This is the Boris & Bela show all the way. Like its sort-of companion piece "The Black Cat," THE RAVEN involves young lovers held captive by a madman with an odd hobby, in a large house which is elaborately tricked-out with amenities not usually found in even the most exclusive residences. This time out, Boris is the nominal "hero" (as with "The Black Cat," the male half of the young couple proves remarkably useless) and Bela the nut-case: Richard Vollin; doctor, Poe aficionado and do-it-yourself-er without peer. Summoned from retirement to perform life-saving surgery on Jean Thatcher, a lovely young dancer, he subsequently falls head-over-heels for her, and the trouble starts.
Lugosi was a better actor than he usually gets credit for being; his downfall seemed to stem from a lack of selectivity about what projects he accepted, frequently landing him in dreck. THE RAVEN gives him ample opportunities to shine, and he makes the most of them. Some consider his work here over-the-top, but scenery-chewing is entirely appropriate to the character, who is written as an arrogant egomaniac - he refers to himself as "a law unto myself" and even "a god" - and probably the only out-and-out lunatic Lugosi ever played. The desires or welfare of others simply don't enter into the equation for Vollin. After repeated refusals to perform Jean's operation, only an appeal to his ego ("So, they DO say I am the only one!") can induce him; that the object of his affection makes no secret of her love for someone else is of no consequence to him, and for the one "nice" deed he does for someone else - making Jean's fiancé his research assistant - he flatters himself that he's being magnanimous, though his true motivation, keeping the young rival too busy to interfere with his pursuit of Jean, is nonetheless self-serving.
The gloriously unrestrained nature of his performance notwithstanding, he gives us some of his best moments here: when he finds himself in Karloff's clutches, totally helpless and at Boris' mercy, the panic beneath his thin veneer of casual bravado is palpable. Likewise the barely-controlled fury and pain when, ostensibly speaking about Poe, he tells of the madness that grips "a man of genius denied of his great love," and how that madness can drive him to conceive of "torture....torture for those who have tortured him." His perverse glee in inflicting that torture is chilling, and he even displays some unexpectedly dry wit. When Vollin demands of Jean's father, Judge Thatcher, "There are no two ways; send her to me," the Judge gasps an incredulous "Do you know what you're saying?" Lugosi, in a deliberate monotone, answers the question literally; repeating, "There - are - no - two - ways - send - her - to - me!"
If I've put the emphasis here on Lugosi, it's because he truly dominates all around him, including Karloff. That's no reflection on Boris; he just plays a mostly passive character: Edmond Bateman, bank robber and escaped con, who seeks Vollin out for an operation to make him "look different." Given the shady-looking hood who passes Vollin's name and address to Bateman, and the seedy surroundings in which the meeting takes place, one can't help but wonder at Vollin's social contacts, and the kind of services he's previously solicited (or performed). The unfortunate Bateman soon finds himself in over his head, the victim of Vollin's particularly sadistic blackmail.
As with Frankenstein's creation, Boris suffuses Bateman with pathos. "I don't want to do them things no more," he pleads, when Lugosi sets out to enlist his help for some dastardly deeds. Because of his predicament, we can feel sympathy for Bateman, even as he does more of "them things" at Vollin's behest. Under heavy and restricting makeup, as was often the case, Boris is able to communicate a great deal with his eyes (or, in this case, eye). Watch the excitement in them (it?) as Lugosi removes the post-op bandages; your heart fairly breaks because you know the shock that's in store for him.
The supporting cast is filled out with familiar and capable players such as Inez Courtney and Ian Wolfe (who has one of the film's best lines when, as Bela goes on his torture rampage, protests with an oh-so-civilized, "See here, Vollin, things like this can't be done!").
The ever-dependable and versatile Samuel S. Hinds provides us with one of his delightfully stodgy curmudgeons as Judge Thatcher, and he deserves a special nod on general principle. Hinds was one of those "oh, I've seen him a hundred times before" actors (whose face is probably known by far more people than his name) who, during the '30's and '40's, seemed to pop up in every third film released. His persona varied little (and he seemed doomed to rarely being cast as anything besides judge, doctor or lawyer), but he was able to bend it in whatever direction a role required, enabling him to move with ease from the tight-ass Thatcher to Slade, the corrupt, tobacco-spittin' judge in "Destry Rides Again," to the sage and kindly family physician in "The Boy With Green Hair." Too bad he never did a "Huck Finn;" he'd have been great as The King.
Despite the improbability (oh, all right; absurdity) of the plot, the script provides some wonderful dialogue. Hinds has the great good fortune of uttering the catchy phrase, "stark-staring mad" on more than one occasion. But the delivery of even the pithiest exchanges, such as "'You monster, you like to torture.' 'Yes, I like to torture.'" gives them a vitality far beyond what is on the page. When all is said and done, though, THE RAVEN is, above all, B & B's show. Each is at the top of his game, and together, they own it.