The Film That Nearly Killed Horror? Nevermore!
Sometimes, a genre reliant on bogeymen becomes a bogeyman itself. Horror films, with their unique ability to appall and shock, are easily blamed for corrupting the morals of the innocent. In the United Kingdom for example, horror became the subject of a government act in the 1980s (the so-called ‘video nasty’ scare) with the moral guardians of the nation up in arms over children’s easy access to VHS horror films, echoing their 1950s ban on EC horror comics (won’t somebody please think of the children?). Critics have blamed the squeamish Brits for the sudden downturn in horror movies made in the late 1930s (the Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, a thorough and scholarly work, lists just one genre film, Super-Sleuth, throughout 1937 and 1938), quoting from a handful of misleading American newspaper articles blowing-up the British censorship board’s distaste for horror into an outright ban, disabling the market for horror films and putting a temporary end to their production.
In fact, the change in ownership of Universal Studios in 1936 had much more to do with horror disappearing from the cinema screens and this, along with the American Production Code Association’s increasingly vocal opposition to horror (the PCA often quoted the British Board of Film Censors to back up their case), led to a brief cessation until Universal returned to the genre with Son of Frankenstein in 1939.
One can see why purists might object, as the film opens with a car crash, uncommon in Poe, least of all his most famous poem. At least the crash takes place in a thunderstorm, which is more in keeping, and this storm sends Jean Thatcher (Irene Ward) the wrong side of a detour and over the edge into stock footage of a car rolling down a ravine.
In hospital, medics confer on what looks a hopeless situation. Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher, begs the doctors to consider every available option. Playing Judge Thatcher is Samuel S Hinds, who took up acting at the grand old age of 54 and spent the rest of his new-found career playing judges, reverends, colonels and doctors, with his most famous role that of Pa Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Normally calm and solemn, Hinds plays Thatcher as a man who’d look tortured walking across a room, and this comes in handy later.
The medical staff tell Thatcher just one man is up to the job of saving Jean’s life, and we meet Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) soon afterwards, reciting ‘The Raven’ to a bemused representative from the local museum which wants to buy Vollin’s Poe collection. Vollin is a ghoul who hides in plain sight; he freely admits to constructing torture devices based on those in Poe’s work and that the raven, a symbol of death, is his personal talisman. Lugosi, or Bela ‘Dracula’ Lugosi as he was invariably labelled, still a few years from the onset of his long career decline, gives one of his stronger performances here; charming one moment and maniacal the next, Lugosi portrays Vollins with a sense of cultivated yet vicious delight at the torment he inflicts.
The by-now bewildered museum curator leaves, and Judge Thatcher arrives, pleading with Vollin to save his daughter. The surgeon refuses and his ego is only appeased when Thatcher reiterates the medics’ belief that Vollin is the only man capable of the task. In the hospital, we see Vollin begin surgery on Jean. We have the traditional close-up on Lugosi’s ‘mesmeric’ eyes, but for once, it is Lugosi’s character who is under a spell – Vollin looks on Jean not in menace, but with lust.
The operation is a success, so much so that when we next see Jean, she doesn’t have a mark on her, and is the picture of physical health. One hesitates to comment on her mental health, sprawled as she is on Dr Vollin's sofa, dressed in a remarkable array of silks, scarves, furs and one of the most curious hats ever presented in cinema. Jean's host plays on the organ, the perennial instrument of choice for the movie villain. Vollin puts the moves on Jean, whose gratitude only goes so far, and she fends off his advances.
Vollins’ feelings towards Jean go beyond professional pride (“Does it still hurt when I touch you there?” he asks, caressing the back of Jean’s neck). The doctor is in love with his ‘creation’, Jean a mere reflection of the glory Vollin basks in from his own ego; Vollin is so oblivious to anything else, he is even indifferent to Jean’s fiancé, Dr Holden, a man Vollin appointed as his research assistant! The man is a sadist and gives his fascination with pain and death as credentials for his medical career. The idea of such a man becoming a surgeon is a fascinating one, and this depiction of a doctor who operates on people as a ‘safe’ way of inflicting wounds and physical distress while saving life could be one reason people found The Raven disturbing.
Vollin receives another unexpected visitor, but one anticipated by the film’s original audiences back in 1935. Boris Karloff, playing escaped criminal Edmond Bateman, was arguably a bigger box office draw than Lugosi and received top billing (as ‘Karloff’) for The Raven, the second of eight films pairing the two, despite enjoying less screen-time than his co-star. Although their relationship was professional and amicable, fans have long suspected bitterness on Lugosi’s part; a man of classical training and aspirations, Lugosi may have envied Karloff, an actor just happy to work, who often received more sympathetic roles and better notices for his performances, even when playing yet another bad butler.
Vollin recognises the newcomer from the newspapers, but welcomes Bateman in, his mind already weighing up opportunities of revenge. Bateman and Vollin make for an interesting motivational comparisons. We learn Bateman killed two police guards during his escape and blinded another with a blowtorch (Bateman maims; Vollin heals), but Bateman blames his physical ugliness for his actions (“Maybe an ugly man does ugly things,” he muses); with puffy, hamster cheeks, a beard ripped from a dead hipster and an ambling, concave gait (Karloff, a tall man, seems dwarfed by the smaller Lugosi), society has shunned Bateman for his appearance. Vollin’s evil comes from his egotism, and not from without, and so we feel his is the greater sin.
Bateman wants Voller to operate and improve his appearance. Vollins declines at first (as with Thatcher, Vollin enjoys making others beg his favour) and in a wonderful scene, the two face-off discussing Bateman’s face, their profiles filling either side of the screen. Vollin agrees to perform the surgery.
Needless to say, Bateman’s makeover doesn’t go well. We already see Vollin has disfigured Bateman on purpose, but the unwitting criminal doesn’t realize this until he wanders into an octagonal room adjoining the surgery and pulls aside a curtain, revealing a mirror. Bateman’s is a face of two halves; one side is normal but the other is now crackled and crinkled, with the mouth drawn down into a grimace, and worst of all, a warped, staring wall-eye almost falling off Bateman’s face altogether (seen up close, the make-up is unconvincing, with the eye apparently drawn on with crayons). The room has curtains all along one side, all revealing more mirrors, all shot at by Bateman in hopeless rage as Vollin’s sadism is laid bare. A grille opens up above the mirrors and Vollin appears, laughing like some vile cherub, and blackmails Bateman into doing his dirty work (“Murder and torture, things like that.”) or he will not reverse the surgery. The wretched Bateman has no choice but to agree.
Having apologized to Judge Thatcher, Vollins invites him, Jean, Dr Holden and a few assorted 1930s nitwits (a ditzy flapper, her rich older husband, a buffoonish Colonel who’s as much as Colonel as Colonel Parker or Colonel Saunders, and his wife and professional Margaret Dumont impersonator) to a weekend party and the films diverts towards screwball comedy territory. As another storm breaks out (climate change began in the 1930s) Vollin and guests amuse themselves with a mechanical horse racing game of the sort found in arcades before someone invented fun stuff like video games. “I grew up around horses,” says the flapper’s husband (somehow inevitably called Pinky), to which the Colonel’s wife replies “Yes, I can see that.” Pinky later tells Bateman “not to stand behind people,” the wisest line in the film.
Just as the film threatens to turn into a Marx Brothers knock-off (Dr Holden is as much a buzzkill as Zeppo, and almost as useless), Dr Vollin again lectures on Poe, whose genius and sanity, he claims, never recovered the heartbreak suffered from his lost Lenore. If only their love had survived, laments the doctor, smarting from Jane’s rejection. After another discourse on pain and death, Vollin bids his guests goodnight. The cast discuss their host’s obvious insanity before turning in for the night. Dr Holden, Jean, and Judge Thatcher debate whether Vollin will try to sexually assault Jean (“in the middle of the night, he might - .”). Instead of running for the hills, they swap rooms, but this is no help against Vollin’s mania.
Later, Bateman kidnaps Judge Thatcher and drags him to the basement torture chamber, strapping him to the Pit and the Pendulum device. Vollin, now sporting a smoking jacket and
Bateman knocks out Holde, who is forced to join his fiancé in another device inspired by Poe, the shrinking room, where, as Vollin informs them with delight, their love will attain true permanence; once the closing walls do their terrible work, they will be very much together, forever. Shutting the door on the lovers, Vollin laughs and exclaims “Poe is avenged!” This is not Lugosi’s finest moment and pushes the film into mustache-twirling melodrama.
Bateman, taking a shine to Jean, takes pity and reverses the mechanism controlling the shrinking room. Vollin shoots the rebellious butler, who manages to punch out the mad surgeon, release the lovers and throw Vollin into the shrinking room. Bateman dies of his gunshot wound, and Vollin, waking in what is now the ‘smallest room’, soon follows. Halden and friends rescue Judge Thatcher and their ordeal is over.
The Raven ends with Dr Halden making a joke about Vollin’s fate as sick as anything else seen
The supporting cast does their best and their dinner party scenes are fun, but they’re living in a Bela and Boris world. Whenever the stars are off the screen, we soon want them back again, and although their characters balance each other well, though they don’t share as many scenes as we might hope. But the film is entertaining, moves at a good clip, and unlike many horrors of the 1930s, has a pleasing contemporary feel to it, ironic given it’s an adaptation of a poem written in 1845.
The Raven doesn’t offer much to those interested in Poe (Dr Vollin would have hated this film), who waited until Roger Corman’s 1960s cycle of adaptations for better service, but The Raven is a must for Lugosi fans, or those who like their vintage horror with more of an edge. Modern day horror fans won’t have nightmares after watching this film, but one can see how critics once thought Poe’s bird, a symbol of death, almost brought the end to the genre that celebrates death more than any other.