In Bed with Fred: Inner Sanctum (1991), Mind Twister (1993), Possessed by the Night (1994) & Inner Sanctum II (1994)

Featuring commentary by the B-movie titan himself, Matty profiles the first four erotic thrillers directed by the mighty Fred Olen Ray.

If the late, great Jag Mundhra’s Night Eyes (1990) was ground zero for the straight-to-video erotic thriller, then Fred Olen Ray’s INNER SANCTUM (1991) is the film that cemented the subgenre’s financial viability.

Starring Night Eyes’ Tanya Roberts and released on tape fourteen months after Mundhra’s saucy trendsetter, Inner Sanctum was made for a paltry $650,000 and clawed in millions, becoming a blockbuster for distributor RCA Columbia Pictures Home Video.

“Inner Sanctum was extremely successful,” says Ray. “It was on the front of the Wall Street Journal, and it out-rented Backdraft (1991). Just a monster hit.” 

While as interesting as Night Eyes in terms of the place it occupies within the erotic thriller’s cassette-based evolution (frequent Ray collaborator Jim Wynorski, for instance, cites it as a key influence on his own raunchy epics), Inner Sanctum is the better film. It’s not perfect: as with Mundhra’s opus, Inner Sanctum feels like the work of a director not yet completely comfortable with his material — though with Ray having expressed distaste for the erotic thriller trend in the years since, it’s a criticism that could be levelled at the bulk of the B-auteur’s more salacious output. It’s also stricken with a pair of unconvincing performances: one from Joseph Bottoms as an abusive hubby, another from Margaux Hemingway as Bottoms’ other woman. 

Still, there are plenty of positives to atone for such missteps. Hired by the philandering Baxter Reed (Bottoms) to care for his disabled wife, Jennifer (Valerie Wildman), Lynn — Roberts’ slinky nurse — is a brilliant character. From an ogling perspective, the former Charlie’s Angel looks suitably celestial in her protracted scenes of horizontal dancing, and Ray keeps us guessing just which side of Baxter and Jennifer’s domestic conflict Lynn belongs to — if, indeed, any — with wit and style. By and large a slow-burning drama, Ray allows Inner Sanctum’s story to steadily unfold before going hell for leather in a slasher-tinged closing stretch that both calls to mind the helmer’s Haunting Fear (1990) and brings the themes of spousal abuse and murder within Mark Thomas McGee’s compact screenplay to a satisfying, if somewhat logically flawed, close. 

As early as 1992, Ray was voicing his annoyance at how Inner Sanctum turned out, and what it was like toiling with the notoriously difficult Roberts.

“I wanted it to be like the old Lon Chaney Jr. Inner Sanctum movies and it sort of starts like that,” he told Draculina [1]. “But there were star rewrites because they wanted script changes to suit themselves… And then it didn’t make any sense at all. If the titles hadn’t been done, I was set to take my name off it because I was that unhappy with the whole thing.”

The gods of behind the scenes shenanigans must have a cruel sense of humour, then. Rather than affording Ray the opportunity to correct past mistakes, the making of INNER SANCTUM II (1994) was (apparently) plagued with a near identical problem. Like Roberts, name cast member Michael Nouri was supposedly a ball-ache to deal with, and the film’s big reveal — done with a zany, Scooby Doo-ish unmasking — is arguably even more illogical. That said, as a rollicking piece of entertainment, this superior follow-up is tremendous. But to fully understand why, we have to look at the two other erotic thrillers Ray crafted between his stops at the Sanctum — and, specifically, what he did to try and find kinship with a form he ultimately didn’t care for.

“Yeah, it can be tough,” sighs Ray. “Like anyone, I only work so much because I keep an eye on my bank account. Filmmaking isn’t a hobby for me: it’s a job. And back then especially I would just take whatever came along and try and make the best of it… Anyway, Inner Sanctum started a whole run of erotic thrillers for me, and they were spending real money on them. I made Inner Sanctum, Inner Sanctum II and Possessed by the Night with a producer called Mark Damon. Mark started as an actor. He was the male lead in The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) with Vincent Price, and he had a company called Vision International and then MDP Worldwide, Mark Damon Productions. But the second one of these ‘sexy murder mysteries’ that I made, Mind Twister, which I did with Telly Savalas and was, I think, a $1million show — that was with Smart Egg Pictures, one of the producers of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Tanya Roberts was meant to star again, in the part that eventually went to Suzanne Slater. Thankfully, Tanya dropped out! [laughs]”

Labelled a remake of Jim Wynorski’s Sins of Desire (1993) by IMDb and a few other quick-to-parrot websites, MIND TWISTER (1993) is certainly similar to the Chopping Mall (1986) maestro’s flick. Both films were written by Ray’s Inner Sanctum scribe, Mark Thomas McGee (who, if an additional internet rumour is to be believed, actually retooled an earlier, unused draft of his Sins script for Mind Twister), and both revolve around strange deaths connected to experimental sexual therapy. However, tonally, Mind Twister is much more serious than Wynorski’s tongue-in-cheek romp — even if, quality-wise, they’re evenly matched.

Featuring a succulently blustery turn from Savalas (fitting that a detective would be the Kojak star’s penultimate performance), Mind Twister is an earthy procedural aided by Ray’s deft direction and a plethora of bold aesthetic choices. Amplifying the artificiality of David J. Bomba’s pulpy production design, the colourful photography of Ray stalwart Gary Graver lends Mind Twister a mesmeric fairy-tale quality; a motif Ray runs with via his presentation of Erika Nann’s horny and bloodthirsty antagonist, Lisa Strahten. Essentially fashioning Strahten as an evil queen, Ray has Nann swanning about the film in outlandish costumes that run the gamut from private eye to Maleficent. Naturally, the statuesque beauty looks astounding in the lot of them.

Though, again, Ray never appears totally comfortable with the film’s eroticism, he navigates McGee’s narrative with aplomb. The sequence in which Strahten slathers the norks of amateur sleuth/stripper, Heather (Suzanne Slater), with neon body paint in a lesbonic tangle that’s being filmed by the former’s skeevy quack of a husband (Gary Hudson) is stupendous. It’s at once a highlight of Ray’s mammoth CV and DTV filmmaking at large.

“I try to find something or I try to put something in everything that I do; something that I think is interesting,” says Ray. “Mind Twister is a good example of that… And when Mark McGee and I went back to Mark Damon for Possessed by the Night, I kind of had a sit-down with him and the Israeli producers he was working with and said, ‘Listen, there’s one thing wrong with these movies: no one gets this lucky this fast in real life.’ I said, ‘We should have something supernatural that possesses people and makes them do things they wouldn’t normally do.’ Initially, it was an incense burner from Chinatown but then it became this baby in a jar, and they actually made it but then the producers said, ‘Aww, no, this is too weird.’ So then I said – I think I’d seen some Twilight Zone-type thing about something in a jar, and I liked sideshow stuff so I said, ‘Let’s do that,’ and they built it. Then somebody else said, ‘Can we put an eye in it?’ [laughs]. So they cut a slit in it and just stuck a glass eye in this thing in the jar and, well — well, at least it gave it a little something extra! Possessed by the Night had a really bloody ending, too: everyone getting shot, Shannon Tweed, all of them. And that was back when you’d load ‘em up with these body hits and you’d just fire off these blood bags from inside their clothes and stuff. And I think that scene where Shannon is shooting it out with Steve McQueen’s son, Chad — it was really grim and bloody but I had fun with it. It was a nice change from just mindless sex!”

POSSESSED BY THE NIGHT (1994) might have been Ray’s third stab at sex and suspense, but it’s the first of his now plentiful crotch operas to play as a cohesive whole. It bristles with a master’s touch. Co-written with McGee, the story grips and Ray’s direction is as tight as a drum. Building upon the wild creativity of Mind Twister, it’s clear that Possessed by the Night isn’t the result of reticent gun-for-hire trying to find their feet within a structure they’re unsure of:

It’s the work of an artist firing on all cylinders. 

Deliciously entertaining, what stirs is the film’s subversive streak. While the T&A on display is incredibly sexy (Ted Prior and Shannon Tweed’s vigorous romp is the standout), there’s also a mischievous reflexivity to it. Seemingly, Ray’s way of embracing the erotic thriller is by deconstructing it, toying with tropes and questioning our own relationship with the subgenre’s union of sex and violence. Are we turned on? Or are we on edge? As far as Ray is concerned, the answer to each is a resounding ‘yes’.  

Possessed by the Night’s frissons are fabulous. Ray boasts a flair for eeriness and the film simmers with the kind of disturbing, voyeuristic energy that defined his micro-budget carve-‘em-up, Scalps (1983). Rooted in the same thematic terrain as Jim Wynorski’s Sorceress (1995) (which Ray produced), Possessed by the Night’s plot is comprised of three strands: Prior and Sandahl Bergman’s married couple; loan shark Henry Silva and his debt collecting lapdog, Chad McQueen; and Tweed’s sexual awakening. All are connected by the aforementioned jar-creature: a cancerous force that corrupts everyone it comes into contact with, reducing them to husks powered only by their own insatiable carnal desires. 

Issued on U.S. tape by Columbia-TriStar Home Video on 25th March 1994 — two and a half weeks after Mind Twister’s stateside bow through VCI — Possessed by the Night landed in British stores in summer ‘95 as ‘Night Eyes: The Possession’; a cheeky attempt by U.K. distributor New Age Entertainment to ride the coattails of the picture responsible for the entire DTV erotic thriller epoch to begin with.

New Age also slapped Inner Sanctum II with a fresh moniker for its British release, rechristening it ‘Natural Cold Killer’ in order to invoke the then-controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Strange yet gettable: as well as being another enterprising bit of marketing, New Age’s change underlines how, really, Inner Sanctum II isn’t your typical softcore shag-a-thon. Hell, if it weren’t for the film continuing the story of crippled housewife Jennifer (Tracy Brooks Swope, taking over from Wildman), and a couple of superfluous body-doubled sex scenes, Inner Sanctum II is almost totally removed from its predecessor. Whereas the original Inner Sanctum flirted with elements from Haunting Fear — Ray’s other ‘woman on the edge’ chiller — Inner Sanctum II expands wholly upon it. The film is a dark psychological horror flick in sexy dressing.  

Now convinced that the dearly departed Baxter is trying to kill her from beyond the grave, Ray presents Jennifer’s fractured mental state with stunningly macabre dexterity. The opening cemetery dream sequence establishes an appropriately ghoulish, Tales from the Crypt-scented tone, and Ray ratchets up the tension throughout Inner Sanctum II’s duration with a wealth of expertly assembled frights that range from quietly spooky to mighty, pant-soiling jolts. Essaying the equally slimy brother of Jennifer’s dead fella, the scene in which Nouri admits his obsession with the harangued housewife (“The day you married Bax you broke my heart… I’ve always wanted you”) culminates with a magnificently delivered shock. David Warner and a returning Margaux Hemmingway — who, this time, is pretty damn decent — add a splash of pomp accentuated by the obligatory slasher-tinged finale. Sadly, the troubled Hemmingway would take her own life in 1996, just over eighteen months after Inner Sanctum II’s U.S. video premiere. Curiously, her body was discovered the day before the thirty-fifth anniversary of her Nobel Prize-winning grandfather Ernest’s suicide.

“I made some more erotic thrillers after Inner Sanctum II, but that was really the beginning of the end of the whole thing,” concludes Ray. “The budgets got lower and they just weren’t selling anymore.”

[1] Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau Interviewed, Draculina Magazine, Issue #14, December 1992.

One thought on “In Bed with Fred: Inner Sanctum (1991), Mind Twister (1993), Possessed by the Night (1994) & Inner Sanctum II (1994)

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