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The Raven (1935)
I am writing this review from Richmond, VA, Poe’s hometown. He was born in Boston and he lived in New York and Maryland, but he considered Richmond his hometown. He grew up here and he began writing his stories here, so actually you could call Richmond the birthplace of American horror. There are more movies based on Poe’s works than any other American author. I find that ironic because Poe’s work is pretty much unfilmable. Filmmakers solved this problem by making films based solely on a plot device, title, or event from Poe’s works. There are very few direct adaptations of Poe’s work. Universal’s The Raven (1935) is no exception.
The Raven gets its title (and its claim that it’s based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem) from the fact that it’s Dr. Richard Vollin’s (Bela Lugosi) favorite poem. Vollin also chooses the raven as his talisman. Dr. Vollin is an egotistical madman who is obsessed over young Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware). Jean’s father and her fiancé stand in his way, so naturally he vows revenge. A fugitive criminal, Bateman (Boris Karloff), comes to Vollin demanding plastic surgery. Vollin agrees to help Bateman if he will help him on his campaign of revenge. Vollin actually deforms Bateman and will only help him till his enemies are dead. For a more detailed plot synopsis and production history read Part VI of my Universal Terror series.
The Raven is, of course, a great film. Like I’m going to say a Karloff/Lugosi film sucks. I really love this movie, but I must say that there are better ones of its type. It’s the third best Universal Poe movie (#1. Murders in the Rue Morgue, #2 The Black Cat) and the fourth best Universal Karloff/Lugosi film (#1 Son of Frankenstein, #2 The Black Cat, #3 The Invisible Ray). What separates this film and makes it great is Lugosi. The Black Cat was fifty-fifty, but with the great exception of Son of Frankenstein and The Raven most of the Karloff/Lugosi films were more focused on Karloff. In SOF Lugosi outshines Karloff, but Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill also steal the show. The Raven, however, is 100% Lugosi’s show. He dominates the film totally. Karloff does some good pathos under Jack Pierce make-up, but he is totally dwarfed by Lugosi. The Raven is the only film where that happens. Vollin is definitely one of his best roles.
The plot and the characters are what causes me to give it third and fourth place in its classes. It’s actually more of a mystery/horror film than a straightforward horror film. The Poe torture devices and Karloff’s deformity are the only things that brings the film from the mystery/suspense genre into the genre of horror. The horror devices aren’t used all that well. The characters (with the exception of Bateman and Vollin) are some of the dullest and flattest of the Universal films, but who cares about them when you’ve got Karloff and Lugosi?
If you’re a Universal fan and you’re in the video store with only enough money to rent one tape and you are trying to decide between The Black Cat or The Raven pick The Black Cat. However, if you are primarily a Lugosi fan rent The Raven. The Raven is so chock full of Lugosi’s sinister dialogue delivery and evil presence that no Lugosi fan can go without seeing it. A entertaining film that every classic horror fan should see if they can get around to it, but see the better Karloff/Lugosi movies first. Don’t try to compare 1963’s The Raven to this film. Its totally, totally different. The title is the only thing they share.