Monday, 1 April 2013

The Raven (1935)

There are a lot of movies around that have used the title of Poe’s famous poem to go off at tangents, be a bit mental, and in fact do anything but adapt the literary work in question. Probably the earliest version of note (and certainly the earliest worth a look) is this smashing 1935 Universal picture. It bears no relation to the poem at all, but it does star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a mashup of the lurid conte cruele and an old dark house mystery. 
Lugosi is brilliant surgeon Dr Richard Vollin, who has forsaken his practice to live in a big house with an organ, rooms that can move about and a dungeon filled with torture devices from Poe’s stories. He’s a Poe obsessive, you see, which means he gets to recite a bit of the poem itself at the beginning while explaining to the nervous chap who has dared to suggest he might like to sell his Poe collection that the large stuffed bird on his desk that’s casting the most splendid shadow on the wall is his good luck charm. This chatty little introduction is interrupted by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S Hinds). It turns out his daughter Jean (Irene Ware) has been involved in a car accident and Vollin is the only man who can save her brain-damaged dancer’s life. Vollin agrees, saves Jean, and then gets a bit obsessed about her being his ‘Lenore’. In true mad doctor fashion he decides that the only way he can make her his is by inviting her and her friends including fiance Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) to a dinner party where afterwards he’s going to torture and kill them. His plan is helped along by the arrival at his house of Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a convicted murderer who wants his face changed so the police won’t recognise but also in the hope that if he’s made less ugly he may not ‘do ugly things anymore’. Vollin agrees but instead does something naughty to Bateman’s right facial nerve, turning that side of his face into a wrinkled monstrosity that’s revealed in the cruellest and most dramatic way possible before a wall of mirrors. Karloff shoots at the glass while Lugosi does a lot of silent film-style mugging from his observation window well away from the enraged criminal. Vollin promises to restore Karloff’s face if he will serve him. 
The dinner party ensues, Karloff kidnaps the judge and Lugosi traps him beneath a swinging pendulum blade. The film is only an hour long and in the last ten minutes Jean and Jerry get trapped in a room with crushing walls, Bateman rebels, gets shot for his efforts, Jean and Jerry and the Judge are saved, Lugosi gets to say ‘Poe - you are avenged!’ before laughing maniacally and then being dragged into the crusher by Karloff who then drops dead form the bullet wounds inflicted on him by the mad doctor.
Universal’s THE RAVEN is barking mad and absolutely worth watching, if only for the performances by the two leads - Karloff the consummate professional actor and Lugosi the unique presence that even in this film seems to be out of touch with modern cinema. Louis Friedlander (later Lew Landers) directs the proceedings pretty well, with the previously mentioned mirror scene a standout. What prevents it from being considered one of the best Universal horrors is its descent into cliched old dark house shenanigans near the end, but it should still be on the must see list of any discerning horror film fan, even after nearly eighty years.

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