The Raven Review

The Film

The Raven re-united Universal's two most successful screen monsters after their first pairing in the previous year's The Black Cat. This second outing of Karloff and Lugosi built upon the things which seemed to make the two men so successful with Karloff's lumbering pathos and Lugosi's charming mendacity. Universal stole the Poe title and made the link to the famous poem a somewhat tenuous one outside of the main story - a regular experience for Poe's works where original stories are cast to one side or conflated with others when adapted for the cinema. In this case, the Poe references come from Lugosi's character's love of the writer and his efforts to recreate the many devices of torture imagined in the man's writing. Still the main success of the film comes from the wonderful contrast of the understated and physical Karloff and the theatrical and florid Lugosi. One man plays a criminal who wants to reform, and the other plays a pillar of society who hides his true nature as the worst kind of civil monster.

Set at the time of the film's production, Lugosi plays a brilliant surgeon who saves the beautiful daughter of a respected judge after her father pleads for his special skills. Dr Vollin performs the surgery because he is pleased that his colleagues regard him as the only man who could save the girl, but once he can admire his handy work his comely patient becomes a particular fascination for him. Her impending marriage to another and her father's protests at the good doctor's attentions force Vollin to stage an elaborate trap by inviting them all for a dinner party with convicted, disfigured murderer, Bateman as their servant. Vollin has promised Bateman to repair his looks if he helps Vollin's dastardly plan, and soon the judge and his daughter are witnessing the working models of torture that Vollin has in his basement.
The Raven remains, after seventy years, a seedy film of sadism and egotism run rampant. Lugosi is excellent, if hammy, as the doctor with a God complex convinced that his superior skills make him a superman who can get whatever he wants and who will engineer the downfall of all who get in his way. When he has tricked Bateman into the surgery that leaves him disfigured, Vollin watches with relish as the escaped convict awakes in terror in a hall of mirrors designed to make him lose his mind. He enjoys watching the encroaching madness he has caused and sets up more elegant Poe-inspired torture for the judge and for the engaged lovers. Lugosi loves the theatrics and his villainous turn here involves much manic laughter and mad stares aplenty.
Like many a horror film since, the rest of the cast are fodder to be killed rather than to be cared for and the focus is on Vollin as the urbane monster and on the reformed Bateman. As Bateman, Karloff is sensitive and measured and manages to show that he is possibly the most unfortunate victim of Vollin's. This seems strange to say for an escaped murderer, but Karloff plays him as a man whose previous acts he regrets and whose past he truly wishes to escape. His great misfortune is that he won't find reformation through the new face that he asks Vollin for as Vollin chooses to give him monstrous features that will advertise his crimes and doom him to further villainy. Throughout Karloff shows the angst of his aesthetic imprisonment and for all of Lugosi's pantomime performance it is Karloff you will remember as the reluctant stooge.

The Raven is not as sophisticated in terms of effects, staging and acting as many films since and the horror is that of the imagination rather than the more overt form of gore and violence. Nonetheless, this is the film's strength and whilst it is no Bride of Frankenstein, it is one of the best of the Universal Horror films from the thirties. Seedy and unnerving, if The Raven should come tapping, do let it in.

The Disc

Like their release of The Black Cat, Second Sight release The Raven as a single layer bare-bones disc. The source print of the main feature has marks, lines and spots throughout to advertise its age. The transfer is a little less clean than The Black Cat release and contrast has been boosted again, although not excessively so. Edges look natural and the image is very sharp especially at the centre of the picture, but for such an old film this is a welcome quality video wise. The sound is clear with some age obvious in background hum and mild pops.

The menu uses still poster art as a frame whilst scenes involving the two leads play in the top right hand corner of the screen. There are scene select and play options only.


A fine early horror with Lugosi in full pantomime villain mode and Karloff as a redeemed monster. This presentation is a budget release of reasonable quality and horror buffs new to the film may be able to pick it up quite cheaply.

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out of 10