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Revisited two perennial favorites last night.

The Raven (1935, Lew Landers) is the more forgotten and “sleeper”-esque of the two, but may in many ways be the more perverse and wonderful.

Bela Lugosi (still just outside his “making women swoon” theatrical idol days, well before he became something of a one note joke) is the renowned surgeon who is “the only man” who can keep the attractive Irene Ware from being paralyzed for life after a car accident.

At first, he demurs, having retired to indulge his obsession for Poe among the likeminded in his gorgeous hillside manse, but when his professional pride is stroked (by fellows he deems competent enough to do the job deferring the work to him, and him only), he performs the operation.

While recuperating, Ware slinks around the place like she owns it, clearly comfortable with his skills with the organ (ahem) and dark European demeanor. Hell, she goes so far as calling him “almost a god” (!) Clearly, Lugosi’s found his perfect match.

Despite this, she ultimately (if hesitantly) decides to leave because she “has a fiancee” (the rather fey and disinterested Lester Matthews, one of the worst and most unconvincing “romantic leads” ever cast)…only to immediately turn around and stage a dance recital in Lugosi’s honor, based on Poe’s “the raven”. Yeah, sure, she has a fiancee. Gotcha.  Nudge, wink.

So here’s where things go wrong. Her grumpy old judge of a father (Samuel S. Hinds) reads the very obvious writing on the wall, and steps in, all pompous disapproval and bourgeoise “morality” in action. “You disapprove yourself! You don’t want a young wife!” Sure, keep telling yourself that, old man…

As the very thought of Ware “torments (Lugosi) night and day!”, this drives the reclusive doctor over the edge, particularly when fate throws a curveball his way. And here’s why the picture is less remembered.

Because from this highly Decadent pre-code character piece, the king of mordant pathos, Boris Karloff enters the picture as an escaped sadistic convict who wants some plastic surgery to keep the law off his tail.

On the surface, sounds great, right? Karloff! Lugosi! Together in yet another of several pictures…some of which work (The Black Cat), most of which…don’t.

The problem, though, is less Lugosi, whose thick Hungarian accent and turn of the century theatrical training locked him into an increasingly typecast, increasingly marginalized trail of genre pictures, than the much feted Karloff, who despite having more range as an actor tended, at least at this point in his career, to be similarly typecast in the Frankenstein mold – one bit of “sympathetic monster/baddie” after another.

It’s even more cloying and obnoxiously obvious than binge watching a season of the Mod Squad. Enough, already, no more sympathy! Just be sinister, goddamn it!

So Karloff is made “even uglier” by Lugosi after the former suggests that “maybe being ugly makes a man do ugly things.” He invites Hinds, Ware and Matthews (plus a few random guests) to a dinner party, with the intention of introducing his enemies to his personally constructed, Poe-inspired torture devices.

Karloff, who was shown sympathy by Ware in a brief scene immediately prior, takes the opportunity to turn on his doctor/betrayer, everyone else lives happily ever after. Forgettable fluff, in the end, and why even yours truly only remembered it in part, if fondly, as a decent Lugosi B-picture.

But think about what could have been, were the entire Karloff third of the film excised. Even had (as you might expect from films of this period) Lugosi’s plans for revenge been duly foiled, his mutual (if on his end, admittedly more obsessive) attraction to Ware* gone unfulfilled…

Why, then, the Raven could have fulfilled the promise set by its first third, as a surprisingly Decadent ode to alternative culture, of love among the gothic and those who prefer to exist outside the “mom and apple pie” ostensible “mainstream” of Middle America, the Hallmark channel and Celebration USA.

In other words, all of us misfits who have the balls to think for ourselves and live as we choose, in a world that actively frowns upon and dissuades us from such.

* just to make things more “safe” for the moral minority in attendance, Lugosi is shown not only with a full on “mad scene”, but dropping his passion for Ware entirely, in favor of “liking to torture” and sticking both Matthews and Ware in a crusher “to share their love together”.  It’s an obvious cop out and indefensible volte-face from everything the film offered visually and in the script and dialogue prior, clearly imposed by a nervous studio magnate of some level.

On the flipside (or actually, the same side of the DVD), we have the prior year’s The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer), which is a clear upgrade in visual quality and gravitas (no surprise, given Ulmer’s background in German Expressionism).

This one feels like a European-lensed silent film, with all the use of light and shadow, wild, jagged, futuristic sets and visual stylization as just as important a part of the end product as the acting or script. It’s dark, Decadent…and even blatantly satanic in the old, more theatrically inclined sense of LaVey, but we’ll get to that.

This time around, early horror regular David Manners (who never failed to relate just how much he detested the genre in interviews thereafter) and his rather meh bride Julie Bishop are newlyweds taking a honeymoon to some undisclosed central European locale.

Through a twist of fate (or just plain red tape), they wind up sharing their train ride with Bela Lugosi, who then winds up bringing them along to his intended destination after the bus they get off to travel on is wrecked in a weather related accident.

The destination? His old “friend” Boris Karloff’s (here in by far the greatest and most successful of their pairings) place: an eerie futurist castle built on “the biggest gravesite of the (First World) War”.

For the remainder of the film, Manners and Bishop attempt to be polite while figuring their way out of the situation, a dark, allusive metaphorical game of chess (which eventually becomes literal, ala the much later Seventh Seal) between Lugosi and Karloff – the former a revenge minded escapee from an “inescapable” gulag after 16 years, after being betrayed by his former compatriot.

While both men have quite obviously become a bit mad over the years, Lugosi plays one of his rare heroic roles here, as the “good guy” and “one of Hungary’s greatest psychiatrists” (oddly, an ailurophobe, which is where the film’s title derives from) who wants the couple to leave safely and find his wife (taken as a prize of victory from Lugosi by his betrayer, and literally preserved like a taxidermist and put on display behind glass (!).

Karloff (“one of the world’s great architects!”) holds many dark surprises, however – he’s also taken Lugosi’s daughter (Lucille Lund) to bed, as what appears to be a hypnotized (or at least well “groomed”) sex slave…and then kills her before Lugosi can liberate her.

He’s also the head of a blatantly satanic cult (he even sports an inverted pentagram at certain points and offers an atavistic “wolf in man” prayer in Latin – surprisingly open for this era of cinema!), who plans to use Bishop as the altar cum sacrifice when the time is propitious.

No pathos-baiting bullshit here, that’s for damn sure…this is Karloff at his all too rarely seen best, all sinister maneuvering and cocky self-assuredness at his own mastery of a deadly game he’s only too willing to play.

Eventually, Lugosi and his manservant (who has been working as Karloff’s as a sleeper agent) take down Karloff, with Lugosi enacting a gruesome torture on his tormentor and betrayer and sending everyone save the newlyweds to a well deserved oblivion in the final scenes. Wow.

As noted, this is immediately evident as a top tier directorial effort, with far more care and attention put into every frame, each set, each shadow, each archly delivered line of dialogue (deliberately kept sparse throughout, limited to only the most important bits of information) than your average horror picture, even of this early, more silent Expressionist-influenced era.

In fact, the stagey (if highly watchable) Dracula aside, I’d venture to call this the greatest of all classic horror films of its era, and one of its most Decadent and daring at that.  Only the aptly-paired The Raven, for all its failings and more straightforward nigh-soapiness, even comes close in that respect.

Needless to say, both pictures come highly recommended, albeit for different reasons and on two very different levels.

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