person standing in Fletcher’s way is a fraudulent medium, Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg) a man who despite his charlatan ways is intent on pointing the finger at Fletcher for his wife’s murder. What makes the task for both parties is the rise in the body count whilst staying at the family mansion one evening.
The film takes on a slightly lighter tone in comparison to the other Inner Sanctum Mysteries, much like other Universal outings such as The Mystery of Marie Roget. One can almost sense the doors opening for Abbott and Costello to march into the mansion and infuse it with satire at any given moment. That direction was not long off for Universal and the tide is certainly changing away from that darker edge that they had been synonymous for over the past decade and a half. It’s a shame as I feel that if they were willing to push the boundaries of dread, their films would have marked an altogether different experience and been much more rewarding, but they were hindered by their times and one must remember that world was going through its own dark times, carrying the burden of a Global war on its back. The stark reality is that people were needing an escape from the world and a need for humour to step in and poke fun at the grim and dire circumstances that humanity had to endure. For Universal, Abbott and Costello would provide that alternate formula… but that’s for another retrospective.
By the time Universal were producing their fifth instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr., the fizzle had run out in this writers’ mind.
Strange Confession sees Chaney Jr. as chemist Jeff Carter, who has been running tests to find a cure for influenza.
One could argue that this film could be viewed with the lens of all the horrors that Capitalism can arise. Carter works for an egocentric tycoon, Roger Graham (J. Carroll Naish) who is always eager to gain a profit by any means even if that means cutting corners. When Carter grows wise to Graham’s ways he initially resigns, and works at a local store. Once married to Mary (Brenda Joyce) and raising a son, their fiances take a strain and Carter finds that he has no choice but to work once more for Graham. It is here that he potentially finds the influenza cure and is encouraged by Graham to go to South America to perfect his findings. Unbeknownst to Carter however, Graham has eyes on rolling out the formula despite not having a 100 percent success rate, and also to prize Mary away from Carter while he is away.
Tragedy inevitably strikes when Carter’s son is fatally struck down by the killer virus. Once Carter learns of this, he only has vengeance on his mind.
It takes the final reel before this film hits home and true, but the lead up to its conclusion is slow and cumbersome. Stand out performance goes to Lloyd Bridges as the bright and cheery friend to Carter, Dave Curtis, and potentially the only real spark in the film.
When I came to casting a retrospective of the Universal Inner Sanctum Mystery movies, I decided to watch them all fairly close together. As such, due to the similarity in style and substance, combined with the fact that Lon Chaney Jr. starred in all sic of the, a blurring of the narratives came about.
In the case of The Frozen Ghost, I found that I struggled to bring to mind what actually occurred without looking it back up again. This is surely an indicator that the movie had little or no impact on me, which says a lot about my connection to the movie.
When I did research back into it again, the visuals soon sprang to mind and I was left pondering about why it didn’t resonate so well.
My resolution comes down to that the film was just a bit messy in its delivery.
The tale presents Chaney Jr as mentalist Alex Gregor, who is provoked by an intoxicated non-believer in his audience that he is a fake, so out of anger, hypnotizes the individual spurring a heart attack that leads to the man’s untimely death.
Gregor is now consumed with grief and then turns within himself, ending his relationship with assistant Maura (Evelyn Ankers in a subdued performance, albeit still a strong one) and runs away to work as a lecturer for an old friend, Mme Valerie Monet (Tala Birell).
Trouble creeps up once more however when Valerie also turns up dead and Gregor becomes prime suspect number one.
The continuing theme involved with the Inner Sanctum Mysteries centres around mystery, intrigue and in the case of the movies, a wronged man troubled with murder most foul.
The Frozen Ghost has to shift and change on numerous occasions to accommodate the plight of its lead protagonist, who tries to figure out if he truly is responsible for the death of these individuals through the use of paranormal abilities.
The road isn’t a straight one to the conclusion and the perpetrators are all too obvious, so the attempt at clever deception is lost much to the detriment of the film.
The performances are still strong regardless, but unfortunately the executions is just too weak.
By the time Universal delivered their third Inner Sanctum feature starring Lon Chaney Jr., it felt like the production house had hit their stride. I for one, really enjoyed this entry and felt that Chaney Jr. was comfortable wearing the shoes of the troubled lead, artist David Stuart and really amplifies the plight of his character to the benefit of the viewer.
All appears to be well for Stuart, who is settled down with his fiance, Heather (Jean Parker) and is marrying into a fairly wealthy estate. Tragedy strikes however when Stuart is blinded by his assistant, Tanya (Acquanetta – Captive Wild Woman) in a fit of jealousy. Believing his career as an artist to be over, Stuart is offered some salvation when his father-in-law, Capt. Drury agrees to donate his eyes in the vent of his death. Fate takes a wicked turn once more though when Drury is murdered and Stuart becomes the prime suspect as he benefits from the victims eyes.
There are a number of twists and turns to this short running time which makes the film standout and is fuelled by a love quadrangle in Stuart, Heather, Tanya, and Stuart’s best friend Dr. Alan Bittaker (Paul Kelly), all of whom provide strong performances and add to the intrigue and mystery of the tale, keeping you guessing as to who the killer was until the final reel.
For their second outing under the Inner Sanctum Mysteries umbrella, Universal would turn their attention to a novel by Fritz Leiber called Conjure Wife. The novel has since been adapted a further couple of times with Night of the Eagle (1962) an Witches Brew (1980) and tells the tale of Professor Norman Reed (Chaney Jr. once again taking lead duties) who falls in love and marries with a woman, Paula (Anne Gwynne) who he meets while abroad. When they return to the Professor’s hometown, the couple receive a somewhat frosty response from the community, especially as Paula associates herself with the tribal beliefs and voodoo associations that she had been accustomed to during her time on the islands of the South Seas.
These negative views turn sinister once stage things begin to occur, including the death of one of Professor Reed’s colleagues.
All eyes are on Paula, the outsider, but is she really to blame or is there something else kicking the hornet’s nest?
Weird Woman doesn’t necessarily strike as strongly as the previous Inner Sanctum feature, Calling Dr. Death, playing a fairly simple plotline with some questionable choices under today’s standards, but the highlight for me was Evelyn Ankers who was often paired with Chaney Jr. in Universal films around this time including The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein. Here she plays the jealous Ilona, infatuated with Professor Reed and longs to be by his side. Ankers taps into this character drive with such conviction that it elevates her amongst her costars and provides an enjoyable watch to a fairly mediocre movie.
Launching off the success of the popular radio series, Universal scored the rights to produce a series of films based on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, an anthology of mystery, terror, and suspense. Initially, the film series had been intended as a joint venture for stable actors Lon Chaney Jr., and Gale Sondergaard to be cast in the lead roles, but for reasons unknown to this writer, the latter didn’t end up being involved. For Chaney Jr however, he felt that this would be the perfect vehicle to break his horror monster mould that he had been typecast in of late.
The first in the film series, Calling Dr. Death casts Chaney Jr. as a neurologist, Dr Steele, who is also a dab hand at hypnosis. Unfortunately he is caught in a bitter marriage, where his wife, Maria (Ramsay Ames) displays no feelings towards him and clearly is only invested in his money and the status that comes with it.
So, when Maria turns up dead, Steele becomes the prime suspect, clouded all the more by his sudden amnesia with a lack of recollection for the last few days.
Steele decides to call upon his assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison) to put him under hypnosis and uncover the truth before Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) pins the murder on him.
Could it be Maria’s lover Robert (David Bruce), Robert’s jealous wife (Fay Helm) or is he really responsible for wrongdoing?
Calling Dr. Death uses a fairly standard voiceover device, (apparently on the insistence of Chaney Jr. and used throughout the series, which sometimes works but often grates) to gain the insights of Dr. Steele. There is enough of a plot here to intrigue the viewer, with plenty of suspects to fuel the mystery and keep you guessing, marking the movie as a strong entry into the series and worth checking out to see Chaney Jr without getting his wolf on.
Originally billed as a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, The Climax changed its course partly due to the unavailability of Claude Rains’ availability to reprise the role of the phantom. Instead some reworking in the script department led to some significant changes and bringing in Boris Karloff for his first feature released in colour. Karloff would play the role of demented physician, Dr. Hohner, driven by jealousy and the need to dominate his fiance, a prima donna at an established Vienna Royal Theatre, and murders her in his obsession. Interestingly, Universal would resurplus some of the magnificent set that was used in their 1925 adaptation of Gaston LeRoux’s gothic novel and Susannah Foster who brought Christina Dubois to the silver screen in TPOTO (1943), would return albeit as a young operatic singer on the rise, Angela Klatt
Klatt bears a striking similarity to Hohner’s fiance, who has been missing some 10 years now, hence why Hohner has been able to avoid justice. With Klatt’s appearance though, it triggers the inner demon and conflict in Hohner’s mind and he seems hellbent on once more, keeping the diva for himself.
The film plays a familiar tune to previous Universal features and as such struggles to offer anything new in the horror scene. It is bolded by the presence of Karloff, Foster and Turhan Bey (The Mad Ghoul) as the romantic lead, Franz Munzer, but it’s Gale Sondergaard (The Cat and the Canary) as the dutiful Luise, poised to make Hohner pay for his past deeds that really shines through.
A solid enough entry to the Universal Horror movies, but not nearly worthy of its predecessors.
Presented with his first top billing for Universal, Turhan Bey (The Mummy’s Tomb) has been slowly rising through the ranks to be given this recognition. Much like his co-star Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man) who gets her time to shine in the spotlight.
The Mad Ghoul centres on an Ancient Mayan life-preserving technique that resurrects creatures after they have shuffled off this mortal coil. Attempting to play out this diabolical task is a mad scientist, (naturally) Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucci – The Mummy’s Hand) who sets about to prove it possible using a human subject. Morris enlists the help of his student, Ted (David Bruce) to carry out his experiments. Ted however is too infatuated with Isabel (Ankers), but his love is not reciprocated, and when Morris too succumbs to Isabel’s charms, he decides to eradicate his opposition by performing his scientific query on Ted, and succeeds in doing so. The catch is that, in order to stay alive, Ted must continually replace his heart with that of the recently deceased. So throughout the film, Morris leads Ted in a ghoulish state to cemeteries in order to dig up the dead and steal their myocardium. There is great humour to be found here as both gentlemen mooch around attaining hearts so that they can eventually win the heart of Isabel.
Isabel, though, has her eyes for only one man, Eric Iverseon (Bey) and as such, Eric becomes the target for destruction.
Morris’ grip on the situation begins to dwindle, trying to keep Ted as his ghoulish puppet, to carry out his dastardly deeds, but his pursuits eventually come untangled as his command loses its strength and Ted develops a will of his own.
For a film that uses some of Universal’s former motifs, The Mad Ghoul does enough to cobble a story together that connects with the audience and whilst it doesn’t stand up to some of the stronger titles that have come before it, entertains nonetheless and proves to be a solid enough encounter.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year is Universal’s second Monster mash up, House of Dracula, and being one of the last movies to feature these iconic creatures also indicated that the times were changing and a new shift in horror was about to occur.
Treated as a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein, this feature would once again Count Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and a mad scientist together.
This time though, it is the Count (once again played by John Carradine) that seeks a cure for his vampirism. Although there are questions around the legitimacy of his intentions as he seems to still go about his day (or should I say night?) without a care. This in complete contrast to the doomed and tragic figure, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr reprising his role once more). Dracula approaches Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) to aid him in his quest for a cure, who believes he can do so using a mysterious plant that can reshape bone. It is Dr. Edelman’s belief that using a series of blood transfusions, he can assist Dracula.
It is at this point that Larry Talbot enters the scene, also hoping that the Doctor can help him. Dr. Edelmann however is too consumed with the Count and so Talbot gets himself incarcerated by the police for fear that he will turn into a wolf and kill again. Whilst imprisoned, Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill in one of his last film roles) and Dr. Edelmann witnesses the transformation, with the latter now convinced, and promises he will try to find a cure.
Larry Talbot continues to be one of the most fascinating characters in the Universal Monster franchise, with his inner conflict and turmoil, the characteristics that Chaney Jr played so well. Here Talbot is driven to suicide, throwing himself off the cliff into the waters below, only to survive the ordeal. Dr. Edelmann finds Talbot in the caves beneath the castle and in doing so stumbles across Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) still clutching the skeletal remains of Dr. Neimann from the previous movie. Edelmann takes the monster back to his castle but swears not to revive him for fear that it will only cause ruin.
Through all these distractions, the Count has been using his charms on the Doctor’s assistant Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) but is prevented by the good old cross. The Doctor’s other assistant, Nina, (Jane Adams) a hunchback, witnesses the Count’s attempts and notices the absence of his reflection. Time for another blood transfusion, only Dracula turns the tables, hypnotising Nina and Edelman and then reversing the transfusion, so that Edelmann is given the vampiric blood.
This action proves to be the Count’s downfall however as Edelmann exposes Dracula’s coffin to sunlight, killing him. This is just beyond the half an hour mark leaving the question again as to the true danger that Dracula exhibits when he doesn’t last the entire feature.
With the Wolf Man being treated and the Dracula out for the… count (ahem), this leaves a hole for a villain to fill. In steps a transformed Edelmann, struggling with the vampiric blood in his system that sends him crazy and a climax that brings about the rise of Frankenstein’s creature, a horde of angry villagers, and only a cured Talbot to bring down the house.
House of Dracula serves up a much neater storyline compared with its predecessor, House of Frankenstein, and the performances are strong. It still struggles to incorporate all the different aspects, but considering it’s short running time of just over the hour mark, there’s enough packed in to entertain, and ultimately became a commercial success as a result.