Svengoolie presents … The Raven (1935) with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff
Universal tried to capture the imagination of movie audiences by presenting The Raven, a horror film based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem. This movie was too strong for audiences of the day and bombed at the box office. It did everything wrong, except perhaps in the effort given by everyone on the cast, but this has not prevented it from being ridiculed for many years since its opening. Although this Poe poem has been put to film many times, I prefer the camp 1960s version starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. Not only was this Raven version more successful, it had superior casting. But there is something to be said for a serious-to-the-bone Universal take on a horror film. Unfortunately, the film has many flaws, which is probably why it was featured on Svengoolie, where awful movies go to die and are made fun of by a man in make-up.
This movie goes all-out to deliver as much horror and eerie creepiness as possible. There are several moments in the movie where Boris Karloff (and his make-up) tries to carry the scene and bring a new level of horror, repulsion, and fear to the big screen. In that, I think he succeeded. In some ways, he may have gone too far over the top, which may explain why people were turned off by the film. There is very little camp in the movie though, like you might find in a good early era horror film, where there are crazy experiments, outlandish scenes, and colorful acting. Hammer and Universal horror films were released during a time where many people enjoyed them for what they were. I don’t think they were trying to be masterpieces. The 1935 Raven is so-serious that it may be trying too hard to deliver something creepy, evil, and grim. That’s a lot of adjectives right there.
Boris Karloff plays Edmond Bateman, the main character in the movie, an actor so notorious he is billed as only “Karloff” in the titles, nevermind his creepy character. Bela Lugosi plays a retired surgeon, who is the most eccentric character in the movie. A judge named Thatcher tries to convince the creepy-ass, eccentric Lugosi to use his ultra-super surgical powers to save his daughter. Lugosi reminds him that he is retired and to stop being so stupid, since he doesn’t want to save lives anymore. He’s moved on from surgery and collects Poe memorabilia. With full seriousness, Lugosi tells his friend that his Poe collection is “more than a hobby…”. Uhhh…yeah…right…
With some begging and ass-kissing, Judge Thatcher eventually convinces Lugosi to operate and attempt to save his daughter. After that, the movie descends into grim, grim, stoic seriousness. Lugosi opens the next scene with some organ playing just to illustrate this. Jean Thatcher survives the operation and begins her own Lugosi ass-kissing school. You might remember Irene Ware, who plays Jean Thatcher, from…nothing. She stopped acting in 1940.
The middle of this movie is a mess. At one point, I thought Lugosi was going to bite the neck of Jean by summoning the spirit of one of his other roles, Dracula. We a get a break from Lugosi’s seriousness by showing more seriousness from a woman dancing around a stage for a performance of Poe’s The Raven. She trapses around and jumps like a ninny. For some odd reason, she later calls it the “spirit of Poe” dance, even though it has no correlation whatsoever to the meaning, meter, or tone of Poe. Judge Thatcher later visits Lugosi and tells him that he’ll do whatever it takes to stop Jean from ass-kissing Lugosi. Lugosi summons the spirit of Dracula again and we get some more arguing.
The highlight of the rest of this movie is the master of make-up, Boris Karloff. Lugosi tries to get “the Karloff” to enact revenge on Judge Thatcher for arguing with Dracula, but Karloff refuses, because he says Dracula sucks. Lugosi then operates on him and makes him into a monster, more scary and disfigured than The Mummy, blackmailing the Karloff with the power of surgery. Only surgery can restore the monster, so the Karloff agrees to kill Thatcher, for some reason. Of course, Lugosi’s character is sick and twisted. The make-up is over-the-top. When the Karloff sees his horrific face in the mirror, I could swear he growls in anger like Frankenstein.
So the disfigured Karloff captures Judge Thatcher and tortures him with a slowly swinging pendulum. Lugosi then activates a slowly dipping elevator mechanism and lowers Jean into a dark cave, making it a prison. That’s a neat trick. He then seals the house with another carefully placed mechanical lever, intending to torture the guests inside. The Lugosi is just over the edge at this point, topping off his insanity by putting the rest of the guests in torture traps. He then eats some pie. At the last moment, Luke blows up the death star…I mean, Karloff throws Darth Lugosi down a dark crevasse, killing him, then frees his buddies. See, he wasn’t so bad. Yay, I guess.
All in all, this movie is a solemn trip into torture-land that would make any supervillain proud. Lugosi’s elaborate traps are very over-the-top and slow-moving, proving that the only torture in this movie is watching them. The make-up is silly looking in places, and the movie doesn’t evoke the tone or mood of Poe much at all. Karloff may be the master of make-up, but that was proven on Frankenstein and The Mummy, not this movie. There are good things about this movie though, such as Irene Ware, who really is gorgeous, even in black and white. But there is only one funny moment in this whole movie, a part at the end where the guests wonder where their two missing friends are, and we cut to see them sleeping soundly through the whole thing. So this movie puts modern audiences to sleep as well as its own characters.