“The Raven” (1935)
by A.J. Hakari
It’s strange how Universal didn’t crank out more Edgar Allan Poe adaptations than it did during its golden age of horror. The studio’s few such productions were so loosely connected to the original stories as is, one would assume the powers that be would be content to clean up on name recognition and the presence of famous genre icons alone. That’s exactly what happened with 1934’s smash thriller The Black Cat, and the following year, Universal reunited stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for another Poe-inspired collaboration, The Raven. Given the former’s expressionist style and ghoulish insinuations of violence, it was a tough act to follow, setting a precedent for cinematic nightmares to which measuring up would be no small feat. Unfortunately, The Raven falls considerably short of this mark, but even taking its creepy cousin out of the picture, it remains an uneven opus of the macabre, thanks to an emaciated screenplay that nearly knocks the wind out of an otherwise tremendous leading performance’s sails.
Once upon a time, Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) was a most respected surgeon. Few were more skilled with a scalpel, and his collection of Poe paraphernalia is the envy of the academic community. But when Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) beckons the doc out of retirement to save the life of his daughter Jean (Irene Ware), little does he know that he’s played into the hands of a madman. After sparing the girl a grisly fate, Vollin soon develops an obsession with her, resolving to make her his bride some day — or else. The judge picks up on this unsettling fixation and forbids the two from seeing each other again, which only fuels the doctor’s vengeful fire. With the reluctant help of escaped convict Edmond Bateman (Karloff), Vollin hatches a plot to gather all who’ve wronged him and subject them to his collection of gruesome torture devices, in a night of horror none will ever forget.
The Raven isn’t a remake or blatant rip-off by any stretch, but the specter of The Black Cat hangs over it regardless. We have the Poe connection, the elements of torture, and a rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff’s characters that drives certain aspects of the plot. However, The Raven is nowhere near as effective in going about its business, and why all boils down to a matter of build-up. Saying this sounds odd, considering Vollin does take his sweet time in getting revenge on Judge Thatcher (plus Jean and her fiancé, but they’re not at the top of his to-punish list). But during that period leading up to the doc going full Pit and the Pendulum on his enemies, Vollin’s back story is granted no deeper exploration, his lust for Jean and eventual urge to inflict unspeakable pain upon others attributed to no other motivation than, “He’s just crazy.” Even the contentious partnership between the doctor and Bateman feels like a rush job, as the latter is coerced into servitude by having his face horribly disfigured. Compared to the history and seething hatred their characters in The Black Cat shared with each other, Lugosi and Karloff’s clash here is built upon the flimsiest of foundations, with Vollin’s mocking of Bateman’s newfound ugliness as a means of stoking his murderous flames falling flat.
All of this is unfortunate, because at the center of The Raven is one of the most twisted and commanding performances of Lugosi’s career. The script may not always serve him as well as it might, but the man himself is firing on all cylinders, cackling up a storm and having a total blast giving life to Vollin’s demented persona. Afforded few leading man opportunities by Universal (even after Dracula‘s astounding success), Lugosi seizes his rare shot at being the center of attention and pulls through with a crazed, menacing performance from which it’s hard to glance away. Simultaneously, Karloff’s portrayal of Bateman is more of the understated variety, as the legendary horror star uses his weathered looks (pre-mutilation, too) and anguished attitude to hint at the lifetime of chips this guy’s had to lug on his shoulders. Outside of these two titans of terror, however, The Raven‘s remaining cast members range from the fine, but unremarkable to the utterly disposable. Ware is pleasant, and Hinds is appropriately stern, but as Jean’s fiancé, Lester Matthews is a complete drip, and the various actors on hand to provide forced comic relief only make us wish they’d meet the business end of one of Vollin’s contraptions even sooner. On that note, though, the set design is rather intimidating, with the doctor’s swanky pad gradually revealing itself to house all manner of swinging blades, moving falls, and entire rooms than can be summoned below ground on a moment’s notice.
Though Lugosi’s dominating turn and the morbid machinery he lords over help out a good deal, The Raven‘s shocks only work so well without strong writing or characters to support them. The film’s underperformance at the box office played a part in informing Universal’s decision to lay off the horror stories for a while, only to return years later with what can be arguably considered Lugosi’s best role ever in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The Raven is no black mark on the studio’s genre record, but given the talent involved with its creation, that it turned out as anything but a dark little gem is a letdown among letdowns.