Lew Landers, 1935
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews
After Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), this is the last film in Universal’s loose Edgar Allen Poe trilogy starring Bela Lugosi. It also effectively ended Universal’s reign of interesting, violent, gruesome, and mostly pre-Code horror films. After the shocked audience reaction to The Black Cat and The Raven, Universal turns their backs on serious horror and spent the rest of the ‘30s and early ‘40s making silly, derivative classic monster sequels and mild, mystery-horror features.
A genius surgeon, who also happens to be completely mad, is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and has turned his mansion into a Poe shrine, complete with an extensive torture chamber in his basement based on objects from Poe’s stories. A Judge’s beloved daughter, Jean, a dancer, was in a terrible car accident and her father begs Dr. Vollin (Lugosi), to save her. After some pleading he agrees, succeeds, and she is even able to dance again. Unfortunately for her, Vollin becomes obsessed with her and takes her gratitude to mean something more, even though she is engaged. Jean’s father, the only one who suspects Vollin’s real intention, confronts him. To get revenge, Vollin invites them all for a dinner party, where they are forced to spend a horrific night.
In the meanwhile, Bateman (Karloff), an escaped convinct, contacts Vollin and begs him to do facial surgery. He has given up his life of crime and wants to start fresh without the police on his trail. Vollin uses this to his advantage and disfigures Bateman with the condition that he will perform corrective surgery if Bateman agrees to torture and murder Joan and her family. Bateman is horrified, but has no choice but to agree. When the dinner party is over, Vollin and Bateman begin separating the guests and have something special planned for them, including torture on the device from “The Pit and the Pendulum,” being crushed to death, and other exciting things. Will Bateman save Joan or leave her to her hideous fate?
This is one of Lugosi’s finest performances, though he is completely over the top for the second half of the film. His frequent giggling will either unnerve or annoying viewers, as the cause of his glee is irrepressible excitement about torture. His performances in Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and this film all certainly develop a common theme: the creepy old man barely concealing his unbridled and obsessive lust. The other actors are fairly decent, though it is difficult to watch Karloff in such a second tier, degraded performance as Bateman, a man who showed up in the wrong place at absolutely the wrong time. There are also some unfortunate moments where Vollin reveals the results of Bateman’s facial surgery and Karloff reprises some groans and arm movements right out of Frankenstein.
Lester Matthews as Jean’s clueless fiancé is better here than in Werewolf of London, though he still falls under the bland leading man umbrella that Universal used so often. Samuel S. Hinds (Man-Made Monster) as Jean’s father is unfortunately not very memorable, though it’s impossible to compete with Lugosi. Irene Ware is decent as Jean and is given a little more to do that the typical Universal horror heroine. She choreographs a very bizarre Poe-themed dance in Vollin’s honor and actually flirts with him a few times (as Helen Chandler does with Lugosi in Dracula), though it’s frustrating that the script couldn’t have given her a little more agency, or, alternatively, had something horrible happen to her. I don't think '30s audiences would have tolerated that, though.
Vollin’s delightfully spooky mansion is almost a character of its own with tons of Poe-themed elements. The basement torture chamber is a wonder to behold and it’s a shame we couldn’t have spent a little more time there. In a certain sense, though, it’s refreshing that so much insane violence is implied, but never shown. This film certainly could not be made today without either turning into an Abominable Dr. Phibes rip off or another boring torture porn.
While I enjoyed this film very much, mostly because of Lugosi’s bombastic performance, please keep in mind that this is a horror film from 1935. The pace is relatively slow, there is little in the way of overt terror or even the moody atmosphere of other Universal horror films like The Wolf Man or Lugosi and Karloff's The Black Cat. It is difficult to recommend the film without that warning, but I still think there is plenty to enjoy about The Raven and a lot that will likely surprise Lugosi fans who have only seen Dracula or some of his more staid efforts. The film is available as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection along with The Black Cat (1934), Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. Also, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price film The Raven (1963), though that is also loosely inspired by Poe's famous poem.