Reginald Le Borg, 1943
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., J. Carrol Naish, Patricia Morison
The first of a six film series known as The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Calling Dr. Death shares a number of common elements with the rest of the series, including star Lon Chaney, Jr. and director Reginald Le Borg (The Mummy’s Ghost). The series is based on a very popular radio show and series of the novels of the same name that incorporated elements of horror, mystery, suspense, the supernatural, and a sort of tongue in cheek humor, often with twist endings and mystery stock characters. Unfortunately the radio series far outstrips the film adaptations and boasted voice performances from some wonderful genre actors like Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Claude Rains, as well as the great Orson Welles, among many others.
Dr. Mark Steele, a neurologist, begins to worry when he has no memory of the last few days, during which his wife was coincidentally murdered and he had a dream about strangling her to death. She had been regularly cheating on him, but refused him a divorce because she enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle ensured by his position as a successful doctor. Steele, who had developed feelings for his nurse, Stella, asks Stella to help him regain his lost memories and help discover his wife’s killer, even if he is responsible. Hypnosis is one of his specialties and he hopes to use it on himself to uncover the truth, particularly after he stumbles across a number of clues pointing to himself.
Though this is the first film in the series, it is by no means the best, and will probably only interest fans of ‘40s mystery films or Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney is actually my main issue with this film and much of the rest of the series. His limited acting range is often reduced to the same sort of character he had as Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man: a sensitive, brooding man who often feels sorry for himself and laments his lot in life. This usually involves a complicated, budding romance with a female character. Certainly the very thin scripts don’t do Chaney any favors and are made more ridiculous by the frequent voice overs. In this film they are supposed to represent Steele’s unraveling psyche as he is slowly reduced to madness by his weekend long blackout and possible involvement in his wife’s murders.
The lovely Patricia Morison (Kiss Me, Kate and Bell, Book and Candle, among many others) looks great here, but isn’t given much to do and has limited chemistry with Chaney, which would probably be fair to blame on Chaney and not Morison. J. Carroll Naish, another Universal regular, also gives a good performance as the suspicious Inspector Gregg and puts the rest of the cast to shame.
Many of these films were introduced by a disembodied head floating inside a crystal ball, something that would indicate more elements of the fantastic, the supernatural, or more over the top humor, but alas. Calling Dr. Death, despite its excellent title, is little more than a murder mystery with a hypnotism/amnesia subplot and a twist at the end that predictably involves money and jealousy. It’s not an awful film and is fairly decent despite its pitifully low budget, but it probably won’t interest many fans of classic Universal horror. Some of the huge plot holes and absurd jumps in logic are humorous, but always unintentionally so.
Calling Dr. Death was followed by five other excellently named titles: Weird Woman, Dead Man's Eyes, The Frozen Ghost, Strange Confession, and Pillow of Death. Chaney stars in all of these and you can purchase them in a two disc collection from Universal, Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection.