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Movie of the Week: The Raven (1935)

When I recently re-watched The Raven (1935), I didn’t remember liking it as much the first time I saw it. In fact, if comparing it to my memories of The Black Cat (1934), I might like The Raven even more. It’s a nasty little thriller, letting Bela Lugosi shine as an evil madman, while letting Karloff play the victim (even though Karloff was top-billed, of course.)


Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Vollin, a brilliant surgeon who’s coerced out of retirement by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) when his daughter, Jean (Irene Ware), is in an automobile accident. Although Thatcher is persistent, and offers him money, Vollin refuses… until he hears that the other doctors believe he is the only one that can help her. That tells us something about his ego.


Vollin falls in love with her and goes to extreme methods to claim her for his own, even if it means eliminating the competition. In a movie full of subtle and disturbing reactions from Lugosi, one of my favorites is when he hires Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews) as his assistant, thinking he can keep an eye on him. Instead, Jean exclaims, “Now we can be married sooner!”


If there’s going to be a happy ending, we know it’s going to come when the villain is caught in one of his own traps. Vollin is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and keeps a torture chamber hidden behind a secret door. He’s told that museums would pay handsomely for his collection, but then he wouldn’t have pits and pendulums and shrinking rooms to use with his victims.


Enter Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a gangster trying to turn over a new leaf, that demands at gunpoint Vollin perform plastic surgery on his face. Instead, Vollin maims him, in essence forcing him to do his dirty work for him. He dangles a promise to make him “look good” after he does his bidding, but I doubt he ever intended to do it.


If you think physically maiming Bateman is a standard genre action, consider the bonus mental cruelty that Vollin inflicts. Behind a wall of curtains stand a series of mirrors so that when, in the understandable anger Bateman experiences and pulls them down, he gets to view his fried egg eye and droopy mouth over and over again. Meanwhile, Vollin watches and laughs maniacally.


The screenplay for The Raven is credited to David Boehm, but seven uncredited others are listed on IMDb as “contributing writers.” That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, which doesn’t usually bode well for a movie. Somehow, workhorse director Lew Landers, with 175 credits between 1943 and 1963, uses the best of the best for a quick 61-minute thriller.


The Raven is more inspired by Poe’s poem than it is adapted from it, and I like the way the bird is used. Bela recites the poem and mentions a couple times in the story that the raven is his talisman. “But doesn’t it represent death?” people ask. Yes, and if these people paid more attention to that fact instead of scoffing at it, fewer of them would end up being threatened.


Screenplay by David Boehm

Directed by Lew Landers

Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds Released July 8, 1935 RT 61 min.

Home Video Shout! Factory (Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1) Blu-ray

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