❉ The third and final review of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi, out now on Blu-ray.
Of the three films on offer in Eureka Entertainment’s set of Lugosi-starring Poe adaptations, this is the weakest. That is to say, it’s not bad but I’d watch this first as an appetiser, and then follow it up with the other two; perhaps with Murders in the Rue Morgue (1931) as a big hammy main course and The Black Cat (1934) as the gourmet dessert.
Why it’s even called The Raven is a mystery; apart from Poe-obsessed, organ-fiddling barmpot Dr Richard Vollin (Lugosi, finally getting a mononymous credit to match Karloff’s) quoting the poem and having a taxidermied specimen of the titular species of Corvus taking pride of place in his study, the film takes far more inspiration from Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.
Most of the film’s problems come from its massively uneven tone. It opens strong, with beautiful interpretive dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) skidding off a cliff in a violent car accident courtesy of Universal’s ace special effects man John P. Fulton and her doctors—including her doughy faced, utterly forgettable fiancé Dr Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews)—concluding that the only man who can save her is Villon, who resists the call to adventure because he’s now strictly a research scientist until Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) personally begs for his help. Naturally, Villon falls for his beautiful patient on the operating table. So far, so conventional, but for a while, at least, the film becomes actually really interesting and potentially subversive. The next time we see the fully recovered Jean and Villon together, one thinks, for a while, they’ve actually hooked up; she lounges on a divan looking as glamorous as you’d hope as he serenades her with a rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which begs the question, do these deranged members of the Hippocratic profession not know any other tunes?
Jean seems in awe of Villon, gazing up at him wide eyed and telling him it’s like he’s more than just a man. We get our first glimpse of Villon’s egomania after she cannot find the words to describe him and he suggests a god. She breathlessly agrees, but when Villon tries to put the moves on her, Jean reminds him of her fiancé and makes her excuses to leave, but before doing so, she invites him to a surprise performance the following night. As she scurries away, you’re left wondering if she’s less afraid of Villon, and more of the feelings he stirs within her.
Following the performance, during which Judge Thatcher notices there’s a little more to the pair’s relationship than meets the eye, Jean’s father confronts Villon at his home and the pair argue. The really interesting thing here is that Judge Thatcher doesn’t initially forbid Villon from seeing his daughter again because the surgeon is attracted to her (the thought never crosses her father’s mind until Villon confirms it in an ensuing rant), it’s because he has noticed her attraction toward Villon and objects to the age difference and thinks that Jerry is a far better suitor.
Villon’s outrage convinces Judge Thatcher that he’s mad, but to be furious about the father of the woman you love forbidding you from seeing her, particularly after learning that she has the same feelings, seems a pretty reasonable reaction to me, especially given that the Jean we get to know in the first half of the film seems like a pretty strong, independent woman who doesn’t need her father to go around arranging her love life, and the fact that she’s engaged to someone about 20,000 leagues below her.
Leaving aside the enormous torture chamber under his house and the worrying operating theatre behind his bookcase (which none of the other characters at this point knows about), and despite the 20-year age gap, Lugosi comes across charismatic, mysterious, actually weirdly sexy and looks like a man who smells of top-notch cologne. Jerry looks like the crap comedy relief. I guess that’s the 1930s for you. Villon, being a 1930s mad scientist, is obliged to plot his revenge upon just about everybody. Enter Karloff.
Karloff is wasted here. He’s only present so they could shove his name on the poster and, presumably because he got all the hot babes in The Black Cat (and keeping their frozen corpses in display cases to boot), it was his turn to play second fiddle even though Lugosi matches him equally in their previous outing. Karloff is escaped convict and complete psycho Edmond Bateman, who handily gets Villon’s name from his mate down the pub and turns up asking for a new face. After Bateman gives an impassioned speech about how “maybe if a man looks ugly he does ugly things,” (despite Karloff’s make-up making him look less ugly, more just a bit scruffy) Villon obliges him, even though Bateman refuses to aid him in his schemes of “Torture… und murder.” However, in a hilarious reveal, Bateman’s new face consists of latex-stippled tissue paper and an immobile bog-eye suspiciously resembling a painted, hard-boiled egg. Villon blackmails the pathetic Bateman (who desperately wanted to make a clean break from his life of violence) into helping him with his revenge plot in return for fixing his mush. This all results in the world’s highest paid horror star of the time being reduced to Igor-ing about the place like a right royal Lurch.
Things really kick off when Villon holds a party at his house. Everyone gets spooked when he answers his guests’ questions about why he’s obsessed with Poe by going off on a ramble about Poe’s lost Lenore and taking revenge against the man who deprived him of her, a speech clearly directed at Judge Thatcher. Nevertheless everyone decides to stay the weekend anyway, which results in Bateman very noisily kidnapping the Judge and dragging him down to Villon’s Poe-inspired torture chamber, but why Villon’s whole plan depends on blackmailing Bateman into doing this when the Judge is already under his roof, and why this is all done without even a hint of chloroform when there are so many other guests in the house is left a trifle vague.
The Judge ends up being restrained under one of those swingy things with a blade on it that descend lower and lower with each swoop. Things then go completely bonkers when his fellow guests attempt to rescue him, and we learn that the house is filled with secret passages, descending rooms and trapdoors, and everyone starts running around like they’re in a screwball comedy.
Really, we’re looking at a missed opportunity here. It would have been far more interesting if Jean had ended up with Villon and his insanity had been revealed further down the line. This would have given Lugosi the chance to put a new spin on the dark romantic lead act he did so well in Dracula (1930). For a while, it looks like that’s the way the film is going until he suddenly turns into the most cartoonish incel in cinema history, at one point trapping Jean and Jerry in an armour plated cell so they can be together forever. Cue the walls closing in (a sequence that must have inspired the climax of Saw 5 (2008). It’s quite witty, but by this time you’ve stopped caring about the characters because everything is played so broad you’re left wondering if the whole thing wasn’t supposed to be a comedy. That’s actually where most of the entertainment lies, though; the film goes so off the rails that you can hardly believe what you’re seeing, and its climax does, at least, provide Lugosi an excuse to rub his ham in your face, but sadly, it only briefly allows him to give you the full sausage.
The Eureka release under consideration is part of a limited edition Blu-ray set of just 2000 copies with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements. , so get it while it’s hot. Also included are Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934) co-starring Boris Karloff. Extras include a host of audio commentaries, Radio series episodes & vintage footage, along with a 48 page collectors booklet featuring new writing by film critic & writer Jon Towlson & Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
SPECIAL TWO-DISC BLU-RAY CONTENTS:
❉ High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations for all three films, with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements
❉ Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio tracks
❉ Optional English SDH subtitles
❉ Murders in the Rue Morgue – Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
❉ The Black Cat – Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
❉ The Raven – Audio commentary by Gary D. Rhodes
❉ The Raven – Audio commentary by Samm Deighan
❉ Cats In Horror – a video essay by writer and film historian Lee Gambin
❉ American Gothic – a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
❉ “The Black Cat” episode of radio series Mystery In The Air, starring Peter Lorre
❉ “The Tell-Tale Heart” episode of radio series Inner Sanctum Mysteries, starring Boris Karloff
❉ Bela Lugosi reads “The Tell-Tale Heart”
❉ Vintage footage
❉ New Interview With Critic And Author Kim Newman
❉ PLUS: A 48-PAGE collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Jon Towlson; a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and rare archival imagery and ephemera
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Visit his website.