Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hypnotic Eyes Crawling With Madness

Universal’s fourth INNER SANCTUM mystery was supposed to be its second, but script problems held up production of THE FROZEN GHOST. After shooting wrapped July 1, 1944, it took Universal 364 days to release it—an eternity for a B-picture back then. The screenplay passed through the hands of five different writers (though HORROR ISLAND’s Maurice Tombragel didn’t get screen credit), but the finished film holds together well enough for quick entertainment.

Few actors trafficked in self-pity as often and as successfully as Lon Chaney Jr. did, and he pulls out all stops as stage mesmerist Gregor the Great. While performing on a radio show with his assistant and fiancé Maura (contract player Evelyn Ankers), Gregor handles a heckling drunk while silently wishing him dead. The man (played awkwardly by Arthur Hohl) keels over dead, and Gregor falls into a guilty funk, believing that he somehow killed the man with his mental powers.

Nobody, including his business partner George Keene (Milburn Stone, later Doc Adams for twenty years on GUNSMOKE) and homicide detective Brandt (Douglass Dumbrille), holds him responsible—the victim died of a natural heart attack—but that doesn’t ease Gregor’s mind. He breaks off his engagement to Maura, retires from the stage, and takes a job at a wax museum, where more mysterious deaths occur. Is Gregor really to blame?

The INNER SANCTUM movies have taken guff for their casting of palooka Chaney as a babe magnet. In addition to Maura, wax museum owner Valerie Monet (Tala Birell) and her niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) ache for Lon. Not everyone loves Gregor, however. Eccentric sculptor Rudy (Martin Kosleck) certainly doesn’t, and it’s questionable whether all of Gregor’s friends do.

THE FROZEN GHOST is one of the series’ best-looking films, thanks to the evocative sets built to represent the wax museum and the sometimes-creepy dummies that inhabit them. Director Harold Young (THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE, with which THE FROZEN GHOST was released on a double bill), the first man not named Reginald LeBorg to helm an INNER SANCTUM, handles the material pretty well, shooting the opening with Dutch angles and draping the spooky scenes in shadow. He also squeezes a terrific performance out of Dumbrille as a cop who spouts Shakespeare and the perpetually sinister Kosleck.

The ending, however, is a quick and disappointing wrap-up involving supernatural mumbo-jumbo that had not previously been part of the story. And there are no ghosts in THE FROZEN GHOST, frozen or otherwise. It is an improvement over the previous INNER SANCTUM, though, and the best since CALLING DR. DEATH. As always, David Hoffman’s head appears in a crystal ball to recite mystic warnings before the opening titles. He’s the Criswell of the Inner Sanctum.

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