Gentle Rapping

Bela Lugosi stars as a doctor driven mad, his lust for violence sustained by grisly worship of Edgar Allen Poe. Released not long after the production code’s establishment, The Raven responds to fears that led to the code’s creation. Decades before accusations of media-influenced copycat crimes, The Raven draws a connection. It’s fearful and cruel without exploiting bloodshed. Instead, the implied mania is the terror’s source.

It’s similar with Karloff too. While retracing some steps from Frankenstein, his early disfigurement in The Raven’s story makes a physical monster, a man teetering already after a life of crime. Society judges looks. Karloff’s resentment of humanity becomes a literal form, suggesting looks define criminality in a chilling dialog exchange. The Raven explores why – high-society members visit Lugosi’s home, terrified at the sight of Karloff’s drooping eye. A life of that rejection leads only to want for vengeance.

Hearing Lugosi recite Poe with his accent proves chilling

On the underside, there’s dirty romance. Lugosi chases the already married Irene Ware, a woman he saved after an accident. Employing Poe’s obsession with control – locking them in pendulum traps, torturing them with their own actions – Lugosi drifts toward total madness. It’s an undervalued performance. Hearing Lugosi recite Poe with his accent proves chilling. His ultimate master plan happens only after sensational build-up, The Raven comfortable in pacing even with only one hour of runtime.

Taken in the whole of Universal’s horror output, The Raven doesn’t stray from formula. Heroes enter a lavish home with hidden rooms and a laboratory in a dank basement, all owned by a madman masquerading as gracious host. Like Karloff and Frankenstein, Lugosi doesn’t stretch himself far from his lineage as Dracula.

Yet, The Raven feels different. The mood and tenor separate from monster horror for something cerebral. The Raven uses fantastic elements and thin science fact, but it’s human. Lugosi’s intellectualism comes off as rational, initially, then fanatical. Karloff is led by desperation, a need to be accepted. Again, rational, but then empathetic.

Supporting the stars, Lester Matthews and Ware need only look scared. Some comic relief from a portly couple is entirely throwaway, a means to soften the upcoming cruelty. Women shriek, men head to save them; that’s more routine than casting the Lugosi/Karloff combo in a genre film. The success here is in the condemnation of media (not film though, of course) and how persuasive literature shapes who we become, like fearing those who look different.


Shout/Scream Factory advertises a new 2K scan from original film elements, but does not specify what film elements. The first reel barely rises above the quality of a DVD upscale with dismal resolution. Once Irene Ware takes to the stage in a dance routine, the uptick in sharpness becomes noted. While never as pristine as other Universal tentpoles, marginal detail escapes from a softened treatment.

Of greater concern is contrast. That’s too hot. Highlights bake fidelity, rendering it lost. Clipping is all too common. As example, watch during certain fade outs. As the image dims, facial definition suddenly appears in those few seconds, then lost when the lights come back. Black levels never reach full density either, robbing some evocative scenes of their grandeur.

Thankfully, the source doesn’t endure any heavy damage. A few specks of dirt and occasional scratch belie the The Raven’s age. Grain resolves well, keeping the image stable without artifacting.


When Lugosi begins playing a piano in an early scene, this DTS-HD presentation sounds as if it were melting. Age does that.

Dialog in this mono affair stays intelligible, way above the light static. Mixing with the score doesn’t strain anything other than treble. For the time from the early talkie era, The Raven sounds fine.


Two commentaries enter, each with different perspective. Historians Gary D. Rhodes and Steven Haberman handle the material with care. Each is informative. The fine Karloff/Lugosi featurette called A Good Game follows The Raven’s making-of story. A recording of Lugosi reading Poe’s Tell Tale Heart is magnificent. Some stills round things out.

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The Raven
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Karloff and Lugosi pair in the stellar The Raven, a provocative film about a doctor who goes mad on a diet of horror literature.

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