Lugosi gives one of his finest performances as the brilliant but deranged surgeon who becomes obsessed with a beautiful dancer after saving her life. He must have her but first must deal with her fiance and father and plans to take care of them in his chamber of Edgar Allen Poe- Inspired torture devices. To do the dirty work he enlists the aid of a wanted criminal (Karloss) whom he disfigures with the promise of restoring his feature when the job is done.
Bela Lugosi, second billed, plays Doctor Vollin, a genius surgeon, accomplished musician and devotee of Edgar Allan Poe. He seems to be held in high esteem, is charming and talented. However, when he’s wearing his surgeon’s mask, the camera focusses on those sinister eyes, and we really don’t know quite what is going on inside the old scoundrel’s head.
He seems besotted with Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), whose life he has just saved in a delicate operation. And yet she is promised to ultra-suave, moustachioed Jerry (Lester Matthews – fresh from playing a similarly disapproving, debonair gent in ‘Werewolf of London’ earlier that year). We then meet Bateman (Boris Karloff), bearded and shadier than a factory full of umbrellas. Every movement, stance and rolling of the eyes tells us Bateman is a villain through and through, and here he is on Vollin’s doorstep, asking the surgeon to ‘change his face’. Bateman has had a lifetime of rebuttal; “Maybe if a man is ugly, he does ugly things.” Karloff, billed first, is not well cast here. His lisping English lilt doesn’t convince when given lines like “I don’t want to do bad things no more.” There was always a studio-managed rivalry between him and Lugosi, but here, Lugosi’s theatricals are far more impressive.
Vollin does as he is asked and changes Bateman’s face, but the result is a grotesque deformity. Bateman is promised another new face if he accedes to Vollin’s villainous wishes – which begin with Bateman assuming the role of unsightly butler for a dinner party Vollin is hosting. Being such a fan of Poe, it’s not entirely surprising Vollin has a torture room filled with devices taken from Poe’s tales, chiefly ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. Vollin doesn’t just torture people, he takes time to describe exactly the agonies his victims are facing, with Bateman as his henchman.
If this were released today, it would surely fall under the category of ‘torture porn’. Seen that way, ‘The Raven’ was ahead of its time; possibly this proved to be its downfall. Following disappointing returns and heavy criticism, it hastened the premature ending of horror film production (the feint hearts of the UK critics fuelled this too), at least until 1939, when ‘Son of Frankenstein’ proved there was still an audience for the macabre.
To say that Lugosi fails to resist the temptation to go wonderfully over the top towards the film’s close is an understatement, whereas Karloff’s villain becomes a Monster-esque misunderstood, maligned good guy - and too quickly after the villains have received their just desserts, ‘The Raven’ comes to an end with a briskly light-hearted ending.
Outrageous, but glorying in its outrageousness, this is not Universal’s best horror, but possibly it is their best vehicle for Lugosi, who owns every scene he is in. Were it not for the gleeful ham on display, the subject matter could have been deeply unsettling. The censors and critics who were appalled by Vollin’s vow to be "the sanest man who ever lived" took it all far too seriously, with dire consequences for Lugosi and horror films in general.