Sun 2 Dec 2012
THE RAVEN. Universal, 1935. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds, Spencer Charters, Inez Courtney. Based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Director: Lew Landers (as Louis Friedlander).
William K. Everson described The Raven as “grand guignol.” He might also have added that it was probably the apex of Bela Lugosi’s career. Loud, lurid and fast-moving (only 62 minutes long) it’s got monsters, torture, bondage and obsession, and perhaps the Classic Mad Scientist of the Movies, definitively interpreted by Lugosi, whose magnetic screen presence and limited acting ability made him a tragic icon of the B movies.
The Mad Doctor in The Raven is just about everything an evil medico should be: a megalomaniac plastic surgeon (a theme that would reappear in the classic Eyes Without a Face) obsessed with Poe, who keeps a torture chamber in his basement, falls in love with a woman he can’t have, and sets out to torment her and the rest of the cast, laughing maniacally between fits of sinister organ-playing. What more could you want from a Mad Scientist? Or for that matter, from a horror movie?
Well for one thing The Raven also features Karloff as a sinister go-fer (the only time Boris ever played second-string to Bela in their careers) a disfigured and disgruntled killer clearly just aching for a chance to get back at his mad-doctor-boss.
There’s also a giant, razor-edged pendulum, swinging mercilessly downward at its victims, perambulating rooms, a dark, stormy night, and a pervasive atmosphere of tasteful sadism, more quaint than kinky, closer to Fu-Manchu than Krafft-Ebbing. Plus Bela Lugosi gloating — a lot. As if Director Louis Friedlander immediately saw that gloating was his star’s forte and felt it best to give him his head. The result is a full-bodied performance in a juicy part that just begs for the kind of sonorous overacting only Lugosi could give. And a fun film all around.
Alas, though, things weren’t all that much fun for poor Bela. Almost immediately after The Raven, horror movies went out of style (possibly because of excesses in films like this and Island of Lost Souls) and were actually banned in Britain.
And hence, one of the premier horror actors of his day found himself unemployed and unwanted. Monster movies came back in the late 30s and early 40s, but now the former star was mostly cast as sinister butlers or red herrings, his name featured prominently on the posters but himself seen little in the films.
That was in the B-movies. In the grade-Z flicks from Monogram and PRC, Lugosi got meaty roles once again, with a string of mad scientists, deranged killers and lots of screen time, but the meat here was generally bland-tasting, as the films themselves were slow-moving, cheap and mostly devoid of thrills.
Only once more did Lugosi get a really good lead in a B-movie, and that was Return of the Vampire (Columbia, 1944) a classy job once again directed by Friedlander, who was now calling himself simply Lew Landers. Return has been largely ignored by Horror fans, but it has s spooky atmosphere reminiscent of Roy William Neill’s Sherlock Holmes series over at Universal, even featuring some of the players from that series and set, like them, in an oddly gothic war-time England.
This was only the second time Lugosi played a Vampire in the movies (he’s named Armand Tesla, but with his cape, coffin and dinner clothes he is Dracula to all intents and purposes) and he takes the role in his teeth and runs with it, clearly relishing the chance to swirl his cape once more and stalk about the graveyard cloaked in fog.
He’s even assisted by a rather unimpressive werewolf, played by Matt Willis in the best tradition of Dwight Frye, and he gets to gloat a lot once again, just like he did in the old days. Landers/Friedlander adds some fine touches, with the vampire’s presence presaged by dead leaves fluttering in through the french doors, and mist creeping all over the place, and again, when Lugosi’s being sinister, the camera’s right there in a well-lit close-up, while writer Griffin Jay, a veteran of the B-horrors at Universal and PRC, manages to polish up all the old clichés and provide a fast-moving story that seems enjoyably familiar.
The rest of the 1940s were unkind to Lugosi, and the 50s even worse, but it’s nice to see him in Return of the Vampire, once again flashing his hammy fangs and biting the scenery as only he could.