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Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- CALLING DR. DEATH (1943)

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.

So the disembodied head of the Spirit of the Inner Sanctum informs us at the beginning of the first film inspired by the popular radio series.

There’s a certain variety of stories I have great affection for, they mostly take the form of short stories by authors like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl, lurid tales often involving murder usually motivated by greed or sex, sometimes with an unexpected twist at the end. For a good portion of the twentieth century there were endless sources for them: pulp magazines, comic books like Tales from the Crypt, television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the The Twilight Zone, and, I suspect, radio shows like The Inner Sanctum.

This was my first exposure to anything Inner Sanctum and if Calling Dr. Death is typical of what you find in the Sanctum then I look forward to more. I’ve got five more films to anticipate and I may have to look into getting some of the old radio shows to listen to on my work commute.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Most of the films in the series have campy provocative titles like this one, and I kind of lowered by expectations. What I got was a dark psychological thriller with a solid cast and a mystery that kept me guessing right up until the film’s climactic sequence. Lon Chaney Jr. gives an intense performance fraught with inner-monologues heard in voice-over as a kind-hearted doctor with a troubled marriage who begins to suspect himself of his wife’s murder when he finds he can’t remember a thing that happened on the weekend the crime occurred. Patricia Morison does equally well as the adoring nurse who continues to side with him even when a fallen button from his suit places him at the scene of the crime. Also worth noting is J. Carrol Naish as a police detective who you almost want to call the film’s villain, as he hounds Chaney with his suspicions, but you never quite forget that he’s really only seeking justice. There are many twists along the way as the good doctor tries to recall the events of that weekend wondering if he can allow his wife’s lover to pay for the crime instead without knowing the full story. Many of these kinds of stories follow patterns that fans of them learn to spot, making them a tad predictable (though still fun), this one is a bit different. I won’t say the resolution will necessarily surprise you, but it still might take some time before you see it coming.

I was particularly taken with the beautiful Patricia Morison. She gives quite a performance as character with many facets. Examining her career, I’m surprised I was unfamiliar with her up until now. I discovered she was quite the leading lady in her day, but became better known for her stage career. Apparently she originated the role of Lili Vanessi in Kiss Me Kate. I hope to see more of her, if not in my horror project, at least when I’m perusing TCM. I think you can count me as a fan now. (And, as of this posting, she’s still with us at age 97! Here’s to you Miss Morison!)

This week’s supporting features:

The Merrie Melodies adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg (1942)

The Our Gang short Bear Shooters (1930)

Next week’s film:

Captive Wild Woman (1943) starring Acquanetta, John Carradine and Evelyn Ankers

A sidenote: while I’ve been somewhat random with the order I’ve been selecting these films, it’s been my intention to watch the franchise films chronologically. I’ve just learned that one of my local theatres will be running Bela Lugosi in Dracula on October 8, and I can’t resist incorporating a big screen viewing into this project. However, it does mean putting off starting the Dracula franchise until then. If you’ll be in the Orlando area that weekend, join me!

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