The Raven Reviews
If a man looks ugly, he does ugly things. Something profound, indeed.
Karloff would later go on the star in another version of Poeâ??sÂ The RavenÂ (1963), directed by Roger Corman and again not following the authorâ??s original storyline.
This is where Boris Karloff enters the picture. He plays a murderer named Edmund Bateman that's escaped from prison. He goes to Vollin and asks him to change his face so he can hide from the police. But Vollin wants help exacting his revenge schemes, so instead of helping Bateman, he ruins half of his face, and only promises to fix him if he assists him.
That's the basic gist of the movie. There's honestly not a great deal to talk about as far as the story, partly because of its runtime; it's only 61 minutes long. But even though it's short, there's always something pivotal happening. Throughout the first part of the movie, we watch as Vollin genuinely seems to fall in love with the dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) after he saves her life. She's smitten and grateful, but her father Judge (Samuel S. Hinds) sees nothing but trouble in this. I don't disagree with him. We've seen that Vollin has been a tad edgy since we first see him, obsessed with Poe to the point of having a whole room filled with torture devices inspired by his stories, such as a pit, a pendulum with a scythe and a shrinking room. Remember that.
Most of the other characters aren't really worth mentioning. Lugosi is at the center of the story, and the best part is watching just how maniacal he gets. It's not like "Dracula" where he's just pure evil; there's more realism in his performance because he's just someone who can't deal with what's happened. He feels betrayed, and this is the only way he feels justice can be served. And during the scenes where he's torturing the other characters, it's just great to see how much he enjoys it. He holds nothing back in how he acts; when he makes a big speech or laughs at his victims, we believe it.
Now, the movie is almost just worth it because of the novelty of having both Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi; it wasn't the first or last time this happened. They united for another Poe film, 1934's "The Black Cat," and in the 1939 film "Son of Frankenstein." They're usually talked about as rivals; I'm not sure if they were, or if they were actually friends. But very often Karloff got top-billing; however, he doesn't have nearly as much to do in "The Raven," but he makes his scenes work really well. It's interesting that even though he's a convicted killer, we don't quite see him as an evil guy. He's just caught up in a desperate situation, and he feels like there's nothing he can do but help Vollin; and in the end, he's able to see how it isn't worth it. I also like how both Karloff and Lugosi use their best trademarks. Lugosi has the facial expressions that he's well known for, and there are instances were Karloff growls just like the Frankenstein monster.
I wouldn't quite go so far as call this movie a classic. Like I said, most of the supporting characters are relatively forgettable and underdeveloped, and yeah, it's only mildly inspired by the Poe story rather than being a real adaptation. But regardless, it's a great story about revenge, obsession and betrayal, and it's one of Karloff and Lugosi's finest collaborations.
Okay, he's name-checked more than once. The villainous Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) claims to be an enormous fan, a few quotes are dropped in here and there, and there's one weird dance number apparently inspired by the eponymous poem. But it's all just lip service really, a borderline-cynical way of getting a recognisable horror 'brand' into the title of your movie. Universal pulled a similar trick with the previous year's 'The Black Cat' (which also starred Lugosi and Boris Karloff) but Poe is less well-served here, I think. Yes, it's true that 'The Black Cat' draws practically nothing from its ostensible source, but at least that film does have an oppressive atmosphere which is fairly evocative of the tone of Poe's writing. 'The Raven', on the other hand, owes more to Gaston Leroux than Poe, peopled as it is by an insane and obsessed stalker with a plethora of death-traps, architectural tricks and even a giant pipe organ at his disposal. It's the 'Phantom of the Opera' meets 'Dr Kildare'. On paper, he sounds as derivative as villains come.
But let's not forget that Vollin is being played by Bela Lugosi, an actor so committed to his florid, over-the-top acting choices that he seems incapable of committing a single dull moment to celluloid. Vollin may be dull in concept, but in Lugosi's hands he pops and crackles with diabolical electricity. "I'm the sanest man alive!" he screams while wearing possibly the most insane face ever caught on camera - not only is Vollin completely batshit, but by the end of this barnstorming slice of grand guignol you'll be convinced that Lugosi is too. Suffice to say, 'The Raven' is Lugosi's show all the way, with all the good and bad that this entails.
Once again he's been teamed with Boris Karloff, and once again Karloff does his damndest to turn in a real performance in the face of Lugosi's 'enthusiasm'. His character, Edmond Bateman, appears to have been devised specifically to evoke memories of the actor's star-making turn in 'Frankenstein'; Bateman is a shambling and dangerous mute, but in Karloff's hands he is also sympathetic and ultimately a reasonably affecting anti-hero. Karloff is absolutely gold as usual, managing to do something with an extremely generic part (his reaction upon awaking in Vollin's subterranean surgery is genuinely good stuff) and, if nothing else, he deserves massive kudos for not being drawn into whatever pantomime Lugosi thinks he's acting in.
The film is enthusiastic almost to a fault, throwing a lot of lurid stuff at the screen, including a collection of torture-machines that seem like an attempt to one-up the finale of 'The Black Cat'; I recall that Kevin Brownlow's documentary 'Universal Horror' pin-pointed this film as one of the final straws for Hollywood's moral watchdogs who successfully campaigned to neuter the studio's horror output for the rest of the 1930's. It's fun while it lasts, though, and there's a manic glee to the ghastly parade. Its all well-mounted by 'Louis Friedlander' (aka the ludicrously prolific journeyman Lew Landers); his shots of the slowly descending pendulum are quite startling (and surely 'The Pit and the Pendulum' would surely have been a better title for this?).
But 'The Raven' is lacking the mood and class of 'The Black Cat'; in the end it's grand finale comes off more like a cliffhanger serial than a horror film. Lugosi fans will love it, and his final scenes achieve the kind of operatic majesty that can only be achieved by a born ham in full, furious flow. But if you're not a big fan of black-and-white horror, you may wish to approach a tad cautiously.