*. When I was a kid I memorized all of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.” I can still do a few stanzas, a couple of which are shoehorned into this movie, which otherwise has little to do with the poem, or indeed with Poe. The blade-on-a-pendulum device is the only substantive connection, and it of course does not come from “The Raven.” As a contemporary review in the New York Evening Post had it, this movie “has no more bearing on the original source than a stuffed bird has to an elephant.”
*. In their defence: (1) the credits only say that the film was “suggested by” Poe’s poem; (2) the script went through many drafts, with at least seven writers working on it; and (3) most Poe adaptations play this way. There’s as much Poe here as there was in the previous two Poe films (Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat) put out by Universal that are usually taken with this one as forming a trilogy. Which is to say, considerably less Poe than you’ll get in the 2011 horror anthology P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie.
*. The pre-title credits announce “Karloff and Lugosi.” No first names necessary (and indeed Karloff doesn’t even get a first name in the list of Players, as they were then called). Apparently Lugosi was angry that Karloff got top billing despite Lugosi having the larger role. I would have thought the fact that Karloff was being paid twice as much ($10,000 to Lugosi’s $5,000) would have been all the evidence he needed as to where he stood on the totem pole.
*. Aside from the two stars there’s very little to see here. Of the three films in the Poe trilogy The Raven is by far the least distinguished, without any of the atmosphere and disturbing transgressiveness of Murders in the Rue Morgue or The Black Cat. The only thing I really enjoyed here was the bedroom elevator set, which is revealed in an accomplished process shot when it reaches the basement. Aside from that, the sadistic Dr. Vollin’s torture chamber is a yawn, including the aforementioned pendulum and a room where the walls close in. How is he supposed to enjoy the suffering of his victims in that contraption? He can’t even see them.
*. It was considered shocking stuff, at least by some. The Code had come in and the producers got a warning about “running the risk of excessive horror.” In Britain it was strong enough to lead the Board of Censors to consider a complete ban on horror movies, mainly for Karloff’s slightly disfiguring make-up. Innocent days indeed.
*. In his book The Monster Show David J. Skal points to an interesting critique leveled by the London Times. Why were doctors being made into monsters? “Very rarely is the purpose [of a movie doctor] to save a life or effect a cure . . . The favourite purpose of an operation on the screen is either disfigurement or the creation of a monster . . . Ghosts and goblins that used to lurk in dark corners to pounce upon the unwary pale into ineffectual shadows before the grim figure of the demon surgeon brandishing his scalpel.”
*. I guess that’s a fair complaint to make, but I don’t think it was new in the 1930s. It also ignores the fact that doctors are scary people. We don’t usually interact with them unless we’re anxious about something in the first place. And surgery! How is that not scary? You don’t have to play up those trays of gleaming knives to feel a shiver. Medicine and horror go together like a hand in a rubber glove.
*. Not that this is a scary movie today. It isn’t. I’m not even sure how frightening it was, despite the concerns of the censors, at the time. Apparently audiences laughed at the man swinging from the door handle over the elevator shaft the bedroom has just dropped through. And then there’s a strange comic ending with the drugged couple sleeping through all the excitement and the youngsters enjoying a lame joke about crushing each other in loving embraces. A couple of good parts — Karloff shooting the mirrors and growling like Frankenstein’s monster being the highlight in my book — but otherwise its quite forgettable.