Thursday, April 12, 2018

Lon Chaney, Jr. Places a Call to Dr. Death

Lon Chaney, Jr. reflects on a case.
Inspired by the popular Inner Sanctum radio suspense series, Calling Dr. Death was the first of a six-film series produced by Universal in the 1940s. It's an imaginative mystery with noirish elements that kicks off the franchise in style.

Lon Chaney, Jr. stars as Dr. Mark Steele, a financially successful neurologist trapped in a loveless marriage. Mark blacks out one weekend and awakes in his office to learn that his wife Maria has been brutally murdered. How brutal? The killer beat Maria to death with a blunt instrument and then threw acid in her face.

J. Carrol Naish as the inspector.
Maria's demise allows Mark to pursue a relationship with his loyal nurse Stella (Patricia Morrison). However, his ability to bury the past is obstructed by a dogged detective (J. Carrol Naish) and a persistent fear that he could still be the murderer--even though Maria's lover has been arrested.

There's much to like in Calling Dr. Death, from Naish's weird, obsessed detective to the hypnosis-infused climax. However, what truly sets it apart from other "B" mysteries is the extensive use of voice-overs to convey Mark's thoughts. While I have seen that technique employed effectively in other films, I've never seen it used to such a large degree. It allows the viewer to get to know Mark intimately and, let's be honest, the good doctor should be seeing a psychologist to resolve his own issues.

Patricia Morrison as Stella.
Lon Chaney, Jr. gives an adequate performance as the protagonist, who reminded me at times of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man movies. With a few exceptions (e.g., Of Mice and Men, Son of Dracula), I've never found Chaney, Jr. to be a compelling actor. However, the dependable Naish has one of his best roles as Inspector Gregg and Patricia Morrison makes Stella more interesting as the film progresses. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Gale Sondergaard was originally cast as Stella.

Chaney is the only actor to appear all six Inner Sanctum films, which feature no recurring characters. Most of the series' entries are psychological suspense movies with twist endings. Strangely enough, 1948's Inner Sanctum, though also inspired by the radio show, was not part of the Universal series.

Calling Dr. Death is also notable for the debut for the now-famous prologue featuring a floating, warped head inside a crystal ball. Click on the clip below to watch it!


  1. We go for J. Carrol Naish around these parts - big time. This is now at the top of the Naish time list.

    I hear you with regards to many of Lon's performances, but he has such a load of goodwill built up because of "our beloved Larry", that we forgive him much.

  2. J. Carrol Naish was the villain, Dr. Daka, in the first screen appearance of Batman (a movie serial).

  3. Patricia Morison is apparently still alive at 103 years!

  4. J. Carrol Naish is always worth it.

    I agree re: Lon Chaney Jr. I really liked him in "Of Mice and Men", but other than that I can't really get enthused about his performances.

  5. How easy is it to watch movies instantly online? If you like to watch movies or TV episodes on your computer, many sites let you do this. putlocker movies