I recently purchased the just released Bela Lugosi Collection and the 1935 feature, “The Raven” was my first selection. Having previously seen the dark erotically charged and best of the lot, “The Black Cat”, I decided to start with the films I have yet to view.
With a short running time of 61 minutes, the film waste no time quickly establishing its storyline. There is a car accident in which our beautiful leading lady Jean Thatcher ((Irene Ware) is severely hurt and in need of a precise and detailed operation. Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S Hinds) pleads with retired doctor Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) to perform the operation. Vollin is an egotistical madman with an obsession for Edgar Allan Poe. He refuses to perform the operation until the pleading Judge mentions that the other doctors have admitted they cannot perform the delicate procedure and he is the only one capable of guaranteeing a successful outcome., they all admit, he is the best. After hearing this admission, Vollin and his oversized ego agree to perform the operation.
The surgery is a success and Jean is ever grateful to the Doctor who has developed more than just doctor/patient feelings toward the attractive and engaged young woman. When Judge Thatcher notices the Doctor’s fondness for Jean he confronts him only to have Vollin admit his love. Vollin refuses to stay away from her, infuriated by the Judge’s response, he comes up with a plan to seek revenge.
When escaped murderer Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) seeks Vollin’s help in transforming his face so he can live anonymously, Vollin only promises to give him a new face if he will agree to help in seeking his murderous revenge. When Bateman refuses, Vollin goes along with the facial operation but turns Bateman into a hideously disfigured ogre. He now promises Bateman that he will fix his face only if he helps him with his torturous vengeance driven plan.
Inspired by Poe’s classic poem, screenwriter David Boehm created a story filled with Poe touches. The poem itself is used twice, early in the film we see Vollin recite it and later on, Jean performs an interpretive dance as the poem is read on stage, a performance she dedicated to the Doctor. Vollin’s Poe fetish is also seen in various torturous devices that he will use before the film ends such as a pendulum swinging and a shrinking room.
Though Karloff is given top billing, and supposely a higher paycheck, he does not appear until approximately 15 minutes or so into the short feature, subsequently this is really Lugosi’s film. His character dominates the proceedings, with mad insane delusions that he is a Godlike figure. Lugosi’s tendency to overact works well here considering that he see himself as superior to all.
The film turned out to be too strong in its horror for the audiences of its day. The combination of disfigurement, torture, strong desires, and glee, to inflict pain apparently turned off the moviegoers. Today, these elements are partially responsible for what holds the film’s interest to modern day audience. Karloff as the disfigured murderer Bateman comes off again as the most sympathetic figure in the film. A killer who does not want commit another crime, tragically left at the mercy of the revenge seeking mad doctor.
While not in the same class as Edgar Ulmer’s “The Black Cat”, and none of the other entries in this collection are, “The Raven” is a nice minor piece of 1930’s horror that is well worth watching despite some obvious problems like the awfully quick operation and recovery of Bateman and some dated dialogue that is unintentionally humorous. The film contains many of the atmospheric standards of the horror film of its day, including a strange eerie house, and stormy nights along with a nice Franz Waxman score. The ending is a bit too abrupt and does not contain the tense dramatic build up that it would have made it more satisfying. Still, this is a decent and entertaining film.