“Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hatred. Good! I can use your hate.”
Cultists and Tim Burton like to believe that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were arch-rivals. Lugosi, so the story goes, was Universal’s big star following Dracula (1931) but vanity resulted in the Hungarian actor rejecting the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the studio’s upcoming horror. He didn’t want to hide his face behind heavy make-up, or take a non-speaking role when his voice was so distinctive. The rest, as they say, is history – Karloff took the role, and transformed this mute beast into one of cinema’s most enduring, and endearing, characters.
The truth, of course, is slightly different. Yes, Lugosi was offered the role of the monster, but there are plenty of variations to the story from that point on. Some say he turned it down, others say he was removed from the project. He does eventually get to play the mute monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), but it proves he was never meant for the role; of his involvement in the Frankenstein franchise, he is best as demented hunchback Ygor (Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein). As to whether he and Karloff were truly enemies, well, it appears the opposite was more accurate; the two appear to be friends, who enjoyed some healthy acting rivalries.
I say all this in an effort to emphasise my next point: Lugosi is seldom better than when he is playing opposite Karloff. The pairing appears to bring out the best in Lugosi, whose theatrical flair acts as the perfect foil to Karloff’s more understated performance. The Raven follows the success of The Black Cat, Universal’s first attempt to bring Edgar Allen Poe’s works to the big screen. Both are loosely based on Poe’s original stories, with The Raven in particular becoming less a direct adaptation than a homage to the author himself – he is directly referenced, and it’s not the raven that is crucial to the story, but the various macabre torture devices that feature in his works, particularly the pit and the pendulum.
Lugosi is Dr Vollin, a brilliant, handsome but unhinged surgeon, obsessed with Poe’s stories, and concealing a ghastly labyrinth of torture chambers and secret laboratories in his vast Gothic mansion. Begrudgingly agreeing to operate on a young woman following a car accident, he develops an infatuation with her, much to the concern of her father. She is betrothed to a more suitable man, and Dr Vollin sees an opportunity to get his revenge when a fugitive, Bateman (Karloff), arrives at his home begging for a new face and, by default, a second chance. Poor Bateman is a tortured man; he wonders if his external ugliness has meant his miserable life was inevitable. It is this “profound” remark that leads Dr Vollin to commit a heinously sadistic act, disfiguring Bateman even further to ensure his compliance and subservience.
While Karloff incites almost instantaneous pathos through his subtle, pained performance, Lugosi is clearly having the time of his life. He’s been criticised in later roles for his hammy acting, but here he excels – his expressive face and exaggerated reactions serving to bring this charismatic lunatic to life. His disdain for the rest of humanity, his self-assured psychosis, and his sadism shine through his performance; I would go so far as to claim that Dr Vollin’s villainy and general nastiness is matched in Lugosi’s career only by Dr Orloff in 1939’s The Human Monster (also titled The Dark Eyes of London).
There’s much to enjoy in The Raven and, though its “monster” (whether that be the disfigured Bateman or Vollin himself) may not have become as iconic as Universal’s other horror characters in the same decade, it represents the studio at its peak. Vollin’s house (where most of the action takes place) is a wonderfully designed series of sets, featuring all the staples of a mad scientist’s lair, from its secret passageways and hatches, to its luxurious living spaces, to its wonderfully flamboyant torture chamber, complete with a room-elevator! No expense was spared for this big budget production, and it’s a joy to see Lugosi surrounded by something other than sparse sets and cobbled together props.
Evidently, of the two legendary actors, my preference lies with Lugosi, but this truly is his film. Despite getting second billing to Karloff (listed as just that in the credits, no first name necessary), he dominates throughout; Bateman may get the audience’s sympathy, but he fails to match the charisma and presence of Lugosi. Knowing the history of the two – Karloff’s continued success and Lugosi’s rapid decline and abandonment by the industry – it’s rather satisfying to see Lugosi’s suave, utterly deranged performance as Dr Vollin here, in contrast to the grubby, downtrodden Bateman. Of course, it all ends badly for Vollin (though, to be honest, he absolutely deserves it), ultimately this collaboration sees Lugosi well and truly the victor.