Corporate Authorship, Film Adaptation, and Universal Pictures’ The Raven (1935)
by Kyle Edwards — Oakland University
November 27, 2007 – 04:01
The intentions and unique histories of filmmaking corporations are visible in the products they create. So it is with Universal Pictures’ The Raven (1935), a late entry in the horror cycle inaugurated by the company with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) and, after Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), the third adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe by Universal in as many years. In each successive Poe adaptation, the biographical legend of the well-known author became more central components of plot, theme and character, while the narratives of the original literary works receded in importance. This pattern culminated in The Raven, in which a brilliant physician, Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), believes himself to be a spiritual descendent of Edgar Allen Poe due to his extraordinary intelligence, obsession with torture, and history of romantic disappointment, all traits Vollin believes he shares with the famous author. Insisting that he must avenge the wrongs against both Poe and himself and by so doing fulfill the posthumous wishes of the author (intentions that Vollin reads into the eponymous poem and other works), the psychotic physician attempts to execute an elaborate revenge fantasy using torture devices that he has meticulously reconstructed from descriptions contained in Poe short stories.
As are the villains in all Universal horror films, Vollin is ultimately thwarted and the threat of violence he posed is eliminated, but The Raven nevertheless attempts to exert a lasting influence on the popular perception of Poe. The film depicts the author as a lovelorn, sadistic genius whose impulses and desires mimicked those contained in his poetry and fiction, and it projects Poe as a kind of founding father of the horror genre. Moreover, The Raven maintains that his literary works are riddled with scenes of betrayal and torture and, in a more harrowing possibility, possess the potential of transforming a curious reader into a homicidal maniac on the magnitude of Richard Vollin (thereby positioning the film’s producer as a trustworthy mediator between Poe and the moviegoer). In these ways, Universal absorbed Edgar Allen Poe’s oeuvre and image into the prevailing conventions and cultural associations of the horror genre and its ongoing corporate objectives.