There have been many movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe but with this early offering from Universal Pictures we get a nice spin on things, a mad doctor with an obsession for the works of Edgar Allen Poe is twisted and turned when his fixation on a woman he saved on the operating table becomes murderous, add Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff into the mix and you are talking horror gold.
Directed by Lew Landers and released in 1935, Universal’s The Raven is a captivating and atmospheric Gothic thriller that immerses viewers in a world of mystery and suspense. Set in early 19th-century England, the film follows a brilliant but tortured surgeon named Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” The horror begins when Vollin becomes infatuated with a young dancer, Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), who is gravely injured in a car accident, and Vollin comes out of retirement and performs the surgery when the girl’s father Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) pleads for his help. Unfortunately, while the surgery was a rousing success Vollin becomes obsessed with Jean and his desire for her soon spirals into madness and he will let no one stand in the way of his claiming her. Not her boyfriend Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and especially not her father, but love is not his ultimate go as his Poe-fuelled obsession results in a desire to torture all parties, with poor Jean and Jerry are locked in a room with crushing walls and Judge Hardin placed under a device inspired by Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
Of course, no self-respecting mad scientist can function properly without a disfigured assistant at his side and in the case of The Raven that role is filled by Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), a bank robber on the run after killing two guards and then escaping from San Quentin, who is advised by one of his criminal associates to seek out Dr. Vollin and see if the good doctor could perform plastic surgery to alter his looks. Vollin informs Bateman that he will perform such surgery if Bateman helps him murder and torture a few annoying individuals, which sounds like a fair deal to me, but when Bateman posits the theory of why he became criminal, stating “I’m saying, Doc, maybe because I look ugly… maybe if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things,” which gives Vollin the brilliant idea of giving Bateman a very memorable face, instead of a nice unassuming visage he disfigures half of the man’s face by damaging his seventh cranial nerve. This results in Bateman reluctantly submitting to Vollin’s demands so that the doctor will hopefully undo the procedure. Which sounds like a plan, it’s not like Vollin seems at all untrustworthy or totally off his rocker.
• For someone who has been in a terrible automobile accident Jean Thatcher looks in surprisingly good shape, sure she has nerve damage but I don’t think her make-up even got smudged.
• If the only chance to save your daughter’s life relies on an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed Bela Lugosi you’d best start making funeral arrangements, also, book bulk graveyard plots as well.
• Dr. Vollin illustrates the fact that if you have a pipe organ in your home you must play Bach’s Toccata in Fugue in D-Minor.
• Jean Thatcher does an interpretive dance to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” and I have to wonder “Did she want to drive the Poe-obsessed Vollin over the edge?”
• It’s never explained why or how a world-renowned neurosurgeon became known to the underworld as someone who could provide plastic surgery for criminals looking for a new face.
Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dr. Vollin is masterful, showcasing his ability to portray complex characters with depth and intensity and his transformation from a respected surgeon into a deranged and vengeful madman is both chilling and mesmerizing. Then as an added bonus, we have Boris Karloff delivering a strong performance as Bateman, a criminal who becomes entangled in Vollin’s wicked schemes and his empathetic and tragic figure is a nice counterpoint to Lugosi’s mad scientist. On the technical side of things, the film’s cinematography by Charles Stumar deserves praise for its moody and atmospheric visuals with its shadowy and Gothic settings, coupled with the use of stark contrasts, create a sense of foreboding that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. The atmospheric lighting and eerie sound design further enhance the film’s overall sense of dread and suspense. Then there is the nice work by legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce who was on hand to provide Karloff’s gruesome appearance.
Note: In the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace, Boris Karloff plays a killer who has plastic surgery to change his features, unfortunately, this results in him killing a man because “He said I looked like Boris Karloff” which is a pretty nice meta-joke for a 1930s play.
The Raven excels in building tension and maintaining a constant air of mystery and while the script at times seems a little melodramatic, it is well-crafted and keeps the audience engaged throughout. The film also effectively explores themes of obsession, madness and the corrupting power of revenge, drawing inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s works in the most horrifying ways possible. One of the film’s standout moments is the climax, which delivers a thrilling and suspenseful showdown between the characters, with its final act providing a satisfying culmination of the story, with unexpected twists and turns that leave a lasting impact.
Question: How do you go about finding a contractor to build you a house with hidden passageways, rooms that can be lowered like an elevated car, install various torture devices like a bladed pendulum, and a room where the walls close in to crush its occupants?
What is a little disappointing is that not only did Karloff get top billing over Lugosi in this outing he also received twice the salary, which is terrible when considering the fact that Karloff was clearly a secondary character and the whole movie centres around Lugosi’s Poe-obsessed madman and not the disfigured henchman. Karloff does give an excellent performance as an escaped convict, who Lugosi mutilates into becoming his reluctant murder accomplice, but he doesn’t even enter the movie until almost the halfway point.
It should be noted that this movie also nicely escapes the “In name only adaptation” problem that plagues many adaptions of Poe’s work by utilizing a nice twist on the source material, this is not a literal depiction of any of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, instead, it’s about a man obsessed with the author and his works. Overall, Universal’s 1965 release of The Raven is a must-watch for fans of classic horror and mystery films. Its atmospheric visuals, exceptional performances, and chilling storyline make it a timeless gem and remain an important film in the horror genre, showcasing the talents of two iconic actors, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
The Raven (1935)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Despite its age, The Raven stands as a testament to the enduring power of classic horror cinema and it serves as a reminder of the immense talent of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, whose performances in this film prove what a dynamic duo they were.