The Raven (1935) is a horror film starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi, and directed by Lew Landers. It revolves around Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, featuring Lugosi as a Poe-obsessed mad surgeon with a torture chamber in his basement and Karloff as a fugitive murderer desperately on the run from the police. Lugosi had the larger role, but Karloff received top billing, using only his last name.
Almost three decades later, Karloff also appeared in another film with the same title, Roger Corman's 1963 comedy The Raven with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson. Aside from the title, the two films bear no resemblance to one another.
After pretty Jean Thatcher (Ware) has been injured in a car accident, her father, Judge Thatcher (Hinds) and beau Jerry (Matthews) implore retired surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to perform a delicate operation to restore her to health. Vollin agrees and is successful; he befriends the spirited and grateful Jean, in the process revealing his passion for all things related to Edgar Allan Poe, including his collection of torture devices inspired by Poe's works (such as a pit, pendulum with scythe, shrinking room, etc).
After Vollin reveals his growing love for Jean to her father, the Judge quickly discourages him from the affair. Angered, Vollin hatches a plan when Edmund Bateman (Karloff), a murderer on the run, comes to his home asking for a new face so he may live in anonymity. Vollin admits to not being a plastic surgeon, but says he can help Bateman, and asks him to help in exacting revenge on the Thatchers, which he refuses. Vollin performs the surgery, but instead turns Bateman into a disfigured monster, promising only to operate again on Bateman when Vollin's revenge is exacted. Bateman finally reluctantly agrees.
Vollin hosts a dinner party, among which Jean, Jerry, and the Judge are guests. One by one, the guests are caught in the Poe-inspired traps. Ultimately, Bateman is shot by Vollin as he rescues Jean and Jerry, but throws Vollin in to the shrinking room where he perishes, and the guests escape.
Universal's pressbook heavily focused on Karloff, calling him "the uncanny master of make-up," as well as the connection to Poe. "Was Edgar Allan Poe a mental derelict?" it asks. The pressbook suggests that Poe's characters were "but a reflection of himself." Universal also suggested that cinema owners write letters to local high schools and colleges, urging their teachers to suggest the film to students.
Reception and reputation
Too strong for 1935 tastes, with its themes of torture, disfigurement and grisly revenge, the film did not do particularly well at the box office during its initial release (much like another 1935 horror movie, MGM's Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre), and indirectly led to a temporary ban on horror films in England. With the genre no longer economically viable, horror went out of vogue. This proved a devastating development at the time for Lugosi, who found himself losing work and struggling to support his family. Universal Pictures changed hands in 1936, and the new management was less interested for the moment in the box office novelty of the macabre.
Outside of being rivals in horror films of the time, with Lugosi resenting Karloff's spectacular success in the wake of playing the role of Frankenstein's monster, both men were united in getting the fledgling Screen Actors Guild off the ground in the mid-1930s. During the production of The Raven Lugosi encouraged four additional members of the supporting cast to sign with the guild.
Boris Karloff as Edmund Bateman
Béla Lugosi as Richard Vollin
Lester Matthews as Jerry Halden
Irene Ware as Jean Thatcher
Samuel S. Hinds as Judge Thatcher
Spencer Charters as Bertram Grant
Inez Courtney as Mary Burns
Ian Wolfe as Geoffrey
Maidel Turner as Mrs. Harriet Grant
1.^ Smith, Don G. The Poe Cinema: A Critical Filmography. McFarland & Company, 1999. p. 57-8 ISBN 0-7864-1703-X