Universal’s “Twin Titans of Terror” teamed up for the second time in THE RAVEN. Their 1934 pairing in THE BLACK CAT was the studio’s top grossing film that year, so it was only logical to reteam the two stars in another Poe based outing. But while in THE BLACK CAT they were evenly matched, here Boris plays second fiddle to Bela’s mad Dr Vollin. Lugosi takes center stage and creates one of his nastiest villains, a sociopath out to avenge his unrequited love.
Young Jean Thatcher loses control of her car and crashes off a cliff. The doctors, including her boyfriend Jerry Holden, agree only Dr. Richard Vollin can save her. Vollin refuses over the phone, stating he’s retired from practice, so Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher, travels to Vollin’s estate and, appealing to his vanity, convinces the doctor to do the surgery. He does so, and falls in love with his young patient in the process.
When we first meet Vollin, he’s in his study with a representative from the local museum, reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (as only Bela can!), while a staute of the bird casts an ominous shadow on the wall behind him. “The raven is my talisman”, he says. “Death is my talisman”. Vollin isn’t interested in donating any of his large Poe memorabilia to the museum; in fact, he tells the gentleman he’s building the torture devices made famous in Poe’s tales. When told that’s an interesting hobby, Vollin replies (again as only Bela can), “It is mooore…than just a hobby”. The thin veneer of sanity is already beginning to give way to Vollin’s madness.
Jean has recuperated well enough to give a dance recital in Vollin’s honor. Her interpretive dance “The Spirit of Poe” is accompanied by an actor reciting the poem, music swirling while she performs her ‘danse macabre’ for the audience. Vollin is enraptured, but the Judge is worried about where this is all heading. Confronting Vollin at his home, he realizes the doctor is more than just infatuated. Warning him away from Jean adds fuel to the madness burning within Vollin. Fugitive criminal Edmund Bateman shows up unexpectedly at Vollin’s door. Bateman’s been told the doctor can “change my face” to avoid the police, but Vollin has other plans. He operates on the criminal’s “nerve ends” causing Bateman to become a grotesque looking monstrosity. When his face is revealed to him before a wall of mirror, Bateman angrily shoots them out (Welles’ inspiration for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, perhaps?) Vollin tells Bateman he’ll turn him back if Bateman’s willing to “torture and kill” for him. Reluctantly, Bateman agrees to assist in Vollin’s demented scheme.
Karloff’s Edmund Bateman, though a killer, is played for sympathy. Born with an ugly mug, Bateman felt driven to “do ugly things”. Like the Frankenstein Monster, Bateman’s been battered and beaten by a world he never made, lashing out at the injustice of his lot in life. Boris always gave his best characters a touch of humanity (the monster, Grey in THE BODY SNATCHERS, Elman in THE WALKING DEAD), and makes us feeling sorry for the brutish Bateman.
Vollin invites Jean, her father, Jerry, and two other couples to spend the weekend at his estate. A storm is brewing outside, but inside Vollin it’s already raging. Bateman abducts Thatcher and hauls him down to Vollin’s basement, where his torture devices are set up. Strapping Thatcher to a slab, Vollin gazes up at the blade hanging above the judge’s prone body. He flips a switch and, like in Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”, the blade slowly descends, swinging to and fro aimed at Thatcher’s midsection. “Try to be sane, Vollin”, Thatcher pleads, but it’s far too late for that. Laughing manically (as only Bela can!), he replies with glee, “Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!”
Another switch is flipped, and Jean’s entire room drops to basement level. Jerry and one of the couples (the other is fast asleep) hear Jean’s screams and find a panel leading to the basement. Vollin orders Bateman to throw Jean and Jerry in a steel-walled room, and locking them in, the walls begin to close in on them. Now completely insane, Vollin rails the two “will never be separated, never!…What a torture! What a delicious torture!” Bateman, realizing Jean’s about to be crushed to death (she was kind to him earlier despite his hideous kisser), shuts the switch off, but not before Vollin gut-shoots him. Struggling to his feet, Bateman overpowers the doctor and, in a last heroic feat, drags him in the room and pulls the lever, causing Vollin to be crushed by his own devious torture chamber.
Lugosi’s descent into madness is one of the great accomplishments in horror. Building slowly, by the end he’s completely over-the-top deranged. I don’t think anyone could pull off the role of Richard Vollin the way Beal Lugosi does, and it’s one of his top acting jobs. Karloff gets the most out of his subservient role, and milks it for all the sympathy he can. Irene Ware (Jean) makes a fine damsel in distress (she worked with Bela before in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN), while stalwart Lester Matthews (Jerry) plays the romantic lead (Matthews also was in the bizarre Savage Intruder with Miriam Hopkins). Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher) is no stranger to horror movie buffs, appearing in MAN MADE MONSTER and SON OF DRACULA, while Ian Wolfe (Snuffy, one of the guests) made over 300 appearences in a career that stretched from 1934 to 1990.
Director Louis Friedlander moves the film briskly along from a top-notch script by David Boehm. Friedlander would change his name to Lew Landers, a workhorse of a director who did everything from Gene Autry Westerns to Boston Blackie mysteries. Landers worked again with Karloff on THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) and Lugosi on RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Grinding em out quickly was Landers’ forte, and though he worked strictly in the B-realm, his films were generally well received. Television called in the 50s, and Landers made a home there, most notably on KIT CARSON, HIGHWAY PATROL, and RIN TIN TIN.
Karloff and Lugosi made eight films together (including their cameo in 1934’s GIFT OF GAB), and while most genre fans rate THE BLACK CAT as their best pairing, I’m kind of partial to THE RAVEN. Neither film is literally based on Poe (“suggested by” the title cards say), but this one is more close to the “Spirit of Poe”. It’s a showcase for the talents of Bela Lugosi at the peak of his acting powers, with Boris Karloff lending good solid support. If you can only see one Karloff/Lugosi team-up this Halloween, I highly recommend you make it THE RAVEN.