“Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hatred. Good! I can use your hate” - Dr Richard Vollin
If you haven’t caught on by now that I’m a huge fan of Universal horror movies of the thirties and forties, then I’m afraid you just haven’t been paying attention. They have a certain quality to them that makes them timeless, and in a lot of ways, I think their output has dated a lot better than Hammer’s of thirty years later. I think that the black and white photography has helped over the years to retain the sense of off kilter weirdness, as well as the odd fusion of futuristic technology in a historical setting making it difficult, particularly in the Frankenstein films, to pinpoint exactly when the stories are intended to be set. It’s like a nightmarish Neverland. And of course there were the actors.
As much as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were the tag team of terror for an entire generation (mine included) the original gruesome twosome was the duo of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. And overall, I think they’re my favourite. There’s something about both actors individually – but put them together in a film ( and it really didn’t happen very often) and something special happens.
The Raven is one such film. It’s not even the best of the Karloff/Lugosi team-ups, in my opinion, that’s The Black Cat. But as I did a short piece about that one for the Halloween issue of Starburst last year, I thought it too soon to cover it again, so I’m indulging in my personal favourite of their diabolical duets.
Another thing that’s astounding about this film is its breakneck pace. It feels like a longer film than it is, but that’s not due to boredom – there’s no time here to get bored – but due to the incredible amount they cram into the film’s incredibly short running time of just over an hour.
Example – from the studio logo, to the titles, to the opening scenes of a young woman driving along a country road during a treacherous storm, skidding off the road, being admitted into hospital by ambulance, the consultants admitting that her head injuries consist of a pressure to the brain that only one man can operate upon successfully – a shade over two and a half minutes!
Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is a brilliant surgeon and is, of course the only person capable of carrying out the surgery that will save Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware). Thing is, Vollin is a) retired from being an active surgeon and b) insanely obsessed with the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He devotes his time to research and building full scale working replicas of the torture devices mentioned in Poe’s work in his basement.
At her father’s insistence and begging, Vollin agrees to perform the surgery and saves Jean’s life. He also becomes obsessed with her, but some of this, she brings upon herself, as a professional dancer, on her recovery, she choreographs a routine she performs for him on stage – based on Poe’s The Raven.
Unfortunately, this attraction doesn’t sit well with her father, the Judge. He visits Vollin to basically say, “thanks for saving her life, but although I promised you anything you want, you can’t have my daughter so back off, dude” – in his own more gentlemanly way.
But naturally, Vollin wants his own way. Which is when Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) enters the scene. Bateman is a murderous thug, on the run from the law. Among his crimes are the disfiguring of a bank teller with an acetylene torch to the face. He’s desperate to change his appearance, so when an equally shady associate tells him there’s a world leading surgeon nearby – what’s a guy to do?
Vollin agrees to change Bateman’s appearance – and does so by operating on the nerves affecting one side of Bateman’s face, making him an even more disfigured monster, promising that he’ll restore Bateman’s face IF he’ll be a butler for the night.
Now, that might seem a small price – right?
Wrong - Vollin has lured Jean, her fiancé, the Judge and some of their friends over to the house by inviting them to a party. He plans to rid himself of all the competition that night by using his torture devices, which include the infamous pendulum (a large blade that descends on to the victim by swinging back and forth) and a room where the walls close in slowly, crushing the occupants.
Yes – seriously, all this in an hour.
It’s undeniably a starring vehicle for Lugosi, who was at the peak of his career – but it’s Karloff (again, billed by surname alone) who gets the top billing. It’s odd to note that though Karloff’s Bateman becomes monsterously disfigured thanks to Jack Pierce’s make-up, it’s Lugosi’s performance that make Vollin the REAL monster as the evil, conniving and manipulative genius surgeon.
Sadly, the audiences of the time found the sadistic content of the movie a little too strong for their tastes and The Raven led directly to a banning of horror films in the UK which lasted for a couple of years. A change in management at Universal Studios the following year meant a change in direction for the company and they changed their focus away from horror for a period of four years, when it was reintroduced with The Son of Frankenstein starring again Karloff and Lugosi. By that time, Lugosi’s star was beginning to fade and film roles were getting sparse for him, cruelly trapped as he was by typecasting and his accent.
Still – click here to grab a copy of this treasure and enjoy a stellar performance by both stars at their peak.
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Next film up - stand by for Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem!!!!!
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