Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more."-- Edgar Allan Poe - The Raven
1935’s The Raven re-teamed Universal studio’s horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a melodramatic grand guignol style film focusing on the often used (now cliché) mad scientist/doctor bent on revenge. It wasn’t based on Poe’s poem The Raven, but was strongly influenced by several of Poe’s ideas, particularly The Pit and the Pendulum. (Lugosi became a huge but temporary star after 1931’s Dracula; recreating his role from Broadway in Tod Browning’s classic film. Karloff became a huge horror star for Universal after playing the MONSTER in Frankenstein—a role that Lugosi turned down because he would be covered up in make-up and had no speaking lines.)
Lugosi tried to avoid being typecast as a ‘horror’ film star, while Karloff gracefully allowed the studio to make him their go-to horror star. Karloff was a more successful ‘star’ appearing in several big box office movies. Lugosi made a few popular films, but never came close to repeating the success of his debut; Dracula. His thick accent and theatrical acting style limited his roles and public appeal.
Universal decided to team Karloff and Lugosi in several films. The first; was 1934's The Black Cat (bearing little resemblance to Poe’s short story) was a huge success at the box office and so. .. next up was The Raven. (which would be followed by 1936's The Invisible Ray, the classic Son of Frankenstein in 1939 with Lugosi as Igor, and Karloff's last screen appearance as The Monster-- and the lesser known, Black Friday in 1940).
The Raven gave Lugosi a rare chance to truly dominate a film (as he did in Dracula). He was billed second, but played the more colorful and dominant role. It was the only time he had the lead role in the films he made with Karloff. And his very theatrical, hammy performance remains extremely entertaining to watch. It’s unfortunate most of the supporting players were written as dull stock characters and cast with mostly flat little known studio contract players.
Karloff is also very good in his supporting role and when it comes time to have his big scene—it’s very effective and memorable. However, his is definitely a supporting role and the script only gives him a couple of interesting scenes. Samuel Hinds is very bland as Judge Thatcher—someone like Edward Van Sloan could have brought something to the role, but alas since it’s not a particularly well-written part and actor Hinds doesn’t do much with the role it’s a missed opportunity.
Perhaps part of the blame for the bland supporting cast is that director. Lew Landers doesn’t bring any style or flair with the exception of an interesting tracking shot and a few interesting angles. There’s a good gothic set design but it’s not on the same level of the earlier Universal Horror films nor as weird as the art-deco designs of The Black Cat. Jack Pierce’s make-up for Karloff is good; particularly in the long shots, but too many close-ups lessen the effect. The music is standard Universal library stuff with music that’s very close to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
There are however several good scenes, an exciting finale (though the last 30 seconds is very corny) and Lugosi’s wonderfully styled theatrical performance which includes a dramatic reading of part of Poe’s The Raven.
PLOT (without tell-all SPOILERS)
Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) –a young woman is injured and disfigured in a car crash. Her father, Judge Thatcher realizes the best person to help his daughter is a retired doctor/who also did some important breakthrough work to repair nerve damage—(he’s NOT a plastic surgeon) named Dr. Vollin (Bela Lugosi). He at first refuses, telling Thatcher (as only Lugosi can): “death hasn’t the same significance for me as it has for you.” Thatcher however insists and convinces Vollin to operate and save his daughter’s Jean life. He is successful.
Vollin we learn is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. He has a stuffed Raven because he not only loves the poem The Raven by Poe but also believes the bird is his personal mystical symbol. . He has also built several…let’s call them tributes to POE-- inspired by Poe’s stories… in his basement. As he says in his deliberate way—“he is a law unto himself.”
Yes, Dr. Vollin is quite mad—just the sort of role you want Lugosi to play.
Several weeks later, the now healthy Jean finds herself more than merely appreciative of Dr. Vollin. She even does a special “POE” dance for him. Vollin encourages the attraction which is a problem for Jean’s utterly boring Doctor fiancé and Judge Thatcher. The Judge threatens Vollin which angers the doctor—never a good thing.
Meanwhile, a criminal on the run, Edward Bateman (Boris Karloff) demands that Vollin help him alter his facial appearance. He tries to convince the Doctor that’s he’s been falsely accused of a crime—but the Doc doesn’t really believe him.
“if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things,” Bateman pleads.
This seems to give Vollin a sinister idea and he replies very slowly:
“You are saying something profound.”
Vollin, makes a deal with Bateman. If Bateman agrees to help him, he’ll do the surgery Bateman wants. Vollin doesn’t trust Bateman however and purposefully horrifically distorts Bateman’s face to make sure he will help him kidnap Jean’s father and fiancé.
“Your monstrous ugliness creates monstrous hate,” Vollin chuckles. “I can use your hate.”
Vollin you see has plans to get revenge on Judge Thatcher and a few others. It involves torture.
It also involves inviting a lot of people over to his castle like house for a party. This means we have to endure some desperate attempts at comic relief and some very strained, but mercifully very short romantic banter.
However, things really come together in a pretty exciting (and in its day—quite shocking) last 10 minutes or so of the picture.
(End PLOT Synopsis)
Some of the film’s flaws might be attributed to its rushed production. Filmed edited and released in about three months, the film was one of the last horror films whose script was not pre-approved by the Breen office censors. Indeed The RAVEN would likely not have been released if the production code was in full force. Horror films, violent gangster movies and sexuality were about to come under fire do to organized public pressure.
Universal’s classic horror films saved the studio from bankruptcy in the early 1930s. Despite their popularity, they were controversial and received little respect. There were few Oscar nominations—even in technical categories for 1930s horror films--Frankenstein, Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein received no award nominations. (1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made at Paramount won Fredrick March an acting Oscar and it was also nominated for best cinematography and adapted screenplay and in 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame (made at RKO) received nominations for Music and Sound; and in 1940 special effects nominations were given to Dr. Cyclops (Paramount), and 2 Universal horror films: The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman). Universal was trying to re-establish itself as a higher class respectable studio putting less time and resources into the horror genre.
The Raven was made for approximately $115,000 shot in 2 weeks at Universal Studios Stage 28 and released to theaters three months later on July 8th, 1935.
The Raven appears best on DVD in The Bela Lugosi Collection, and was also released as an older stand-alone (taken from a slightly washed out 16 m.m. TV print). Interesting to some, The Raven was among the first horror movies released to television (in 1957) in a package of approximately 35 films licensed to television stations as the Shock Theater collection.
1935’s The Raven is a 61 minute black and white horror film starring Bela Lugosi at his hammy best and Boris Karloff in a lesser supporting role. It is certainly a dated, corny film by today’s standards, but it remains very entertaining and it’s easy to imagine many modern films being influenced by it. Add some gore and a few updates and it would probably make a satisfying modern day horror film…oh wait… Hostel sort of did that already didn’t it? Anyway, if you have an appreciation for older films, The Raven is one to be sure to watch. It doesn’t have as much style as several of the better known classics, but it’s a keeper.
“I tear torture out of myself by torturing you!”
©2012, Christopher J. Jarmick
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV