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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Raven (1935) review



Boris Karloff (Edmond Bateman), Bela Lugosi (Dr. Richard Vollin), Lester Matthews (Dr. Jerry Halden), Irene Ware (Jean Thatcher), Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher), Spencer Charters (Col. Grant), Ian Wolfe (Geoffrey)

Directed by Louis Friedlander

"You're monstrously ugly! Monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate... good! I can use your hate!"

The Short Version: Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem is brought to barbarous life melding mad scientists with modernized medieval torture devices. Both Lugosi and Karloff are incredible in this antiquated horror show. Lugosi is especially magnetic with his deluge of sharp stares, fiendish grins and frenetic line delivery. Karloff is pitch perfect as Lugosi's pseudo pathetic instrument of evil. The last half of the film is extraordinarily busy with all manner of ghoulish gadgets, weapons of death, and an elaborate torture dungeon. The bird is the word, and that word is definitely THE RAVEN (1935) in this surprisingly potent horror shocker. 

Judge Thatcher implores the distinguished, redoubtable surgeon, Dr. Vollin to save his daughter, Jean -- a famous dancer -- after she's nearly killed in an automobile accident. An avid, and obsessive collector of Poe, Dr. Vollin becomes equally obsessed with the much younger woman whose life he saved. Manipulating a wanted murderer into aiding him, the beautiful Jean Thatcher, her fiance, her father and some others are invited to a weekend getaway by Vollin. Not long after their arrival, they all end up imprisoned within his labyrinthine, deathtrap-laden estate.

Following their first team-up in the brooding satanic horror of THE BLACK CAT (1934), Karloff and Lugosi returned to shock audiences again for this encore of their acting talents. But whereas they were both of equal authority in that film, Lugosi controls the program here despite Karloff getting top billing (he's listed as just Karloff in the credits, and his single name draws attention to itself with its bigger font)

There's an incredible amount of activity crammed into David Boehm's script; especially for a film that only lasts slightly over 60 minutes. It makes for a rather quick pace, though. The mastication of whole sequences by Lugosi is but one attribute. His literal House of Traps contains a variety of hidden passageways, gadgets and mechanisms. This modernization extends to a medieval torture dungeon that Vollin models on the works of his favorite author and poet, Edgar Allan Poe. His ultimately disturbing adulation mirrors that of Vincent Price's murderous Shakespeare worship from the classic THEATER OF BLOOD (1973).

Within these hellish walls are olde world devices of assorted deviltry including a fully operational pendulum nestled threateningly within its own pit. This particular machine is upgraded with modern technology to better hold its victim in place while the swinging blade inches closer to the mechanisms fleshy cargo. 

Vollin even has a contraption that enables an entire room to descend hellward to his dungeon of death; while another room holds the power to crush people into pulp with one pull of a lever! When the film isn't exploiting the gruesome consequences of Vollin's putrid playground, it veers into other tasteless terror-tory. 

Lugosi's Dr. Vollin is one vile monster. He's the opposite of the misguided, but well intentioned (yet mad) Dr. Frankenstein. He's a revered, brilliant surgeon; but unlike the Baron, Vollin has no intentions of creating life -- he's only interested in destroying it, and preceded by torture whenever possible. Vollin is narcissism incarnate. He believes he's above human kind, and even refers to himself as "a god with the taint of human emotions." Vollin's strengths aren't just relegated to his brain and his hands. He's also highly skilled in his power of coercion.

When the fugitive Bateman (Karloff) comes to him in the hopes he'll alter his face via plastic surgery to make him attractive, Vollin confirms he'll perform the operation; and he does, but not in the way Bateman originally wanted. Instead, Vollin viciously deforms Bateman for the sole purpose of using him as a murderous tool to possess the dancer Jean Thatcher.

Other than narcissism, vanity is another theme running through the narrative. Bateman is as obsessed with being handsome as Vollin is with Poe, torture contraptions, and Jean Thatcher. Bateman is the intellectual opposite to Vollin. He's impulsive, not very bright, and on top of that, a murderer. Vollin uses his inadequacies to his advantage. One gets the feeling that the evil Vollin never had the intention of fixing the face of the quasi-pitiable Bateman. He's repeatedly prodded and poked into pulling all the levers, throwing all the switches, and retrieving all the victims. 

Karloff plays up the victim of circumstance aspects of his character, even though he's not at all an innocent fellow. But it's hard not to see the pain in Bateman's face and not feel some sort of sympathy for him. After all, we only ever hear about his past deeds, but see fully the torture he's put through at the hands of Dr. Vollin. Often it feels Karloff is channeling his famous Frankenstein Monster character. He even briefly resorts to the patchwork walking corpses grunting at one point. You almost expect him to utter, "We belong dead" during the gruesome conclusion.

In 1963, Roger Corman directed his own version of THE RAVEN that had even less to do with Edgar Allan Poe. That picture was nonetheless a splendid melding of horror and comedy featuring a slew of terror titans of the day. Karloff co-starred there alongside Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. A more recent interpretation surfaced in 2012 with John Cusack playing Poe investigating murders based on killings from his own works. It has its moments, but this newer project is overlong, plodding, and unnecessarily gory. 

For a film of its vintage, THE RAVEN (1935) is noticeably sadistic. Things would tone down a bit from here when Karloff teamed up with Lugosi for the SciFi-horror of THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936). BLACK FRIDAY (1940) was mostly a crime picture slightly tinted with a SciFi slant. Audiences showed their preference for Karloff and Lugosi made up as monsters as opposed to monsters of the human sort when SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) reinvigorated Universal's lagging horror line. For enthusiasts, THE RAVEN is a surprisingly shocking movie and immensely entertaining. Not only this, but lots more.

This review is representative of the Universal BELA LUGOSI COLLECTION DVD.


Nathan Cabaniss said...

That Bela Lugosi collection is one of my most prized DVD's. And The Raven is a good bit of fun, although I think I prefer The Black Cat out of the Karloff/Lugosi team-ups.

venoms5 said...

It's a great set, Nathan. THE BLACK CAT is a good one, too.

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