Far from the pleasant working relationship between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi had a long-standing feud that kept them from working together more often. It's strange that their careers took similar paths. Lugosi, near broke and recovering from drug addiction, appeared in Ed Wood films before his death. Karloff was turned away by the very genre that made him a star and not all of his last films done in Mexico were even released.
Thankfully, a few earlier films give ample opportunity to see what these two stars were like at their prime. Like many films of its type, THE RAVEN features a generic young couple, Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and the talented dancer, Jean Thatcher (Irene Ward). Truthfully, the only reason for the existence of characters such as this are to set up the initial story and then give the real stars something to act off of.
When the couple gets into a horrible accident (a corny looking special effect), it looks as though Jean will never walk, let alone dance again. Jean's father (Samuel S. Hinds) begs Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) to save her.
Dr. Vollin must be an unmatched surgeon because everything else about him is very off-putting. He's extremely ineffectual and eccentric. Also, he has an absolute obsession with Edgar Allen Poe. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want someone reciting "The Pit and the Pendulum" as I was going under the knife.
Jean makes a full recovery and Vollin falls madly in love with her. Jean humors the doctor out of gratitude but is still interested in her stiff-necked but sane boyfriend. After Jean dances an interpretation of Poe's "The Raven," Vollin cannot be swayed. He sees Jean as his own Lenore, being swept away by a young rogue. Vollin hatches a plot to kidnap Jean and dispatch the troublesome lawyer.
The unwitting Edmond Bateman (Karloff) aids him in his quest. Bateman, a wronged fugitive, comes to Vollin to ask for plastic surgery. He needs a new face to conceal his identity. He credits many of the missteps that have befallen him to his ugly face. If the world weren't so hateful of the ugly, he may not have had to commit the crimes he did.
Probably not the best thing to tell Vollin. He horribly disfigures Bateman in the operating room. When Bateman screams in agony, smashing every mirror image of himself he can find, Vollin tells him, "I can use your hate." If Bateman helps out in his plan, Vollin will fix Bateman?s face.
Also helping the not-so-good doctor is his lavish estate, which should get billing right under Lugosi and Karloff. This is the classic evil lair, with secret passages, crazy electrical circuits, a descending bedroom and best of all, a torture chamber filled with instruments inspired by Poe's works. Every time a device is utilized, it gives the viewer a chuckle of delight.
In THE BLACK CAT, Lugosi was a sympathetic and ambiguous anti-hero while Karloff was the personification of evil. Here, those roles are reversed. The two actors rarely played on a common ground.
Lugosi's performance is excellent, ranking with his star turns in DRACULA and WHITE ZOMBIE. It's an absolutely fantastic example of his talent. When he cheers, "Poe! You are avenged!" we feel like cheering with him.
Karloff's character is one of only two characters than can truly be seen as sympathetic. True to his suspicions, people do react with revulsion at his face and he emotes the right amount of melancholy brooding to make the part another winning sympathetic portrayal. At one point, Karloff growls in frustration, the same growl as his famed Frankenstein's monster.
The conventions are the only things hurting the film. Matthews plays the so-called hero, but really he's as interchangeable as other similar characters. Irene Ward fares much better as his love, showing a complexity that Matthews' character frankly doesn't deserve.
The third act of the film features a party gathered at Vollin's estate. This gives the atmosphere of an Agatha Christie story as we wait for the guests to be picked off. But it doesn?t happen that way. Vollin's attentions are always directed at his prey and the only reason for the other guests is strained comic relief.
THE RAVEN is a very good film and would be prime material for a modern master like Dario Argento, who has admitted to idolizing Poe. The classic will always stand alone, however. Despite some flaws, Lew Landers (RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE) creates a wonderful tapestry of cheap thrills. Karloff, Lugosi, Edgar Allen Poe, Universal Studios and a funhouse of horrors are the perfect combination for a fun time at the movies.