The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It is also downright mortifying in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which Edgar G. Ulmer imbued The Black Cat (1934) .
Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.
As the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible. In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience.
While Lugosi undoubtedly sends The Raven crashing, the film would have imploded from boredom without him. Aside from Karloff, the rest of the cast is a non-presence, alternately delivering lethargic line readings and grotesque comedy relief, which is anything but. The only relief is supplied by the two stars, who are our lifeline, even through all that Lugosi pretension.
Lugosi has a chilling, seductive moment when asking Jean if her injured neck still hurts. We sense his glee in the potential of her pain. This scene of intimate sadism works far better than his later howling. However, even in Lugosi’s most embarrassing moments, he remains alluring through his presence and his idiosyncratic mangling of the English language: “Torture, I love torture! What a deeelicccious torture!” When Vollin has just mutilated Karloff’s Bateman, the victim, upon seeing his own reflection, shoots out the room of mirrors. Lugosi’s Vollin responds with a hair raising cackle. Vollin would have felt at home in Margaret Hamilton‘s castle.
Unfortunately, Karloff is saddled with one of Jack Pierce’s absolute worst makeup jobs, which seriously threatens to undermine his performance. The actor even has a been there, done that canned monster growl. Playing second fiddle, Karloff’s discomfort occasionally shows. Still, he is our humanist touchstone. The strength of his performance lies in his introduction as a gangster on the lam, pre-mutilating surgery. He has an outcast monster-like sense of resilience and pathos, and with no help from his director or makeup man, Karloff is forced to rely solely on his own internal resources. He succeeds with underrated, protean skills, delivering a refreshingly nuanced performance, even through a fake, pancake eye. Fortunately, Karloff never descends into Lugosi’s level of cringe-inducing caricature.
The rest of the film is merely a commercial for torture devices. Just as in a commercial, little drama is drawn from the props. Apart from the two leads, The Raven is adolescent, gothic decor.