Friday, February 17, 2012

New Heights Of Horror

Universal’s fifth INNER SANCTUM programmer is a remake of its THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD, which, despite its awesome title, is not a horror film. Neither is STRANGE CONFESSION, though it was later re-released as THE MISSING HEAD!

Lon Chaney Jr., who starred in all six INNER SANCTUM films, is a wimp scientist named Jeff Carter, whose brilliant discoveries have made a mint for his boss at the pharmaceutical company, Roger Graham (J. Carrol Naish, returning from CALLING DR. DEATH). Though Jeff is regularly berated by his wife Mary (Brenda Joyce) and his friend Dave (Lloyd Bridges!) for not standing up for himself and allowing Graham to make the profit and take the credit for his work, he cares more about bettering humanity than his own bank account.

Ever the sneak, Graham plots with his assistant Stevens (Milburn Stone, returning from THE FROZEN GHOST) to send Jeff and Dave to South America to find an obscure mold Jeff needs for his latest experiment. While Jeff’s out of the country, Graham steals an early discarded version of Jeff’s formula and puts the moves on Mary. He then mass-produces the formula, which doesn’t work, to take advantage of an outbreak sweeping the area.

Jeff, who doesn’t know about any of this, later sends the successful formula to Graham, who refuses to take the unproven version off the market and lose sales. Because it doesn’t work, Jeff and Mary’s son dies of influenza. Graham, a real rat, is castigated in the press and his company damaged, which doesn’t stop him from inviting Mary to his house to seduce her.

All this is told through flashback, as a rattled Jeff appears at the home of a prominent attorney while carrying something hideous in a satchel. That’s the only element of mystery or suspense in M. Coates Webster’s loose adaptation of Jean Bart’s play, and it will be of little surprise to modern audiences what Chaney is toting around in that bag. The script is fine, and the direction by first-timer John Hoffman (THE LONE WOLF AND HIS LADY) is adequate, but STRANGE CONFESSION is little more than a time-waster.

Chaney is decent too, but it’s hard to see Jeff Carter as anything more than a chump, and you give up rooting for him once he’s shipped off to South America. Bridges (SEA HUNT) is very good as the film’s amiable comic relief. STRANGE CONFESSION was made back-to-back, more or less, with PILLOW OF DEATH, which turned out to be the final INNER SANCTUM feature. STRANGE CONFESSION also marks the final appearance of David Hoffman as the spooky/silly head that introduces the films from inside a crystal ball. I suspect Hoffman’s scenes were filmed simultaneously without knowing which films they would be cut into or even what they would be about.

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