It's a follow-up to The Black Cat (1934), the remarkable pre-Hays Code horror movie which brought Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together on screen for the first time. Unfortunately you'd be better off not making such comparisons while you're watching this one. The Black Cat was astonishing, but this is merely quite good.
There's no plot link between the two films, but they're both grisly (for their time) horror movies starring Karloff and Lugosi and ostensibly based on Edgar Allen Poe. This one's themes include torture, revenge and disfigurement, which didn't do particularly well at the box office and managed to get horror films temporarily banned in England. The genre fell out of favour for a few years until Son of Frankenstein, which meant hard times for Lugosi in particular. Another 1935 film which fared similarly to The Raven was MGM's Mad Love starring Peter Lorre, which I must pick up some time.
Incidentally, three decades later Karloff would star in another horror film called The Raven, made by Roger Corman and also starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson. However the two films have nothing in common except the title.
Anyway, this Raven is all Lugosi's. He's the lead role, on-screen almost throughout and unrepentantly mad and evil. He's playing a brilliant surgeon. Think about that for a moment. Imagine going under Bela Lugosi's knife. You can probably imagine the film already. I've seen claims that this is his best non-Dracula performance and this might be true, even if personally I was more impressed in The Black Cat. The complete film can't match that one for intensity, but I have to admit that this Lugosi's giving a more complete performance and never losing control of his line delivery. I liked his facial expression when gloating that he's about to torture someone to death. I can easily believe that this was his best non-Dracula role, at any rate.
Lugosi's clearly having fun in this thoroughly evil role that nevertheless manages to maintain a certain amount of ambiguity. Like Sweeney Todd, Lugosi's Dr Vollin is brilliant at his day job. He's saved any number of lives and at the start of the film is being begged by his former colleagues to come out of retirement because he's the only one who can save a particular girl. He eventually does so, only to become infatuated with her. Vollin would have us believe that everything he does from then on is merely the natural reaction of a tortured genius being denied the thing he loves, but this overlooks the fact that he lives in a house that he's equipped with secret doors, bedrooms that transport their occupants underground and a basement full of Edgar Allen Poe torture devices. His favourite is taken from The Pit and The Pendulum.
Is he mad? The film could almost be seen as an exploration of this single question. The answer to this might seem to be "as a hatter", but I like the way he keeps putting forward non-trivial arguments for the other point of view.
In comparison Karloff has the lesser role, although as usual he got top billing on the posters. What's more, he and Lugosi have swapped plot functions. Last time Lugosi was the scary murderous deranged one who nonetheless looked like all the saints compared with Karloff, whereas this time it's the other way around. Karloff's a criminal who's escaped from San Quentin, having killed two guards and used an oxy-acetylene torch to burn off the face of a bank clerk. Is this a good guy? Not exactly, but all he wants now is to put violence behind him. Unfortunately he makes the mistake of going to Lugosi for facial surgery, which lands him with zombie-like disfigurement that will only be reversed once he's done everything Lugosi says.
Karloff's not particularly memorable here, unfortunately. He's been given a bland and unconvincing make-up job, with the deformed eye obviously painted on to the prosthetic, and for the most part he just stumbles around and hates Lugosi. I like him, but he doesn't come close to stealing the show. I did notice the bit where he does a Frankenstein's Monster grunt, though.
All this must sound promising, but as I said, the results are merely good. Lugosi's idea of torture has to be something that can get past the Hays Code, so we're talking about a more intellectual kind of sadism than merely getting out red-hot knives. Karloff and Lugosi's character still hate each other and the "good" one still has murder on his mind, but this balance of power is more unequal. Lugosi's Vollin obviously has the upper hand throughout, which means there's less tension in their scenes together. Oh, they're both still good. They're just not "blow you through the back of the cinema" awesome. I like Lugosi's laughter when Karloff's just seen his new face and put a bullet through every mirror in the room, for instance.
The other actors are fine, without being anything you'd specifically recommend. There's a scene where I wasn't convinced by Irene Ware trying to seem scared, but I can forgive that because she has big breasts. Fans of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films might also recognise Ian Wolfe, although the credits have him confused with his co-star.
This is an even shorter film than its predecessor, that occasionally could have done with taking more time to fill in the details. The visual storytelling has a goof or two. The opening scene has Irene Ware driving along through fog, only to scream and go off the road when she sees a "detour" sign. Is she a moron? The film's answer would seem to be "yes". Much later on, the height of that swinging pendulum also looked inconsistent to me.
Fundamentally I think the problem might be that Lugosi's Vollin is so completely in control of his evil machinations that the movie manages to be less dramatic than it might have been. It's a good film, but it doesn't have the power of The Black Cat. I admire the fact that it's trying so hard to be sick and depraved, but it's going about it in a slightly vanilla way. For example it has two Scooby-Doo endings, although fortunately I'm only talking about attempted comedy rather than anyone pulling off a rubber mask.
Nonetheless I'm glad I watched it. It's still Lugosi vs. Karloff and worth treasuring for that alone. Lugosi fans in particular have no excuse for not seeking it out.