FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Raven (1935)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

You can't have a whole season dedicated to horror movies and not watch a film in which either Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff appear, or even both at the same time. The Raven finds Universal's gruesome twosome starring together; Lugosi plays the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed Dr Vollin who teams up with Karloff's escaped convict Edmond Bateman to capture and torture the people preventing Vollin's relationship with dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware). Having saved her life after a car accident, Vollin has become infatuated with her, but she intends to marry another and her father, Judge Thatcher (Lester Matthews) wants to ensure that happens.

Despite the fact that they belong to the horror genre, I've always found something vaguely comforting about the old black-and-white Universal canon. There's a familiarity with its subjects even without any extensive knowledge of the films themselves. The Raven bears all the classic hallmarks too; menacing sophistication from Lugosi, Karloff acting his socks off through a layer of make-up (in fact, he's billed solely as his surname in the credits, ), hidden staircases, a wall of switches, medieval-style torture chambers, the lot. It's a wonderful little slice of the macabre that uses its stars well.

The poster above bills the film as an adaptation of Poe's poem The Raven, which it really isn't, though it does use lines from it throughout. Instead, Poe acts as an inspiration for the narrative and it's a tale that makes good use of his particular brand of Gothic. Obsession is a big feature across Poe's works, particularly the idea of a romantic one, and Vollin as a character could easily slot into one of Poe's tales. The raven itself is no more than a talisman for Vollin, silhouetted beautifully against the wall of his study in his first scene and setting the tone for the rest of the film. 

The other major Poe reference is that Vollin has created his own versions of several of Poe's torture devices, including the infamous pendulum and the shrinking room. He boasts of this early on and if there was ever a big red warning sign hanging over a character, that was it. Lugosi is great fun here, always on the edge of hamming it up, but managing to stay the right side of ludicrously menacing (arguably his big evil laugh in the final moments tips him over the edge though).

The climax of the film, in which those torture devices are put to use (though not graphically, this is 1935 after all), is easily its strongest moment. The pendulum device has already been demonstrated at this point so the mechanics are known to the audience, given its use on Judge Thatcher a delicious element of dramatic irony. It also acts as a countdown; once the pendulum starts swinging, there's 15 minutes until it begins slicing into the Judge. The shrinking room is even faster and the film wrings its tension from close ups of the descending pendulum or the long shot of the room as the walls close in. It's an effective sequence and one which relies more on the audience's anticipation of impending doom than it does in showing it, which is sometimes very welcome.

The tale of the film after its release is quite a sad one. Not massively popular with audiences at the time, possibly due to its disfigurement and torture scenes, it marked the moment at which horror started to decline in popularity. It's not particularly hard to see why; it doesn't carry the same majesty as either Frankenstein or Dracula, the roles which made its stars famous, but it's still an entertaining slice of old-fashioned horror.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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