Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Lew Landers
Starring: Boris Karloff, Béla Lugosi, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Inez Courtney
With The Black Cat becoming Universal’s biggest hit of 1934, it’s no wonder the studio tried to recreate the magic again the next year, re-teaming the horror A-list pairing of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a tale “inspired” by the writing of Edgar Allan Poe.
Unfortunately, despite its transgressive predecessor’s dark themes going down so well with the public, The Raven’s more overt (but actually much less disturbing) elements of torture and disfigurement failed to connect this time. Not only did the film do poorly, it managed to get horror films temporarily banned in the U.K. and kicked off a period where horror was just out of fashion.
When Jean Thatcher (Ware) is near fatally injured in a car accident, her father, Judge Thatcher (Hinds) begs retired surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to perform a surgery to save her life. The medic is initially resistant, but relents and is successful, much to the gratitude of Thatcher and Jean’s boyfriend Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews).
Unbeknownst to them though, Vollin’s interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe is deeper and darker than anyone could suspect as he has retired to build the torture devices featured in the stories he is so obsessed about. Not only that, he develops an obsession with Jean and will do anything to possess her.
When an escaped convict by the name of Bateman (Boris Karloff) comes to his door seeking facial surgery to both disguise him and cure his perceived ugliness, Vollin sees an opportunity. He disfigures the criminal even more by mangling half his face and blackmails him into murdering anyone who stands in his way of winning Jean’s affections…
While nowhere near the levels of genius that The Black Cat Manager to reach, The Raven is still a most enjoyable and entertaining film.
The duo of Lugosi and Karloff are wonderful again, with Bela getting to really flex his villainous muscles playing a character not a million miles removed from his Dracula, in that he’s a charming society gentleman on the surface but a monster underneath, but there’s more subtlety at work here. Vollin is the blackest of souls, one who clearly gets not only pleasure not just from inflicting pain, but amusement too.
His treatment of poor Bateman is uncomfortable to watch at times, initially dismissive but then warms to him like a scientist warms to an experiment. Horrible.
Karloff is perfectly cast here as the violent but complicated brute. He’s done terrible things (the description of the acetylene torch to the face is horrendous, even anecdotally), but he wants to change and be a better man, but does his ugliness inform his ugly actions? It’s a fascinating idea, not just for Vollin, but for the viewer too.
There’s some horrific set-pieces laid out in The Raven, all those lurid ideas from Poe like the pendulum he sets his prospective father in law under and the room where the walls come together to crush anyone unlucky enough to be locked in it, but the real horror here is very human. It’s the horror man can inflict on his fellow man, for reasons of envy, fear, amusement or just plain cruelty for its own sake.
The Raven isn’t quite a classic, but there’s not much wrong with it and is still essential viewing for fans of psychological horror.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy