“I am a law unto myself.”
If the supposed war to be the King of Horror movies pitting Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff against each other is to be believed, there should be little doubt that Bela at the very least won this battle that sees the two titans of the genre face off in a Poe inspired chamber of horrors.
Following up on the sensational 1934 thriller, The Black Cat, the pair are reunited for a fast paced 61 minutes of shudders under the direction of Lew Landers billed here under his real name, Louis Friedlander. Following a foggy night car crash, our leading lady, Irene Ware, finds her life in peril after sustaining a head injury. The hospital surgeons agree that any sort of operation would be far too risky despite the pleas of her father the Judge, Samuel S. Hinds. Even her doctor/fiancé Lester Matthews is too timid to attempt a risky operation.
When Hinds learns that a retired doctor played by Lugosi is skilled enough to operate he appeals to Lugosi’s ego just enough to have the master surgeon save his daughter’s life. Soon afterwards Miss Ware has recovered and Bela has fallen in love with the much younger woman. Much to the chagrin of Hinds who firmly believes his daughter should marry the younger doctor, Matthews. This will lead to a confrontation between Bela and Hinds where our horror icon’s sanity will be called into question. There’s a touch of Svengali in the air with Bela’s older man looking to the younger woman who he wants to mold into the vision of his own choosing. The fact that she’s a ballerina adds to that flavor when she performs a ballet sequence dedicated to her savior titled The Spirit of Poe.
The black cat is now out of the bag. Bela is a madman and his jealousy has pushed him past the edge of sanity. When not practicing medicine he’s spent his life studying the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
“It’s more than a hobby.”
Between quoting passages of The Raven to actually building his own devices of torture beneath his estate he’s lost his grip on reality. You’ll find a swinging pendulum with a sharpened blade long before Vincent Price put his to work and even a room with walls that close in. All Bela needs is a cohort to enact his jealous revenge on the judge and young lovers who have spurned him.
Enter Boris Karloff. “I want you should change my face.”
Boris is playing a bearded killer on the run from the police who turns to Bela for some plastic surgery in order to get a new face. One that will allow him to escape the hangman’s noose. Little does he know what’s in store when he allows himself to be led to the mad doctor’s laboratory. It’s a quote from Boris that gives Bela his inspiration for a night of horrors.
Boris : “I’m saying, Doc, maybe because I look ugly… maybe if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things.
Bela : “You are saying something profound. “
Boris might not be all that handsome as the whiskered thug but when he reawakens he’s going to give the audience a scare when Bela unveils his handy work turning Boris into something of a Frankenstein Monster and if you listen closely you’ll hear the Monster’s growl when Boris realizes just how he’s been tricked. All he has to do to have his face fixed is help Bela when he lures his intended victims into his Poe inspired dungeon of horrors. He’s become a victim of blackmail to do Bela’s evil bidding.
What transpires over the final third of the film is in some ways similar to The Black Cat with the two actors switching parts. This time out Bela is the madman spitting out lines like, “Poe you are avenged!” as he reaches the brink of …. dare I say … no I better not. For his part, Boris is the defeated victim who will have an opportunity to right his wrongs and find redemption by attempting to save the young beauty, her lover and her father.
The Raven represents one of Lugosi’s better portrayals in a career of horror films and while this is clearly Bela’s film, it’s still Boris who scored top billing over his Hungarian counterpart. That aside, perhaps when paired opposite Boris, Bela upped his game. He’s excellent in the earlier Black Cat, over the top fun here and would also do well in their next teaming, The Invisible Ray. Fast forward to The Son of Frankenstein and Lugosi scores a bullseye as Igor.
Director Landers would work with both men in the decade to follow though separately. He’d helm the Karloff-Lorre thriller The Boogie Man Will Get You in 1942 followed by 1943’s above average Lugosi chiller, Return of the Vampire. Lew would stay busy into the 1950’s and move into directing series television including stints on The Cisco Kid and Highway Patrol among others.
Always being a fan of the classic Universal cycle I’ve steadily upgraded my copy of The Raven from the early VHS series to the Lugosi DVD set and finally on blu ray thanks to the Universal Horror Series released by Scream Factory which prompted this latest viewing of an early childhood favorite.
Anytime I get on to the topic of Boris and Bela I always like to refer one and all to the excellent, must have bio written and researched by Gregory William Mank on the parallel careers of these two proud actors that still lay claim to a large number of fans worldwide.