While it shares the title of perhaps Edgar Allen Poe's most iconic and well-remembered work, 1935's 'The Raven' takes its main inspiration from the more general overriding themes in the great and macabre author's canon. The movie stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vollin, a talented but deranged surgeon who's grim hobby involves recreating various torture devices from Poe's stories.
Boris Karloff is Bateman, a fugitive who makes the mistake of demanding Vollin's services to change his appearance and evade the law. A pitch black portrayal of revenge, obsession, torture and death, the film proved so controversial upon its release that it led to a brief ban on horror pictures in the UK. But does 'The Raven' still have the power to shock some 78 years on?
To backtrack slightly, our story begins with a car accident in which Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), the daughter of an influential Judge (Samuel Hinds), is seriously injured. The Judge, Jean's fiance Jerry (Lester Matthews) and a team of doctors all agree that only the retired Dr. Vollin has the necessary skill to perform the operation that will save her. Vollin is reluctant to help, but after much pleading, he eventually relents. The operation is a complete success and Jean, eager to express her gratitude, befriends Vollin who in turn begins to develop an obsession with the pretty, cheerful and seemingly-oblivious young lady.
Judge Thatcher has been observing the growing relationship between his daughter and the doctor with some unease and he visits Vollin essentially to warn him off pursuing his romantic interest reminding him that Jean is, after all already engaged to Jerry. Vollin, who seems to think that his initial favor of restoring Jean's health should grant him first refusal of her love, is furious and after having had his sanity questioned, he dismisses the Judge with considerable disgust.
It is at this point that the gun-toting Bateman (Karloff) enters the scene and makes his own forceful request of the surgeon's skilled hands. Thanks to newspaper coverage, Vollin is already aware of Bateman's crimes and agrees to change his face only on the condition that Bateman in turn lends his particular area of expertise to him by way of a brutal revenge on the Judge. For his part, Bateman wishes to move on from his nefarious past, believing that what he perceives as his own physical ugliness may have caused him 'to do ugly things' and that a change in his appearance will aid him in becoming a better person. Once more it seems that the doctor has allowed his better nature to prevail as he eventually agrees to perform the operation - but once more, he also has a more sinister motive. Deliberately, sadistically and horribly disfiguring Bateman, Vollin tells him that he will only fix his gruesome handiwork if he receives full co-operation in his plotting against the Thatchers. Faced with no alternative, a remorseful Bateman agrees.
It soon transpires that the mad surgeon's end-game revolves around a dinner party, on the surface of it hosted as a means of apologizing for his prior conversation with the Judge. One by one, Vollin aims to steer the Judge, Jean and Jerry into tailor-made and Poe-inspired death traps that he believes most befit their imagined wrongdoings - but will Bateman aid him or foil him? Is Bateman's ugliness only skin deep, or is he like Dr. Vollin, rotten to the core?
Together with the previous year's 'The Black Cat' (which I will most certainly get to very soon), 'The Raven' forms a neat double-bill of outstanding early horror movies that unmistakably pit Lugosi and Karloff against each other as arch-rivals. Both are stylish, thought-provoking and clock in at little over an hour each, never wasting a moment. While our stars would feature together in other pictures, such as 'Son Of Frankenstein' and 'The Invisible Ray', none would play up their on-screen rivalry more than the two tangentially Poe-related films. While there is of course none of the sex, explicit violence and obvious gore that would come to be associated with the genre, these are perhaps two of Universal's very darkest early horror films and much of their shock value remains intact.
In 'The Raven', Lugosi gives one of his very best performances - the image of his maniacally laughing face, looking down through a grate as a traumatized and newly disfigured Karloff is confronted by a series of mirrors is one of the most memorable of the era. His ice cold, simple declaration of "Yes. I like to torture," is absolutely bone-chilling and despite a great and relatively understated showing by Karloff, it remains Lugosi's show and the fact that he was given second-billing is something of a travesty. Thankfully Bela's performance is so strong and has such impact that no mere credits will affect viewer's perception of who the true star of this movie really is. All in all, while it may lack a marquee monster at its center, 'The Raven' is completely unmissable for any fan of classic horror.