The Raven

US (1935) Dir. Lew Landers

Quoth the Raven: ”What have they done to my story?”

The third in the trio of films “based” on the works of Edgar Allan Poe from Universal as part of their famed horror universe of the 1930s and 40s. Like the previous two entries, Murders In the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat, a few small liberties were taken with the adaptation of Poe’s famous poem.  

Dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is injured in a car accident and with nobody else qualified,  her father Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) begs retired surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) to operate on her. Vollin initially refuses until Thatcher visits him in person. The operation is a success but Vollin find himself attracted to Jean which isn’t reciprocated since she is engaged to Jerry (Lester Matthews).

Undeterred, Vollin plans to make Jean his own, and as luck would have it, he is visited by a wanted criminal Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), who demands Vollin alter his face so he can live unnoticed. Vollin agrees but only if Bateman kills Jerry and Judge Thatcher but Bateman refuses, forcing Vollin to take a different tact. He performs the surgery but instead of making Bateman handsome, he makes him hideous, and will only reverse the surgery once he has completed the murders.

Okay, so I was being cheeky with the “small liberties” line earlier, as The Raven follows The Black Cat by having nothing to do with Poe’s original work. However, there was a slight meta tie-in to Poe in Vollin’s obsession with the writer and his talisman so to speak is a stuffed raven that sits by his desk. At one point Vollin even discusses the original poem at a dinner party but this still won’t satisfy the Poe fanbase in how much the story has been abandoned here.

Not that the poem was particularly filmable in the first place, which may explain why for most people the most recognisable adaptation would be courtesy of The Simpsons. But Universal probably weren’t concerned with being faithful to Poe’s writing since the draw was the second on screen pairing of their two biggest horror stars, and in all fairness, the story we do get is sufficiently enticing in its own right.

Vollin is a brilliant but temperamental surgeon, full of himself and aware of his skill but feels disrespected by his peers and industry alike. It takes a while to be revealed, but his Poe fandom goes beyond raven effigies and a dedicated library, Vollin has a fetish for torture and has built an underground lair featuring devices and torture methods as found in Poe’s writing, notably the pendulum from The Pit And The Pendulum.

But as this side of Vollin is kept secret, any darkness he is known for comes mostly from his spiky attitude and refusal to conform to convention. Seeing Jean changes this for Vollin, something the Judge notices and warns Vollin to stay away from his daughter, a request Vollin decides to circumvent in the most gruesome way possible. Even if Jean isn’t aware of Vollin’s intentions, she is not interested in him, only grateful to him for saving her life.

Regarding Bateman, he is a murderer with an inferiority complex about his looks, having always felt ugly and unloved, for which he blames his anti-social behaviour. I may not have killed anybody but I can empathise with him on that one. Aside from being able to live in anonymity, Bateman wants to be handsome for once and whilst Vollin isn’t a plastic surgeon, he does have a technique involving the rearrangement of the nerves in the face, that only take ten minutes!

A much riskier forerunner of Botox and the modern facelift, the result of this procedure leaves Bateman looking worse than before – the skin has been pulled down on the right side of the face as if it were half paralysed, the right eye is now useless, and Bateman’s speech is slurred. Bateman now has no choice to but to agree to Vollin’s terms or he won’t reverse the surgery.

It is interesting that Bateman is something of a penitent murderer, clearly ashamed of his actions but not enough to turn himself in (presumably as he would get the death penalty), yet feels society is to blame for his behaviour. There is potential for this as a point of discussion but cinema in 1934 wasn’t so sophisticated to handle it, especially in the horror genre.

What this does however, is make Bateman into a sympathetic figure from being under Vollin’s thumb and forced to continue the murderous lifestyle he desperately wants to abandon. For Karloff, there is a cute dichotomy here as he is essentially replicating the Igor role from Frankenstein – the afflicted servant to the mad scientist – whilst in the lumbering body of the monster.

Even with his face hidden behind prosthetics (complete with painted on dropping eye), Karloff is able to emote the moral dilemma Bateman faces, reluctant to kill again but knows he won’t survive if he doesn’t. Much like the monster, Bateman makes for an eerie presence lurking in the background, and has to contend with women screaming at the sight of his deformed appearance.

Lugosi is Lugosi, which is either a compliment or a critique, but once again, his Hungarian accent works in his favour in making Vollin’s eccentricities unnerving and his cruelty efficiently creepy. Karloff is the stronger performer here but it is clear there is something in the air when these two are on screen together that is palpably magic.  

The Raven was made after the Hays Code came into effect, which is why visually it is less terrifying than its predecessors, (one concession was no filming of the surgery), so it is left to the cast and the atmosphere to provide the chills. Despite having nothing to do with Poe’s poem, there is actually a decent 60-minutes plus of vintage horror to enjoy here.

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