At the pinnacle of his insanity in “The Raven” Bela Lugosi, as the mad surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin, screams out, “Poe, you are avenged!” But who will avenge Poe for the misuse of his name in this monster mish-mash of mad scientist, torture chamber, haunted house, and ugly-faced butler clichés?
When the first pairing of Karloff and Lugosi in “The Black Cat” (1934) turned out to be a hit, Universal concocted a story “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal classic” “The Raven.” Unfortunately, the new script, credited onscreen to David Boehm alone, although there were seven other contributors, including Dore Schary and Guy Endore, was one of the most insipid from Universal’s golden age of horror.
Lugosi is Dr. Vollin, whose reputation as a brilliant surgeon proves to be more a curse than a blessing. When Jean (Irene Ware), the daughter of Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) crashes her car and her life is in the balance, the young woman’s doctors tell her father that Vollin is the only man who can save her life. Vollin has given up his practice to devote himself to research and at first refuses to help. Thatcher plays on his vanity and Vollin agrees to operate.
Within a matter of weeks, Jean is up and perfectly well again. Vollin misreads her gratitude as passion and determines to wed her. Thatcher, at first thinking like Vollin that Jean loves him, tries to dissuade the older physician from encouraging her attentions. When he realizes that it’s Vollin who is doing the chasing, he become horrified and warns the doctor to keep away.
The good-natured Jean, who is a ballerina, choreographs a dance called “The Spirit of Poe”—dressed in a costume that makes her look like a Margaret Brundage “Weird Tales” cover girl--to show her appreciation to Vollin, who is such a admirer of the writer’s that he has created life-sized replicas of the torture devices mentioned in Poe’s tales.
Discovering the extent of Vollin’s fanboyism is one of those hold-the-phone moments. This is a man who boasts about building and owning working torture devices and no one appears to find it in the least peculiar. Books, okay. Miniatures, okay. But a full-sized pit and pendulum set-up? “Death is my talisman,” he says. He first saw Jean lying still as death on the operating table, as good a stand-in for a morgue slab as the wealthy necrophile can find.
Paging Dr. Krafft-Ebing—call for Dr. Krafft-Ebing.
Now it’s time for Karloff to make his entrance into the story. He is Edmond Bateman, on the lam from the law after shooting his way out of prison and killing two policemen in the process. He’s also shoved a burning acetylene torch in some fella’s face, pretty much on a whim. Yes, he’s the one we end up feeling sorry for, which just goes to show what a fiend Vollin is.
Bateman is in some kind of dive or speakeasy. We can’t hear what’s being told to him, but we find out later that he is in search of a doctor who can alter his face enough to avoid recapture. He goes calling on Vollin.
Why? When a killer needs a crooked doctor, why does Vollin’s name enter the conversation? Vollin agrees to help Bateman when he gets the idea that if he makes the escaped con look ugly, he will be more apt to perform ugly acts. Vollin takes Bateman to his hidden operating room and reassures the con that a simple operation on the nerve endings of his face will alter his appearance, and it will take only ten minutes. The desperate Bateman agrees.
When the bandages are removed we see that the right side of Bateman’s face has been altered, but not for the better. Thanks to an uncredited Jack Pierce, Karloff’s face seems to have been melted. The actor completes the image by tipping his head slightly to the right, as if the neck muscles could no longer hold it upright. He hunches his shoulders forwards to create a stooped, hunched look.
Bateman first sees his new face in a series of mirrors that have been installed around the walls of the circular room. Each is behind a curtain, and the curtains are drawn one by one revealing a curved line of reflections. The moment is effective, but the question arises, why would Vollin have such a place in his house unless he’s made a hobby of distorting people’s faces and then forcing them to stare at repeated images of their new ugliness.
From this point on the film becomes more and more a reflection of Vollin’s mind, and as such it becomes less and less sane. The doctor lures Jean, her father, and her fiancé to the house for a weekend party—along with two other couples of such lesser importance it is difficult to fathom why they invited along unless they represent a plot development that was cut from the final film.
But now the house, with its secret doorways, hidden torture chamber, steel shutters, and traps in the floor, becomes huge. There is no end to the torture chamber, which goes on forever into the shadows.
Vollin straps Judge Thatcher—named as he is for a representative of solid American respectability and sanity in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”—onto a slab under the swinging pendulum, and he locks Jean and her fiancé (Lester Matthews) into a steel-walled chamber that will crush them to death.
Vollin and Bateman have the inevitable falling out over the girl’s fate and only those who deserve a horrible death receive one.
There are two attractions to “The Raven.” One is the pairing of its two stars, both of whom are credited at the film’s opening by their last names only. They are still working well together although Lugosi’s over the top hysterical mania is less convincing than Karloff’s soft-spoken, hesitant, almost reluctant murderousness and masochism.
The film’s second pleasure is its heedless rush to barking madness. Director Louis Friedlander’s (later billed as Lew Landers) lack of restraint stands out in a field that has since given us “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as the benchmark of cinematic no-holds-barred lunacy.
“The Raven” is a 12-year old boy’s interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe, all they-think-I’m-crazy-but-I’ll-show-them-how-sane-I-am-heh-heh-heh screeching and posturing. It’s not possible to take it seriously, nor is it in the least frightening at the visceral level. But it is fun and, taken with “The Black Cat,” it makes a nice showcase for its two leads.