Originally published May 11th, 2013
Since I’m taking a break from Journeys in the Disney Vault this week, I’ll throw in a review of last week’s Svengoolie episode on the 1935 Universal horror film, The Raven. The Raven pairs up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a taut, albeit brief, horror film. Nothing too unique, and bearing zero resemblance to the Edgar Allan Poe novel from which the title is derived from, The Raven is an intriguing deep cut into Universal horror
Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) is tasked with saving the life of the beautiful Jean (Irene Ware). Problems arise when he falls in love with the young woman to the consternation of her father. After enlisting, and disfiguring the face of former convict Edmond Bateman (Karloff), Vollin commands Bateman to kill Jean’s father.
If you’re not aware, Svengoolie is the name of the host of a horror show that airs on various channels throughout the US (think Creature Feature or Vampira back in the day). I miss the days of the old horror hosts, and if the show is available on your station, take some time on a Saturday night to watch the fantastic slate of movies. I might make this a recurring feature if I can because I know there’s a few horror hounds who read my blog.
This was the second collaboration between Lugosi and Karloff, after 1934’s The Black Cat; it’s an intriguing experiment, although Lugosi and Karloff are on opposite sides than they were in Cat. I was taken aback by the fact that the title is a misnomer. The story doesn’t retell Poe’s The Raven, although Lugosi does read excerpts from it here and there. Vollin is a Poe fanatic, though, (wow, no one can be a casual Poe fan anymore!) and the climax of the movie revolves around him torturing Jean’s father à la The Pit and the Pendulum. In a way, The Raven is a grab-bag of Poe events which should please fans of the Gothic author. The love of the Gothic does tend to explode onto the screen, with every scene and musical cue being squeezed for its full Gothic effect. I love the Gothic as much as anyone, but less is more.
Similar to past Lugosi/Karloff collabs, there’s little terror or horror in The Raven. I’d consider the movie a character piece as you watch Vollin and Bateman struggle to get what they want. Lugosi is the weaker of the actors, as he would be throughout the length of his career, due to his stagy, over-the-top mannerisms. It’s easy to believe he’s a surgeon (although I’d never let him operate on me), but the shots of Lugosi’s eyes beg the audience to see him as another Dracula figure. The aforementioned shot is also out of character with the scene; he’s cutting into a woman’s head, and we need a seductive glance in his eyes? Lugosi does fall into a bad habit of cavorting and mugging for the camera too much, although there is an intriguing theme that runs throughout about whose “hand” is better suited to torture; I pick Vollin. The character possessing grist is Karloff’s character. Sure, the wonky eye he’s supposed to have is simply painted on to his eyelid (and starts to fade as the movie closes), but it’s a meatier role. It does fall into Frankenstein territory, with Vollin taking on the dimensions of a new Dr. Frankenstein, but with the way Karloff plays Bateman, you see progression. Bateman doesn’t want to be confined by his violent past, and believes a pretty face is the first step. By the end, Bateman becomes a lumbering clod with a heart of gold, but he’s entertaining to watch; Lugosi is entertaining, but far too repetitive.
The Raven’s a fun movie with an interesting series of torture devices, particularly at the end. The leads are engaging, Karloff getting the edge. It’s a worthwhile movie if it airs!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.