Universal wrapped up its INNER SANCTUM series of B-mysteries with one of the most laughable titles of all time. PILLOW OF DEATH sounds like something that would air on Count Floyd’s MONSTER HORROR CHILLER THEATER (in 3D, natch).
Although it reteams Lon Chaney Jr. and Brenda Joyce from STRANGE CONFESSION, it plays differently than earlier INNER SANCTUMs. It dropped actor David Hoffman’s usual introduction as an ominous floating head inside a crystal ball, and the climax will come as a surprise to those familiar with Chaney’s sad-sack characters in the first five INNER SANCTUM programmers.
Attorney Wayne Fletcher (Chaney), who’s having an affair with his secretary Donna Kincaid (Joyce, who later played Jane in two Lex Barker Tarzans), is arrested for the suffocation murder of his wife Vivian. McCracken (Wilton Graff), the detective in charge of the investigation, lets Fletcher go on account of a lack of evidence, but Donna’s spinster aunt Belle (Clara Blandick) is convinced he’s the killer. Belle invites Vivian’s spiritualist, the flamboyant Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg), to perform a séance, where Vivian’s voice accuses her husband of murder.
Wayne remains haunted by Vivian, whose disembodied pleas to visit her at the family crypt results in the discovery of her empty casket. More asphyxiation murders occur (off-camera), presumably victims of the titular pillow being placed over their faces, and McCracken’s policy of “arrest first, ask questions later” results in Julian also being locked up temporarily and released.
Despite its campy title, PILLOW OF DEATH delivers a few innocent chills. The mystery element is interesting and allows writers Dwight V. Babcock (DEAD MAN’S EYES) and George Bricker (SH! THE OCTOPUS) to introduce a handful of colorful red herrings. Of course, as each potential killer is him- or herself killed, the mystery becomes easier to solve (the cast of characters is quite small). Director Wallace Fox handles the shoot efficiently, but without the visual flair Reginald LeBorg provided the first three INNER SANCTUM mysteries.
Though the series was successful for Universal, thanks to the low budgets producer Ben Pivar had to work with, PILLOW OF DEATH was the final INNER SANCTUM mystery. It began shooting just two weeks after Chaney and Joyce wrapped STRANGE CONFESSION and ended fourteen days late. The INNER SANCTUM radio program continued until 1952.