The 1935 pairing of horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is still enjoyably over-the-top entertainment.
With the advances in Video on Demand, including services like Amazon.com and Netflix that allow you to watch movies on your TV anytime you like without having to own them, my days of purchasing DVDs are rapidly dwindling. However, I still cannot resist a bargain, and I have a fondness for box sets that package together multiple titles for one low price. Purists complain that the bit-rate on these discs (which save money by squeezing in two films per side) results in reduced quality, but generally I have fond them to be worth the money. One of my favorites is “Bela Lugosi” DVD collection from 2005, which is a must-have for fans of classic horror. The package offers five films (each just a tad over 60 minutes) on two sides of a single disc, with some nice box cover art but almost no bonus features (just a trailer or two).
The highlight of the set is 1934’s THE BLACK CAT, but THE RAVEN (1935) remains a personal favorite, because it gives Lugosi an opportunity to outshine his co-star Boris Karloff (even though Karloff gets top billing). THE RAVEN is the second of three films that Universal Pictures made as a vehicle to co-star Karloff and Lugosi (the first was THE BLACK CAT; the third was THE INVISIBLE RAY). The two had more or less equal roles in BLACK CAT, but Lugosi is clearly the lead in THE RAVEN; Karloff’s character doesn’t even enter until fifteen minutes into the running time (approximately one-quarter of the short film).
THE RAVEN is not quite as good as I remembered, mostly because it is way, way over the top. Lugosi was a stage actor who never got out of the habit of projecting his performance as if he were trying to reach viewers in the back rows of the theatre; on screen, the result can seem quite hammy. Nevertheless, his out-of-control style ultimately works, especially in the latter scenes when the character is past all retrains and thoroughly enjoying the evil he is perpetrating.
The story is about a Dr. Richard Vollin, a great surgeon who has retired to do research and to work on his private obsession, which is collecting –and creating — Poe memorabilia. He brags to a museum representative early on that he has created many of the torture devices that Poe described in his stories (such as the knife-edged pendulum from “The Pit and the Pendulum”). Vollin is called out of retirement to save the life of a young woman, who has been in a car accident. He falls in love with his patient, and begins his descent into madness, calling himself “a god…with the taint of human emotion.”
As Vollin explains it, he renders a service to mankind, but in order to perform that service, his hand must be steady and his mind unclouded by emotions that torture him. When it becomes clear that his patient does not return his love, Vollin’s only solution is seek a truly bizarre form of catharsis: torturing everyone who stands in the way of his frustrated consummation.
He is abetted in this by Edward Bateman (Karloff), an escaped prisoner who once put a torch in the face of a guard during a bank heist. Bateman comes to Vollin looking for a new face so that he can hide from the police. Despite his criminal background, Bateman his a sympathetic figure. Unlike Vollin, who is upper-class, rich, and decadent, Bateman is a working class man obviously driven by circumstances, including not only his economic deprivation but his looks.
“May if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things,” he tells Vollin, who replies in rapt amazement, “You are saying something profound.”
Vollin performs surgery on Bateman, who wants to put his criminal past behind him, but only to make him even uglier (half his face is paralyzed, a blind eye staring at an awkward angle). “Your monstrous ugliness creates monstrous hate,” Vollin chuckles. “I can use your hate.”
The story comes to a climax when Vollin invites his unsuspecting guests to weekend party. After every one’s fallen asleep, he abducts his patient, her fiance, and her father and puts them into his various torture devices (which also include a room with walls that come together to crush those inside). Unfortunately for Vollin, the rebellious Bateman falls for the girl and rebels…
The film is a little bit of a B-movie, in the sense that the cast and settings are relatively small. A little bit of production value is added by reusing existing sets. (For example, Vollin’s patient is a dancer who performs a piece called “The Spirit of Poe,” which staged on the old opera set from Universal 1925 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.) Although the setting is contemporary, Vollins’ mansion has a basement that looks like a medieval torture chamber, complete with secret passageways. The supporting cast at the party suffers a bit from comic relief, but the lead players all do a very good job.
Like THE BLACK CAT, THE RAVEN is scored with existing bits of classical music (Lugosi at one point serenades his intended love with an excerpt from Back’s Toccata in D Minor). Lew Landers’ direction is somewhat perfunctory, but the studio production values help overcome the deficiencies, and in any case the real reason to see the film is watch the stars, who are aided and abetted by a script that plays to their strengths. Even if the story is not entirely sophisticated, the screenplay is filled with many memorable lines, and the characterizations, although broad, are a perfect fit for the actors, who admirably fill out the roles, their established personas and acting styles making up for the lack of (unnecessary, in this context) subtle psychological depth.
Lugosi is in his element in this one, playing a larger-than-life embodiment of evil insanity. He is nicely balanced by Karloff, who gives a much more low-key performance as a more believable character. The sparks fly quite effectively in thier uneasy partnership (Vollin blackmails Bateman into helping him by promising to restore his distorted features). Although the film is dated by today’s standards, I suspect it played quite well to its intended audience in the 1930s, the time of the great depression. It must have been fun for struggling Americans to see the wealthy Dr. Vollin portrayed as a raging maniac, while poor Bateman is reluctantly enlisted into aiding his evil plans, and there certainly was a grim satisfaction in seeing Bateman turn the tables at the end.
THE RAVEN clearly is not a faithful adaptation of its source material. But it is clearly inspired by by ideas lifted from Poe, particularly the concept of genius and madness co-existing in the same person, who insists on his sanity even while his murderous actions prove him to by quite insane. There is also the concept of a sensitive intellect being tortured by the lass of a great love — although in Poe’s eponymous poem, “the lost Lenore” is dead, not engaged to someone else.
In the end, the film version of THE RAVEN is a Hollywood concoction, pieced together to provide a vehicle for Lugosi and Karloff to duel it out on screen (an element enhanced for modern viewers by our awareness, courtesy of the film ED WOOD, of the competition between the two actors). On this level it thorougly succeeds, earning a sort of “limited” classic status. It is no masterpiece (unlike THE BLACK CAT), but it is an enduring entertainment, especially for Lugosi fans. Other viewers may find the film over-the-top, almost to the point of camp, but this is not the sort of film you need to take seriously in order to enjoy it. Just sit back and go along for the ride.
I mean, you’ve got to love a film wherein the villain chortles, “I tear torture out of myself by torturing you!” Or triumphantly proclaims at the climax, “Poe, you are avenged!”
THE RAVEN(1935). Directed by Lew Landers. Screenplay by David Boehm, inspired by the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds, Spencer Charters. Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe, Maidel Turner.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski. This version has been slightly updated.