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When Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi first appeared together in Edgar Ulmer's satanic thriller, The Black Cat (1934), it was a momentous event for horror fans around the world; the stars of Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) together in the same film! Not surprisingly, the film was a resounding success and immediately prompted Universal studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. to cast his biggest star - Karloff - in another movie with Lugosi. But the resulting film, The Raven (1935), offered an intriguing twist on the two actors' previous collaboration. In The Black Cat, Karloff played the irredeemable villain with Lugosi cast as a persecuted rival; this time Lugosi had the major role - starring as a demonic surgeon with an Edgar Allan Poe fixation - and Karloff took the smaller part as a victim of Lugosi's surgical handiwork. While lacking the high artistic standards set by Ulmer's The Black Cat, The Raven has, nonetheless, become a cult favorite among genre fans for its numerous macabre touches and the flamboyant performances by Lugosi and Karloff.
In spite of its title, The Raven isn't really an attempt to film Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem. Instead, it's an homage to the famous writer that captures the spirit of his dark, morbid prose (Roger Corman also directed a film with the same title in 1963 that served as an affectionate horror parody and starred Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson). The story opens with a car crash involving the famous dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) who is saved from certain death by the emergency surgery of Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi). In gratitude for saving her life, Jean surprises the doctor with an inspired dance tribute to his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, but unwittingly creates a "monster." Vollin becomes obsessed with Jean -she's the embodiment of "Lenore" (the heroine of Poe's poem) - and he'll do anything to prevent her upcoming marriage to fiance Jerry (Lester Matthews). When Jean's father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), forbids Vollin to see his daughter anymore, the surgeon plots a diabolical revenge with the assistance of Edmond Bateman (Karloff), an on-the-lam criminal who has made a regrettable pact with Vollin.
Shot on a fifteen day shooting schedule with a total budget of $109,750, The Raven represents the only time Lugosi predominated over his co-star in a horror film, despite his second billing to Karloff. In their later films together such as Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Body Snatcher (1945), Karloff always had the more important role but not this time. Admittedly, Karloff wasn't too fond of The Raven, remarking at one point: "Here was an attempt to pile on the thrills without much logic." Yet, despite a rumored rivalry between the two horror stars, Karloff and Lugosi became good friends on the set of The Raven (One playful behind-the-scenes publicity still shows the two actors taking a nap after reading the screenplay).
When The Raven was released, it came under heavy fire from film censorship boards in various states who took offense at the film's emphasis on torture and sadism. For instance, New York and Ohio wanted to omit scenes of Judge Thatcher being menaced by the swinging pendulum and some of Vollin's dialogue like "Torture waiting, waiting. It will be sweet...." Of course, these are the scenes from The Raven that are best remembered by horror fans. Vollin's torture chamber, Bateman's hideously distorted face, and rooms in the surgeon's mansion that function as elevators and death traps (the walls can crush people) give the movie its horrific edge. There are also memorable stylistic touches such as a mirror-shattering sequence (a precursor to a similar scene in Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, 1948) and a startling hand-held camera shot as Bateman enters Vollin's home for the first time and meets his future tormentor.
At the same time, parts of The Raven are unintentionally funny. Both Lugosi and Karloff overact here in a broad, theatrical style and Irene Ware's interpretative dance modeled on Poe's work is a hoot. But these flaws are also part of the film's charm and it's quite easy to enjoy The Raven for its sheer melodramatic excess alone.
Producer: David Diamond
Director: Louis Friedlander
Screenplay: David Boehm
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Cinematography: Charles Stumar
Editing: Albert Akst
Music: Gilbert Harland
Cast: Boris Karloff (Edmond Bateman), Bela Lugosi (Dr. Richard Vollin), Irene Ware (Jean Thatcher), Lester Matthews (Dr. Jerry Holden), Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher), Inez Courtney (Mary Burns), Ian Wolfe ("Pinky" Geoffrey).
BW-62m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford