Sunday, February 27, 2011

#205. The Raven (1935)

DVD Synopsis: Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story, this horror masterpiece features Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vollin, who has a fetish for instruments of torture. After saving the life of a beautiful young girl, the doctor becomes infatuated with her. When he teams with an escaped killer (Boris Karloff) who needs a new identity, the doctor gets more than he bargained for. Revenge, obsession, and manipulation blend together in this wicked Lugosi classic.

In 1934, Universal Studios teamed two of its hottest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, in The Black Cat, a film “inspired” by one of Edgar Allan Poe's most renowned short stories. Despite the controversy stirred up by that film (it was banned in many areas), The Black Cat was a box-office smash, and went on to be the studio's biggest money-maker of the year. So, it was only a matter of time before audiences would once again be treated to a pairing of these two renowned thespians of horror. 

Which brings us to The Raven

When Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), the daughter of a wealthy Judge (Samuel S. Hinds), is badly injured in a car crash, a plea for help goes out to retired surgeon, Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). Vollin, a self-proclaimed Edgar Allan Poe aficionado, is at first reluctant to come out of retirement, but eventually does agree to operate. Not only does Vollin save Jean, he falls madly in love with her in the process.  Vollin becomes obsessed with possessing Jean, even though she's engaged to be married to Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews), and makes plans to kidnap the girl and keep her by his side forever. To this end, he enlists the help of Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), an escaped prisoner whose come to the doctor seeking plastic surgery to alter his face. Though he initially refuses to help the good doctor in his evil scheme, Vollin ensures Bateman's assistance by turning the poor man into a deformed monster, promising to restore his looks once Jean is finally his prisoner. 

Lugosi is clearly the star of The Raven, and he is given one hell of an introductory scene. When we first meet Vollin, he's sitting behind a desk, a large shadow of a Raven filling the wall next to him.  As the camera pulls back to reveal the entire room, Vollin is reciting lines from Poe's The Raven for a visitor, and let me tell you, you've not heard Poe until you've heard him recited by Bela Lugosi! As The Raven progresses, we come to learn that Vollin is both a gifted surgeon and an obsessed madman, one who will stop at nothing to possess what he desires. Vollin is the film's heavy, and Lugosi pulls out all the stops in ensuring we despise his character completely. It's yet another fine performance by the always flamboyant actor. 

As Bateman, Karloff is as much a victim of the good doctor as he is a patient. Seeking only to have his face altered, Vollin instead turns Bateman into a hideous creature (the film's best scene is when Bateman realizes what Vollin has done, and starts shooting out the mirrors in disgust). The part of Bateman resembles yet another Karloff role, that of the monster in 1931's Frankenstein. Like the creature in that film, Bateman is a man who simply wanted to fit in, yet his very presence is terrifying to all who encounter him. Throughout The Raven, we both sympathize with Bateman's plight and pity him his sad existence. 

There are a few scenes in The Raven that simply don't work. In particular, there's a sequence in which Jean, who is a professional dancer, performs a dance number as a fellow actor recites lines from Poe's The Raven. Meant as a tribute to the doctor who saved her life, I instead found the whole thing silly, almost to the point of being laughable. Such moments aside, however, The Raven is yet another fine entry in Universal's stable of horror films, as well as a top-notch vehicle for two of the genre's most time-honored performers.

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