Cult Movie: Universal's Inner Sanctum Mysteries offers 1940s B-movie delights now on Blu-ray

Lon Chaney Jr (right) stars in the Inner Sanctum Mysteries
Ralph McLean

Inner Sanctum Mysteries

BY THE mid 1940s, the glory days of Universal Pictures as the number one purveyors of fantasy films and classic gothic adventure were well behind them.

In the 30s, it was the double box office whammy of Karloff and Lugosi that kept the shine on the company's horror silverware, but by the following decade much of the day-to-day polishing work on their genre output fell to Lon Chaney Jr.

It was, for example, the lugubrious face of Lon, son of the much more respected Hollywood scream king and make-up magician Lon Chaney senior, who took the title role in the studio's 1941 classic The Wolf Man.

Fitting then that young Lon should get the nod to front Universal's six movie series Inner Sanctum Mysteries, which first darkened the doors of American cinemas two short years later.

Made between 1943 and 1945 and now released on Blu-ray by Eureka Pictures, these nifty little pot boilers are hugely entertaining exercises that are as high on entertainment value as they are low on budget. Based on old crime and mystery thrillers printed by Simon & Shuster in the 30s that in turn became a hugely popular radio series in the States, these six little tales of intrigue and betrayal are pulpy and powerful in their own simple way.

The six hour-long films ranged from straight ahead mysteries, usually involving a tortured male and a shady woman making his life a misery, to cold-blooded tales of murder and mental collapse.

Each film starts with the unforgettable image of a disembodied head floating inside a crystal ball that tells us that "even you, without knowing, could commit murder", but after that they settle into a less horror and more film noir vibe with catchy titles like Weird Woman and The Frozen Ghost.

Minus the monster make-up,Chaney comes across as a fairly miserable leading man, trundling through scenes with his jowly face almost tripping him as he goes. At its best, on early stories like Calling Dr Death (1943) and Dead Man's Eyes (44) – both helmed by Austrian born director Reginald Le Borg – there's a sense that we're watching a tightly told drama spun out with real style.

On the less impressive outings, invariably the ones later in the series such as the frankly ludicrous Pillow Of Death (1946), things descend into half-baked mania with alarming speed. Even at its worst though, this is always great fun, and the low rent visuals sparkle in beautiful new HD prints.

Packaged up by Eureka with a multitude of well judged extras, including audio commentaries and contemporary critical reviews, these B-movie gems have languished unloved for too long. It's all very stagey and feels like a cheap TV anthology series at times, but that's all part of the wobbly charm of this rarely seen series.

If an escape into the black and white world of 1940s pulp mysteries sounds attractive right now, treat yourself to this boxset. As the world goes to hell in a handcart, there are certainly worse places to spend a little quality time.

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