“I will not be tortured! I tear torture out of myself by torturing you!” – Dr Richard Vollin
If the antics of Karloff and Lugosi in The Black Cat were twisted and pushed at the boundaries of thirties audience sensibilities and taste, Universal were just getting started. The Raven shifted horror films into overdrive and at the time of its release was considered so disturbing with its themes of obsession, insanity, disfigurement, torture and revenge that for British audiences it was considered all too much. The British Board of Film Censorship (nowadays known as the British Board of Film Classification) decided no more and they actually banned horror movies for a while. (Not the first time that horror movies would become a scapegoat, but that’s another rant for another time)
Technically, this is the third (and last) of the so-called Poe Classics to star Bela Lugosi and as ever – although credited as being “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal classic” it really isn’t based on anything Poe had written. Poe is endlessly referenced though, but that’s not the same thing. It’s also the second time Lugosi was teamed with Karloff, and despite Boris clearly playing second string here, he gets top billing even though it’s clearly Bela’s show. Universal also paid Karloff twice what they paid Lugosi, in a move that hardly seems fair. If I had to choose one Universal film that was the perfect Lugosi showcase, other than Dracula, of course – it would definitely have to be this one. Yes, towards the end, Lugosi chews the scenery as his character’s insanity fully takes over – but overall, he oozes a suave menace, which helps him steal every single scene he’s in.
So, as I’ve mentioned, not an adaptation of a Poe story, despite sharing the title of Poe’s arguably most famous work. The film centres on the brilliant surgeon Dr Richard Vollin (Lugosi), who has a macabre preoccupation with the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe. His hobby is really more of an obsession – to the point that he has adopted a stuffed raven as a graven image, and has built the torture devices described by Poe in his cellar. Well, I say cellar, but under his house seems to be a labyrinthine network of rooms worthy of a supervillain.
One dark and stormy night, the beautiful dancer/socialite Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) loses control of her car and drives crashes, injuring herself seriously. She needs a delicate operation to restore her health, and the only person capable of saving her is Vollin, who insists he has retired and is now doing only research. Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) pleads with Vollin, who reluctantly agrees after having his ego sufficiently stoked that he is the ONLY man who can perform the procedure.
When he Vollin sees Jean, he’s immediately attracted to her. And when she’s recovered enough, she performs a dance interpretation of The Raven for him on stage. Understandably, this does nothing to dampen Vollin’s attraction to her, but the problem is she’s engaged to Dr Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and despite his gratitude at having his daughter’s life saved, the old Judge wants Vollin to back off.
Vollin decides to settle this once and for all, when an escaped convict with a track record for psychopathically sadistic violent crimes, Edmund Bateman (Karloff) visits him. Bateman has shot his way out of San Quentin and has blinded a bank teller with an acetylene torch to the eyes. He has heard on the grapevine that Vollin can change someone’s face through surgery. Vollin hatches a scheme and agrees to perform a procedure on Bateman’s nerves, which will change his facial features.
Vollin performs the operation, but instead of making Bateman “look good” as asked, he makes half Bateman’s face deformed. The reasoning here being that an ugly face makes you do ugly things. That and blackmail. Vollin will restore his face and make him “look good”, after Bateman does a little job for him.
The plan is to invite Jean, the Judge, Jerry and a few others to stay overnight, having dismissed the butler for the weekend. Then, with Bateman taking the butler’s place, Vollin will dispose of the Judge and Jerry and have Jean all to himself. It’s not mentioned why the others are there, whether they’re supposed to be some kind of alibis or whether Vollin had decided to kill them too. Who knows?
The poor old Judge is manacled to a table with the ominous swinging pendulum descending slowly to gut him, Jerry is placed in a room where the walls close in, and for good measure, Jean is thrown in too! (Vollin REALLY loses it toward the end.)
However, Bateman – in true Karloff sympathetic monster style, doesn’t want to kill the girl and releases her and Jerry from the room. An outraged, screaming man Vollin shoots Bateman, who with his dying breath overpowers Vollin and throws him in to be crushed instead.
The Judge is saved, the bad guys are dead – and all this in a brisk 61 minute feature.
Copyright © 2010 - 2020 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.