Here we are, at the final Inner Sanctum mystery, and whatta miserably silly title it has: Pillow of Death! Forget about the dumb title though because Pillow of Death is a real good one that throws everything at ya, from seances to graveyards, from secret passages to a gun-toting maid. Not to mention a boodle of red herrings. Most importantly, at the heart of Pillow of Death‘s story is the strongest mystery in all the Inner Sanctum tales.
This is the only one directed by Wallace Fox, who’s best known for a slew of B-horror flicks and the Range Rider TV series. I’m not familiar with him, but in Pillow of Death his style has a nice balance of restraint and eerie menace, which matches the film’s cornucopia of logical crime solving and supernatural elements. It’s a fun, charming way to end the series, and in my book Pillow of Death is the most consistently entertaining.
Chaney stars as Wayne Fletcher, a straight arrow attorney who’s been having an affair with his assistant, Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce). Fletcher’s wife Vivian is a wannabe psychic medium who spends her nights training under a professional charlatan with the baffling name Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg). Her newfound mystic hobby has pulled their marriage apart, not that it’s any excuse for Wayne to be sleeping around. On the night he’s finally prepared to tell Vivian about his affair, he returns home to find her dead – suffocated with a pillow (of death!).
Wayne is naturally the primary suspect, especially after he tells the cops his only alibi is his young mistress. While he’s being grilled, Donna returns home to the giant old mansion where the well-to-do Kincaid family resides. The matriarchs of the family have too fallen under the spell of the tubby medium Julian, who has moved into the house. Gradually, members of the Kincaid family start being killed off in a similar manner as Vivian, and it becomes increasingly more difficult for poor ol’ Wayne to prove his hands (and pillows) are clean.
Besides the detective work, Julian attempts to “solve” Vivian’s death through a seance. That seance scene is short but sweet, with lots of your standard moaning and ethereal voices. This Bromberg guy really hams it up. He’s got a subtle Peter Lorre thing going on, where you don’t know whether to cringe at him or give him a hug. The supernatural elements of the story pretty much revolve around the Kincaid home, which is allegedly haunted (that’s Julian’s shitty excuse for needing to move in, so he can protect them from the spirits).
When the ghostly voice of Vivian starts following Wayne outside of the Kincaid mansion is when things start to become particularly interesting – subverting our expectations for a run-of-the-mill false medium exposed plot. Far too often the Inner Sanctum series failed to subvert expectations, which led to blowing a lot of otherwise interesting premises. But Pillow of Death managed to keep me on my toes for most of the film.
Particularly the ending, which I honest to shit did not see coming. Chaney pulls it off really well too. In Strange Confession he got to show his range, but in Pillow of Death he gets to kick down whatever barriers the audience may think he resides in. This was a really solid ending to a charming, sometimes frustrating, series of films.
All of the Inner Sanctum mysteries, along with the spin-off film Inner Sanctum, are available on YouTube. Check em out if you dig short, little tales of murder on a Sunday afternoon.
Inner Sanctum Power Rankings:
1. Weird Woman
2. Pillow of Death