Tuesday, June 19, 2012

'Dead Man's Eyes' starts lame but gets better

Inner Sanctum: Dead Man's Eyes (1944)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Paul Kelley, Acquanetta, Jean Parker, Edward Fielding, and Thomas Gomez
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

David (Chaney) is blinded when he mistakenly puts acid in his eyes instead of eye-wash. When his elderly future father-in-law (Fielding) is murdered after willing David his eyes for transplant, he becomes a prime suspect with lots of motive and no alibi beyond being blind.

Successful crime dramas, thrillers, and horror films usually work because they foreshadow what's coming, be it the obnoxious rich uncle delcaring, "you'll get my fortune over my dead body!" or the weird gypsy woman warning the characters not to go into the woods after midnight. Lack of foreshadowing makes the mystery or horror film feel forced and slipshod, and the wrong kind of foreshadowing makes viewers roll their eyes.

Like the foreshadowing in "Dead Man's Eyes". The main character, David, lives and works in a small studio apartment. It is so small, in fact, that it has only one sink that serves as both kitchen, bathroom, and the place to his brushes. Above the sink is a shelf... where David keeps the eye-wash he uses daily right next to the acid he uses to clean his brushes. And he keeps these two liquids in identical bottles. Right next to each other.

I'm sure you can see the coming disaster that's invariable going to strike, especially given the title of the movie. And, sure enough, one day, David grabs the wrong bottle (maybe by accident, but most likely not, given his model is a South American psycho who is insanely jealous of David's fiancee and madly possessive of him) and pours acid in his eyes instead of eye-wash.

I almost shut the DVD off at that point, because I wasn't in the mood for wasting my time on fodder for Movies You Should [Die Before You] See but wanted to be entertained by something good. And this film was not looking promising.

I'm glad I stuck with it, though. because once it got past the monumentally stupid set-up, it turned into quite the thrilling little mystery, with a nice array of suspects and enough plot twists to keep suspicion on almost everyone up to the end--including the main character, David.

The film is also fun, because of the many strong performances. Acquanetta is great as David's crazy model, and she's also the easy suspect for all the nefarious going-ons in the film. And if the movie had stayed as weak as it began, she would have been the only suspect. But Lon Chaney Jr. also gives a fine performance, one that gives viewers the idea that there's something a little off with his character. The other actors are excellent in their parts too, and, supported by a clever script, they turn what started out as a disaster into a fun viewing experience.

"Dead Man's Eyes" is the third of six movies in the "Inner Sanctum" series. Like the two previous ones, Lon Chaney Jr. gives an excellent performance. It might well be that these films feature Chaney at his best. If you liked him as the reluctant wolfman in Universal Pictures' monster-mash films, you absolutely need to check him out in these pictures.

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