Beginning in 1943, Universal and producer Ben Pivar made six B-pictures based on the INNER SANCTUM paperback and radio series. Actually, “based” is the wrong word. Pivar used only the INNER SANCTUM title as an umbrella for barely-an-hour mystery films with (very) slight horror elements. None of the six films adapted the books or radio episodes or used the show’s famous gimmick of opening with a creaking door. Universal’s popular horror star Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN) starred in all six, and most of them began with actor David Hoffman’s head floating inside a crystal ball and warning us of the sheer terror that lie ahead of us.
The first INNER SANCTUM picture, CALLING DR. DEATH, was directed by Reginald LeBorg (who also worked with Chaney on THE MUMMY’S GHOST and four other movies) in twenty days from an original screenplay by Edward Dein (CAT PEOPLE). Dr. Mark Steele (Chaney), a wealthy neurologist whose thoughts we strangely hear as whispering, knows his wife Maria (Ramsay Ames, a beautiful but laughably bad actress) is cheating on him. Someone murders Maria over the weekend by throwing acid in her face and bashing her head in.
Police inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) thinks Steele did it, but he arrests Maria’s lover, David Bruce as Robert Duval (!), anyway and stands by as Duval is sentenced to die in the electric chair. It isn’t until Duval awaits his execution that Gregg starts popping in to Steele’s home, demanding he confess. But here’s the thing—Steele blacked out the entire weekend of Maria’s death and doesn’t know whether he killed her or not.
The first INNER SANCTUM mystery is silly, but enjoyably so, mostly for reasons of camp. Naish’s wicked scene-stealing and Chaney’s goofy whispering make you believe the plot is moving faster than it is. You wonder, because Duval was convicted with circumstantial evidence, and there’s no evidence linking Mark to the murder, why Gregg keeps hounding Steele to confess. Morison (HITLER’S MADMAN) is stiff as Steele’s sympathetic nurse, but provides eye candy.
LeBorg’s direction is mostly static, but he ups his game in the third act. He likes to suggest violence through shadows. A scene between Chaney and Morison plays with the camera Dutched and low to the ground. He does a great job with a dream sequence, including a bit where two brick buildings seem to tip and trap a character between them. One thing that looks odd to contemporary eyes: Steele uses a letter opener to slit the pages of a book he’s reading as he turns them. Did hardcover books use to come from the factory with the edges of the pages uncut?
Chaney and LeBorg reunited about a month after CALLING DR. DEATH finished shooting to begin their next INNER SANCTUM feature: WEIRD WOMAN. Also with Holmes Herbert, Fay Helm, Rex Lease, Paul Phillips, and Mary Hale. Brian was a late replacement for George Dolenz (THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO), while Morison substituted for Gale Sondergaard, who, like Chaney, was originally planned to star in all the INNER SANCTUMs.