I enjoy seeing clichés before they became clichés. The Raven is a classic take on the Mad Doctor with a house full of secret rooms and elaborate torture devices, and to the modern viewer a lot of it may seem old hat, but personally I find it great fun to see early versions of what would go on to become classic motifs. We've got Edgar Allan Poe's swinging pendulum, a room where the walls close in and the actually rather unusual entire bedroom on an elevator platform. The film claims to be inspired by Poe's poem The Raven but the connection to that poem seems tenuous at best. The poem is quoted, (though I found it surprising that nary a "Nevermore" is heard) the sharpened descending pendulum is an obvious Poe reference and Bela Lugosi's Dr. Richard Vollin is a rather obsessed Poe aficionado, but truthfully the Poe references seem like an excuse to justify the film's title. I suppose there's a bit of Poe's characters in Dr. Vollin; it's easy to imagine him sealing an enemy behind a brick wall, but the film is far more a product of its own era than Poe's.
I've read that Lugosi was known for throwing himself wholeheartedly into his characters and Vollin is a prime example of that. Here's a man whose ego must be stroked before he saves a woman's life; he then develops an unhealthy obsession with her then attempts to destroy her and her loved ones when he can't have her. Though he may nibble at the scenery a bit, he's a delight to watch; Lugosi plays Vollin as charming one minute, maniacal the next and arrogant throughout. Boris Karloff may have received top billing, but Lugosi is clearly the star in this outing.
Which is not to take anything away from Karloff's performance. Karloff's Edmond Bateman is an understated counterpart to Lugosi's character. Almost a scaled down version of Frankenstein's monster, Bateman, despite his violent history is the character who evokes our sympathy providing the tragic element that is so often a part of the Universal canon. Even though he is made up to look as if half of his face is paralyzed for most of the film, this face, far less obscured that the Creature, gives us a more raw look at the emotions that made us feel for his brutal but sad character in the Frankenstein films.
A few words about the supporting cast: Jean and Jerry, the young lovers and Jean's father as played by Irene Ware, Lester Matthews and Samuel S. Hinds respectively are rather generic. But there's a third tier of characters played by Spencer Charters, Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe and Maidel Turner who come in to provide some laughter to this black comedy as extra invitees to Dr. Vollin's party. (Presumably he wanted an audience for his grand guignol.) They provide a nice comedic touch and even one or two gags that might have worked just as easily in an Abbott and Costello film.
Rounding out this week's bill:
The Night Watchman, the 1938 Merrie Melodies cartoon and directorial debut of Chuck Jones
The Our Gang short Railroadin' (1929)
Next week's film:
Night Key starring Boris Karloff, Warren Hull, Jean Rogers and Alan Baxter