Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Poe, You Are Avenged!"

The Raven(1935)
Director: Lew Landers
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lester Matthews

The Raven is Universal's most riotous and controversial horror film of the 1930s. Lacking the sophistication of the previous, loosely inspired, Poe-adaption, The Black Cat(1934), this film decides to go far over the top, approaching the ghoulish theatrics of the Grand Guignol.
It's the second Karloff and Lugosi film and the one film where Lugosi clearly has the starring role, though the billing still had Karloff billed first. The Raven is not one of the great classics of the golden age of horror, lacking much of the sensitivity and artistry that made the earlier works so compelling(amazingly, this was released the same year as Bride of Frankenstein), though the madcap antics and gleeful, histrionics of Bela Lugosi has ensured this a place in the pantheon of horror essentials. Few films in the actor's career afforded him the opportunity to act with such abandon, creating in the process, one of the cinema's most compelling psychopaths. It also has to be said, that The Raven is a very good time.

The film wastes no time in establishing the plot, as beautiful Jean Thatcher(Irene Ware) drives recklessly down a road in a storm and proceeds to crash through a "Caution" sign and over a cliff! She's in critical condition(though she looks fine) and needs immediate aid. No one is qualified to save her, except Dr. Richard Vollin(Bela Lugosi) who receives a wonderful introduction, as he recites Poe's "The Raven" for a guest. Vollin is a Poe fanatic, who apparently has recreated many of the author's famous torture devices and installed them in his basement. He has no compassion for humanity and is about as arrogant as they come, like when Judge Thatcher(Samuel S. Hinds) arrives and demands that he help save his daughter. Vollin replies that death is different to him, however when he discovers that all the other doctors have said that he is the only one that can help, he immediately goes to perform the surgery.
During the surgery, he gets an eyeful of Jean and realizes that she's a babe and falls in love. Soon she is back at his apartment, lounging seductively on a couch, while he plays(what else?) Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, while he makes a move on Jean. I just love how Jean looks up to him and says that he's like more than a man, and Vollin replies with "A God?" He has all the makings of a megalomaniac, this one.
Jean invites Vollin to see her perform "The Raven" as interpretive dance theater(?) and it's a silly spectacle that makes little sense, though Vollin is certainly appreciate, much to the Judge's displeasure, who clearly does not relish the way the doctor has been eyeing his daughter. After the show, as everyone applauds her performance, Vollin kisses her hand and says, "Whom the angels call Lenore..."
Later that night, the Judge arrives and voices his displeasure and Vollin flips out, even crushing a test tube in his hand. He warns the Judge about the consequences if he is not allowed to see Jean, even if she is already engaged to "young" Dr. Jerry Halden(Lester Matthews, who portrayed a similar leading man that year in Universal's Werewolf of London).
Finally, Mr. Karloff arrives to the show, wearing a thick beard and going by the name of Bateman, portraying a man who is an escaped convict. He seeks aid from Vollin, because he heard he is a very talented surgeon. They're first scene together is a hoot, playing like a comedy as sympathetic, restrained Karloff plays it straight to Lugosi's Vollin, who is anything but restrained. It's hard not to laugh, when Karloff delivers a touching monologue about his youth, only to have Lugosi reply, "Why are you telling me this? Am I interested in your life story?"
Or when Lugosi accuses Karloff of murdering a bank teller with an a acetylene torch, and Karloff replies, matter of factly, "Well, sometimes you can't help things like that."
The comedy continues as Vollin gets a brainstorm and invites Bateman down to his lair, where he performs ten minute surgery(!) to control his nerves and change his face. When Bateman's new face is revealed(sans beard) he looks ridiculous. It's easily Jack Pierce's worst makeup job, though it's kind of fun I suppose. Karloff now sports a giant, bulging cardboard eye and his skin is wrinkled like that of The Mummy. It's scientifically improbable, but much of this script is not exactly probable, so there's few quibbles.
Karloff does have an effective scene, where he is surrounded by mirrors and proceeds to shoot each one with his revolver as he views his new, horrible visage. It's the most famous scene in the movie, as Lugosi cackles from above, looking like a demented gargoyle and Karloff throws his gun in anger, even growling like the Frankenstein Monster!

After all that, Vollin blackmails Bateman into assisting him with a diabolic scheme, telling him that only if he obeys, will he then fix his face. Vollin invites over Jean and Jerry, along with some other people, I guess to keep up appearances. There's some sad excuses for comedy relief, mainly directed towards Ian Wolfe's character and his supposed resemblance to a horse. It's amusing to see that Vollin has this neat horse race game in his home, probably the only non-torturous device he owns. Judge Thatcher arrives to dissuade Jean and Jerry from staying, but they don't listen, even when Vollin has a very telling explanation of Poe's madness, that clearly is indicative of his own.
Bateman plays his manservant and everybody is pretty rude to him, even when it is explained that he was a soldier wounded in battle. These people have no manners, including Col. Bertram Grant(Spencer Charters) who proposes that everyone goes to bed, even though it's not his house. This sets up Vollin's plans perfectly and he shows Bateman his devices of torture, though he gives too thorough an instruction of his swinging pendulum, and this causes him to be trapped by Bateman, except that he still needs the doctor to change his features. Oh well, better luck next time, Bateman.
The film gets just plain crazy at this point, as Bateman abducts the Judge from his room and has him tied to the pendulum table, where he is called mad by the Judge, only to have Lugosi reply with that priceless line, "I'm the sanest man that ever lived!"
Vollin even devised Jean's room to be an elevator, so the whole thing lowers to the dungeon and she is trapped. The rest of the guests, including Jerry, go to the rescue, but are trapped. Jerry and Jean are forced into a room, where the walls come together and this prompts Vollin to exclaim how wonderful his torturous schemes are by proclaiming enthusiastically, "Poe! You are avenged!"
Bateman can't just see pretty Jean get killed though and intervenes, despite Vollin warning him that he will not correct the surgery. Bateman releases them and Vollin shoots, but this does not stop Bateman from hauling Vollin into the closing room and killing him, in one of the most gruesome deaths imaginable.
Everyone is saved, and as Jerry and Jean drive off, they ponder the sacrifice that Bateman made for them. Jerry puts his arm around Jean and she says that "he's the Raven now, " whatever that means!

The Raven is an often ludicrous film, filled with many contrivances and plot holes to make even the most passive viewer, resistant. However, it's also such a damn enjoyable film that these are also as often overlooked. Horror fans are tough on this one and I can understand why. It's not as intellectual as some of the other films, lacking the social subtext and sensitivity that made the best horror films of the decade. What it succeeds at is moving along at a brisk pace(the film runs barely over an hour) and throwing in just about everything, but the kitchen sink.
Bela Lugosi gives it his all in this film, in what appears to be a dry-run for the later insanity he displayed in his works with Ed Wood. It's really over the top and hammy, but in all fairness, how else was he to approach such a part? He does the most with what he's handed and makes for a great villain, and it's fun to watch him get increasingly more insane as the film moves along, til the full blown madness of the film's conclusion, along the most memorable of the golden age. For my money, this is the Lugosi film, besides Dracula, that appears to be the most quotable, with an endless number of fun and darkly humorous mutterings. Lugosi's declaration of being "the sanest man in the world" or professing his love for torture("I like torture!") almost never fail to bring down the house. It's odd comparing this to the far subtler and restrained work that he delivered in The Black Cat(1934), but it's performances like this that the actor has become immortal for. While i'm sure that films like The Raven have served as ammunition for his detractors, it's a fun and wickedly exciting portrayal that ranks among the greatest in the cinema's hall of great movie psychopaths, and besides his turn as Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue(1932), his finest turn as a mad doctor, a role he played many times over the course of his career.

Karloff does not fair as well in this film, the way he did in The Black Cat. Here he is reduced to little more than a supporting role, though he makes the most of what he is given. It's interesting to compare the understated nature of Karloff's role with that of Lugosi, and to study how different each approach is. Karloff plays Bateman with sympathy and is yet again, buried under the makeup of Jack Pierce, though the effect is not as successful as early ventures. Karloff actually has the best scene in the film with the mirror sequence, a well shot and eerily, dramatic moment in a film filled with the broadest of theatrical terrors. It's overall not a great role for the actor, though, and he is little more than a henchman, though it's interesting to compare this to The Invisible Ray(1936), where Karloff takes the lead and delivers a very hammy performance, out of character, and Lugosi delivers the straight, dramatic goods in a heroic turn. I wonder if that was intentional?
The rest of the cast perform admirably, with Samuel S. Hinds always a professional in another doting father role, as he was wont to play throughout the 30s. Lester Matthews is merely passable in the leading man department, though he was middle-aged and much less youthful, than say, David Manners, who usually got such parts.
Irene Ware is probably one of the sexiest of the 30s heroines, right up there with Frances Drake, another exotic brunette, who would appear as Karloff's wife in The Invisible Ray, as well as Colin Clive's wife in Mad Love(1935). We are never quite sure if there is some sort of sexual attraction between her character and Lugosi's and I wish they had made that clearer. Her dance, while bizarre and even comical, has a slight erotic edge, punctuated by Lugosi's reactions, which indicate that he is going through a sort of ecstasy. With the already apparent undercurrent of sadomasochism that runs through this film, one has to wonder how this may have played if it had been filmed before the Production Code!
Still, what the filmmakers got away with, was plenty. Universal was already in trouble because of Bride of Frankenstein, and soon they found themselves in real hot water because of this one, too. The Raven, with it's love for torture and sadism, found itself as the target of the censors and it was banned outright in Great Britain, being instrumental in the embargo on horror films that was passed in that country in 1937.

The Raven is an enjoyable diversion from the golden age, featuring the two greatest stars of the classic horror film, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It's far from the best that the genre has to offer, especially during the golden age in which it was produced, but it is a fun and wildly delirious little chiller with a wonderfully ripe performance from Bela Lugosi, at his horrific best. And considering you have Karloff along to add to the chills, it's difficult to pass this one up. Don't expect too much and you might enjoy this film. It certainly does not avenge Poe, in fact, very little of the great writer appears on the screen, but the spirit of classic horror lurks within. You don't have to like torture, nor proclaim to be the sanest man in the world, in defense of enjoying this vintage chiller from Hollywood's finest era of horror.

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