Wallace Fox, 1945
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Brenda Joyce, J. Edward Bromberg, Rosalind Ivan
Despite my general misgivings about the six-film Inner Sanctum mystery series as a whole, I enjoyed the Val Lewton-esque second film, Weird Woman, and was pleasantly surprised by the fifth entry, Strange Confession, which totally broke the series’ predictable formula. I expected the final film to be absolutely terrible -- it’s title, Pillow of Death, doesn't really inspire a lot of confidence -- but overall I think things ended on a high note. As with Weird Woman and Strange Confession, Pillow of Death was based on a pre-existing story (the others were based on a novel and a play, respectively), which I think did wonders for the overly predictable series.
Borrowing significantly from ‘old dark house’ films of the ‘20s and ‘30s like The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, and The Old Dark House, Pillow of Death has a lot of surprising haunted house elements, though overall this is a melodramatic mystery film that typically ends with a human, not supernatural, culprit. An attorney, Wayne Fletcher (Chaney), is having an affair with his secretary, Donna, and hopes to divorce his wife and marry her. Donna’s family, the Kincaids, are less than pleased with this arrangement, because the family is wealthy and they want to avoid both scandal and a gold digger. Unfortunately for Fletcher, his wife soon turns up dead, suffocated to death (I wish the murderer was an animate, malevolent pillow like the tire in Rubber). Fletcher is the main suspect and things get a lot worse for him when other bodies pile up and a local medium (and his wife’s former psychic) claims he knows Fletcher is guilty. A very stressed out Fletcher is driven to the brink of madness and begins to think his dead wife is trying to contact him. Meanwhile, there is a ghost in the Kincaid home.
Weirdly, this is the only film in the series to lack the signature opening with a head floating in a crystal ball that introduced the other films. This is also a bit more comedic than the other entries, which lightens the usually tedious tone. Though it is slowly paced and often overly talky, there are some interesting things going on here, like missing bodies, secret passageways, a peeping tom/stalker, and a few mental breakdowns. The number of red herrings is kind of dizzying, though many side plots that are introduced don’t really go anywhere, such as the Kincaid family ghost. The supernatural elements are mostly put in place to help uncover a human killer, which is pretty standard for horror-mysteries stretching back to the ‘20s. And, SPOILER ALERT, do not read the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know the conclusion. The irritating thing about the first four films is that while Chaney’s characters is always the suspected killer and the evidence often points to him, Pillow of Death pulls a total reversal and actually makes Chaney the killer. The explanation is that he is schizophrenic and has no idea that he’s been committing the murders. This moment feels like a fitting end to the series, though it is pretty silly.
Pillow of Death (I can't help silently chuckling every time I type that) is a surprisingly good entry in the series, though keep in mind that it is good by comparison and doesn't hold up as a totally solid film in its own right. If you’re going to watch any of the Inner Sanctum mysteries, it should either be this or Weird Woman, which are definitely the highlights of an otherwise persistently mundane, frustrating, and underwhelming series. All six films can be found in the 2-disc Inner Sanctum Mysteries collection.