What’s in a name? The Raven is as loosely based on the Poe horror writings as another movie in this newly-compiled collection, The Black Cat (meaning: not at all). Moreover, the set is entitled the Bela Lugosi Collection while Boris Karloff also stars in all of the films except for Murders in the Rue Morgue, and is the featured star in Black Friday and The Invisible Ray. Still, it’s great to have this big box’o DVDs in our hot little hands as none of these films was available on disc until now.
Louis Friedlander (billed as Lew Landers) directed the two scenery-chewing stars for Universal in this 1935 follow-up to their first onscreen pairing the year before (the aforementioned The Black Cat). Lugosi plays Richard Vollin, a brilliant plastic surgeon who is an obsessive collector of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia. He’s got a huge, shadow-casting raven statue on the desk in his office, and he sits around quoting the master of horror to anyone who’ll listen. One person who doesn’t want to listen is Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), frantic after his daughter Jean (Irene Ware) has been nearly crushed to death in an automobile accident. He implores Vollin to step down from his Poe pedestal long enough to perform the surgery and finally appeals to the doctor’s vanity — Vollin makes the crucial cuts, and Jean’s life, limbs, and beauty are saved.
Too late, the Thatcher’s discover that Vollin is quite insane. He becomes fixated on Jean, determined to make her his very own Annabel Lee — she only fans the flames when she, a prima ballerina, does an interruptive dance of The Raven, thereby clinching his craziness. After the performance rushes to the arms of her fiancée, leaving Vollin with nothing but a “if I can’t have her, no one else will” migraine.
Every mad doctor needs a henchman, right? Enter Karloff. Karloff plays Edmond Bateman, a fugitive murderer who is desperate to have his face completely changed so that he can slip by the coppers undetected. Vollin changes his face all right… to one of a hideous freak. Bateman is now a prisoner in Vollin’s home office, obliged to do his dirty work, hoping against hope that if he does these foul favors, Vollin will correct the surgery. “Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hatred,” Vollin chortles to Bateman, “Good! I can use your hate.”
Jean, her fiancée, and father unwittingly walk into a booby-trapped dinner party at Vollin’s home where he plans a nasty surprise — in his dungeon (every doctor’s home office should have one), he’s constructed working models of Poe’s literary instruments of torture. “Poe, you are avenged!” he shouts gleefully, at one point.
There’s not much more to say about the story. It’s not particularly suspenseful or well-directed, but Lugosi and Karloff do keep the proceedings entertaining enough. Lugosi is resplendent in his crisp formal attire as he spouts melodramatic dialogue, while Karloff skulks around trying to terrify the cowering guests with his crumpled countenance. (The makeup is quite good, except for a very fake-looking eyeball… the effect would have been better had they just used a swollen-shut eyelid.)
Karloff would later go on the star in another version of Poe’s The Raven (1963), directed by Roger Corman and again not following the author’s original storyline.