By Doug Gibson
Simply put, "The Raven" (1935) is a masterpiece. And credit for its perfection belongs to star Bela Lugosi, who is magnificent as the brilliant, deranged, courtly and insane Dr. Richard Vollin, who is so obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe that he has built real Poe-inspired torture devices in his dungeon.
"The Raven" is almost as good as "The Black Cat" that starred Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but it lacks the subtle sadism and velvet touch that director Edgar Ulmer gave to the other "Poe tale."
Lugosi's Vollin is implored upon to save the life of a beautiful dancer, Jean Thatcher, Irene Ware. Once he restores her to health, he fall in lust with her and wants her for himself. Rebuffed by Thatcher's father, Samuel Hinds, he hatches a plan to invite the dancer, her father, her fiance, and others to be tortured and murdered. In his feverish mind, Vollin believes that by killing, he can be released from his Poe obsessions, that to torture will relieve his torture.
Vollin's unwilling helper is Edmond Bateman, (Karloff) a murderer on the lam who bewails his ugly face. He begs Vollin to bring beauty to his countenance. Instead, Vollin makes him uglier and then promises to fix his ugliness after he kills his guests.
Lugosi is just brilliant. He's gentlemanly and manic, polite and cruel, courteous and a raving lunatic. The short, 61-minute film is tightly directed by Lew Landers. It is an example of Universal's consistent fiscal cruelty to Lugosi that he received only half as much as Karloff earned, although Lugosi's Vollin is the real star, the real villain.
In this film, Lugosi proved that he could play the essential mad scientist, obsessed, insane, unfeeling, sadistic, perverted and, of course, brutal and murderous. In fact, Lugosi and Karloff play almost the same type of roles they would play in The Body Snatchers a decade later, with Karloff the weaker one in The Raven.
This is a film that should not be missed by any horror film fan. Its history is interesting; early reviews were appropriately positive, but then the Breen-era morals kicked in and there was a flurry of bad reviews decrying the sadism of the film. As a result, its profit was lower than expected and the film would damage the pocketbooks of Karloff and particularly Lugosi as it prompted the British horror ban on the latter half of the 1930s.
Fortunately, the film's excellence survived the prissy reviews and it's appropriately regarded as a classic and a Lugosi film with Karloff as a secondary character. The trailer is below: