07 January 2009

Bela Lugosi Collection: The Raven (1935)

The Raven (1935)
Directed by Lew Landers. Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds

The Production Code was about to slam down on Hollywood horror ghastliness, but The Raven got under the falling portcullis. The huge success of The Black Cat made Universal hungry for another festival of Poe-madness with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and they got it. It’s not at the artistic level of The Black Cat, but The Raven is another classic of Universal’s First Age of Monsters.

There isn’t much material to adapt from Edgar Allan Poe’s oblique poem “The Raven,” so the screenplay from David Boehm uses a Poe-obsessed main character, a chamber of Poe-inspired torture devices, an interpretive dance done to a recitation of the poem, and a plethora of spooky raven shadows cast from a stuffed bird sitting on the villain’s desk. The screenplay takes more from Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum” than from “The Raven,” but the latter fits so much better on a marquee and meshes with with the previous year’s The Black Cat

For the only time in a Universal film, Bela Lugosi receives the prestige single-name credit of LUGOSI to pair with KARLOFF. (In the end credits, Lugosi would switch back to both names—and whoever wrote the cast list misspelled the name of the character played by Lester Matthews and swapped two of the supporting actors’ parts. Look at the IMDb cast list to see what went wrong.) And although billed second, Lugosi has the meatier role of Dr. Vollin. Karloff plays the underling/monster character, Bateman, but it was his ugly made-up visage that snared most of the space on the film’s original poster.

The movie opens on a dark and stormy night, and the model of poor Joan Thatcher’s (Irene Ware) car goes over the road and lands her in the hospital. Only Dr. Vollin can save her, but he at first turns down the request. Joan’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), drives out to see Vollin himself, and finally convinces him to save his daughter’s life, even though Vollin sinisterly indicates that “death hasn’t the same signifigance for me as it has for you.”

Vollin is a classic over-the-top mad doctor. He collects Poe-memorabilia, has constructed replicas of the torture machines in Poe’s stories, lives in a mansion maggoty with secret passages and levers you should never touch, and he believes the raven is his totem animal. He declares that he is “a law unto himself,” and when Bela Lugosi says such a thing, you need to pay attention.

Dr. Vollin develops a fixation on young Joan after he rescues her, and watching her perform that wild dance on stage to “The Raven” to oddly up-tempo accompaniment doesn’t help douse the flames. When it appears clear that Dr. Vollin is infatuated with Joan, Judge Thatcher makes a personal request to the doctor to ease back. Joan is engaged, after all, to Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews)... and Vollin is also creepy as all hell and given to weird proclamations about death and his interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work.

Enter Boris Karloff as Edmund Bateman, a low-life English criminal with a murderous past that he claims—not very convincingly—isn’t his fault. Bateman approaches Vollin to ask for some sort of surgery to change his face so he can escape the law. Vollin is not a plastic surgeon, but his experiments with manipulating nerves allow him to do what Bateman wants. Sort of. Because Vollin now has a wicked, grinchy idea. He gives Bateman a hideously scarred right side of his face (making him a pre-cursor to the Batman villain Two-Face), and tells him he will only restore it if the criminal helps him exact horrific, poetic judgment on Judge Thatcher and Dr. Holden. And anybody else staying in the house when it happens; Vollin isn’t too particular.

The rest of the movie is the night of horror through which Dr. Vollin puts his invited dinner guests—Joan, Dr. Holden, Judge Thatcher, and two comic relief couples—in his mansion of disturbing gadgets. There’s a swinging razor-bladed pendulum for Judge Thatcher, and a room with crushing walls ready for Dr. Holden and Joan (Vollin must eliminate all distractions!). Vollin grows more and more insane, and the audience senses the invisible ticking clock that marks when the disfigured Bateman will finally have enough and turn on the crazed doctor.
The Raven is ghoulish good times all around. The gothic mansion set and its torture basement are terrific, and all the various gizmos that Vollin operates around the house are a shiver to watch. (Check out the bedroom that’s actually an elevator down to the torture chambers! The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland borrowed this one.) The film’s most virtuoso sequence has Dr. Vollin revealing to Bateman the horrible disfigurement of his face by the sudden unveiling of a half-dozen mirrors in the operating theater; Bateman starts firing bullets at his awful reflection while Vollin laughs maniacally from his perch above the oubliette.

Lugosi’s performance is either a load of ham or a wonderful piece of stylized stagecraft. I think it’s a mixture of both, and if you’re a fan of charismatic Lugosi or campy Lugosi, you’ll discover plenty to adore here. The wild speeches and illogical jumps in Vollin’s thinking make him one of the classic mad doctors of cinema, and Lugosi looks like he’s having the best time of his life in the part. Karloff plays the more subdued part, and the meetings between the two icons don’t have the same brashness as those in The Black Cat. It’s enjoyable seeing Karloff playing a self-justifying thug of middling intelligence, and he takes up the physical performance in the movie to mirror Lugosi’s verbal assault. In a few places, it looks as if Karloff is trying to channel the Frankenstein Monster; he makes “fire bad!” motions with his hands, and growls in a perfect imitation of the Monster’s growl. The other performers are unmemorable and absolutely no match for Dr. Vollin’s assault. If his devices got them, I really wouldn’t have cared that much.

Universal had an enormous horror hit in 1935 with The Bride of Frankenstein a few months before The Raven premiered. Bride, with its ambience of a dark fairy-tale, sat better with audiences than the torture-happy and contemporary-set The Raven—or perhaps viewers had gotten satiated on grue with The Black Cat. Regardless, tastes were changing, and the pendulum swung against visceral horror. This was the beginning of the end of Universal’s first horror era, and when the Laemmles lost control of the studio next year, the new regime put a temporary stop on production of grisly fare. The next film in The Bela Lugosi Collection shows that change (although it was produced in the last days of the Laemmles’ reign): The Invisible Ray is more science-fiction adventure than horror, and it shows the fall of Lugosi’s star as he drops into the supporting cast.