The Raven (1935) **˝
This last entry in the Universal Studios Poe trilogy (following Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat) is far and away the best. It has some real wit and an engaging, not-too-serious attitude, and though it is no more faithful to its source material than either of its predecessors, it makes far better use of Poe’s “The Raven” than the previous movies made of the stories on which they purported to be based. And as the final touch, Bela Lugosi is in fine, flamboyant form in a performance that prefigures the signature style of Vincent Price.
When Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), the daughter of a respected judge, rolls her car down a hill while taking a bend in the road at obviously unsafe speed, her doctor boyfriend, Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews, from Werewolf of London and The Son of Dr. Jekyll) is powerless to repair the damage to her spine, which threatens to leave her paralyzed— if not dead— if something isn’t done about it. There is one doctor nearby with the know-how necessary to save Jean, but this man, the renowned neurosurgeon Richard Vollin (Lugosi), is no longer practicing, and has devoted all of his energies to research for the past several years. Vollin is also a highly eccentric man, with curious ideas about life, the world, and his place in it, and there is little point in trying to appeal to his sense of altruism— he hasn’t got one. Not only do Dr. Halden’s pleas fall on deaf ears, even Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds, from Cobra Woman and Man-Made Monster), who has been Dr. Vollin’s friend for many years, is unable to sway him until he mentions that even the doctors at the hospital say that Vollin is Jean’s only hope. Ego-stroking succeeds where appeals to human decency failed, and Vollin rushes to the hospital to perform the operation.
So how, exactly, does Vollin’s eccentricity manifest itself? A lot of ways, really, but by far the most important kink in his personality is his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. Not only has he studied the man’s life and works extensively, he has also decorated his mansion with items suggested by Poe’s tales and poems, and has adopted the raven as his personal mascot. And strangest of all, Vollin likes to spend his off hours building torture devices described in his favorite author’s stories— his working full-scale model of the swinging blade from “The Pit and the Pendulum,” for example. Clearly, somebody in this movie is going to find themselves strapped to the aluminum table beneath that thing before it’s all over— you mark my words.
What gets the movie pointed in that direction is the psychological aftermath of Jean’s operation. She sees quite a lot of Vollin in the weeks following her treatment, as is only to be expected; the doctor wants to make sure her recovery is complete, after all. The problem is that Jean’s gratitude toward and admiration of Dr. Vollin start inching into infatuation territory, while Vollin himself develops an absolute obsession for his pretty, young patient. And when Jean turns her return to the stage (she’s an interpretive dancer) into a tribute to Vollin by basing her performance on Poe’s “The Raven,” her father starts to suspect that something is going on between the two of them. Judge Thatcher goes to see Vollin the next day, and tells him that Jean will henceforth be forbidden to see him, sparking an unexpected (by Judge Thatcher, anyway) outburst of rage from the doctor. Vollin’s subsequent apologies and rationalizations don’t go very far toward making the judge trust him again.
As well they should not. For the very day after Judge Thatcher’s visit, a man named Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) comes to see Dr. Vollin. Bateman is a fugitive from the law. He broke out of San Quentin, to which he had been confined ever since an attempted bank robbery turned into an extremely bloody fiasco, only a few days before, and quite a number of policemen and prison guards lost their lives in his escape. What Bateman wants from Vollin is an operation that will change his face, making it that much harder for the authorities to catch up to him. Vollin is no plastic surgeon, but he thinks there might be something he could do by tinkering with the nerves that control Bateman’s facial muscles. Provided, that is, that Bateman do something for him in return.
Vollin takes Bateman downstairs to his secret laboratory at once, and goes to work. This scene makes for a good illustration of why you should never try to leverage anybody smarter than you, for when Bateman awakens, he finds that Vollin has turned him into an absolute monster by disconnecting all the nerves on the right side of his face. Vollin thus has the upper hand now; if Bateman ever wants to look anything like normal again, he’d better do whatever the doctor wants.
And what Vollin wants is the deaths of Judge Thatcher and Dr. Halden, and if Jean refuses to be his after he does away with the competition, Vollin wants her dead as well. Vollin already has his Poe dungeon down in the basement; all he needs is an accomplice to help him operate it, and a roster of victims to subject to it. To this end, Vollin invites Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher, along with several of their friends (who serve no real purpose in the story beyond making Vollin’s invitations to his victims seem a bit less suspicious) to a party at his mansion. After the party winds down and all the guests have gone to bed, the doctor and his less-than-perfectly-willing sidekick spring into action. Judge Thatcher gets the Pit and the Pendulum treatment, while Jean and Dr. Halden find themselves locked in a room with motorized moving walls; the other guests just kind of stand around looking shocked, conspicuously failing to do anything to rescue their friends. If anybody is going to get out of this alive, they’re going to need a little help from Bateman, who rather likes Jean, too, now that he’s met her, and who’d honestly prefer that nothing bad happened to her.
What makes The Raven so much better than The Black Cat is the fact that its creators seem to have understood the near impossibility of actually basing a movie on that poem. By making instead a movie in which the poem itself plays a pivotal role, the filmmakers get to have it both ways: they have a valid justification for the movie’s title, and a free hand to invent whatever story they want without any but the most literal-minded viewers standing up to say, “now wait just a damn minute— that’s not how it goes!” The absurdly brief running time (scarcely more than an hour) makes for a fast pace, and prevents the comic relief players (the other guests at Vollin’s party) from getting out of hand. And of the greatest importance, The Raven’s overall tongue-in-cheek approach meshes well with Lugosi’s wild histrionics. This is one case in which his madcap overacting is just what the role calls for, and with a more sedate actor in the role of Dr. Vollin, The Raven wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable as it is.