Bela Lugosi plays Dr Vollin, a respected surgeon who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and has his own torture chamber in his cellar. One night the daughter of a local judge (Irene Ware) is injured in a car accident and Vollin is called to rescue her. After saving her life Vollin falls in love with the girl, although she already has a much younger fiancé. Quickly Dr Vollin grows bitter (and mad), and starts to plot revenge on the girl and her family. By an accident, an escaped killer Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) stumbles to Dr Vollin’s house, and Vollin quickly makes him his assistant by evil manipulation.
Following the superior The Black Cat, this was the second Universal Studios Poe adaptation where Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are paired against each other. This time Bela Lugosi gets to be the dominating arch-villain and Karloff plays the slightly less evil character. Towards the end of the movie Lugosi grows into a complete madman (see picture below) whereas Karloff gains the sympathy of the audience.
Karloff plays Edward Bateman as a simpleminded but deep down good natured man who is tired of criminal life. He comes to Lugosi wanting him to change his appearance so he can hide from the police. Lugosi however tries to blackmail him into doing torture and killing for him. Karloff responds desperately “I don’t want to get into no more trouble. Don’t ask me to do this job for you, Doc. I don’t want to do them things no more.”
Then he gives Lugosi an idea by his thoughtful pondering; “I’ll tell you something Doc. Ever since I was born, everybody looks at me and says, “You’re ugly”. Makes me feel mean. … maybe because I look ugly, maybe if a man looks ugly he does ugly things.”
Lugosi gets a devilish idea and he agrees to make the operation for Karloff. He cheats Karloff and horribly mutilates his face, disfiguring his mouth so that his speech now reminds that of the Frankenstein creature. Now Lugosi has control over Karloff, by promising to later fix his face he gets Karloff to do the needed dirty work.
While Karloff makes a better role performance, The Raven is still Lugosi’s movie. He is on screen in most of the scenes, while Karloff is more of a strong supporting character. This time Lugosi also gets to play the pipe organs (like Karloff had done in The Black Cat). After Lugosi has played the organs for Irene Ware, she states “You’re not only a great surgeon, but a great musician, too. Extraordinary man. You’re almost not a man. Almost…” Lugosi completes her sentence; “A god? … A god with the taint of human emotions...”
It is a great pleasure to see Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi sharing the screen, and while the movie itself is not much above the average, this does offer some of the best sequences between these two legends of horror. The Raven can definitely be recommended for all fans of these two actors.
Boris Karloff also appeared in the 1963 Roger Corman version of The Raven (neither of these films have much to do with the actual poem, though).