Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Afraid my dear? There's nothing to be afraid of...”
Perhaps more so than any other genre, horror is all about crowd-pleasing; if audiences like something, they’ll generally get more of what they want. It’s no surprise that the genre was at the forefront of sequelization when Universal began unleashing their monsters into theaters on a regular basis; when that wasn’t enough, they began rallying them together, as they not only met each other, but also the likes of Abbot and Costello. This sort of philosophy is still going pretty strongly today (what with the various “Vs.” movies and other mash-ups), and it was probably informing Roger Corman’s production of The Raven. In the midst of the now famous AIP cycle of Poe films, this spoofy (and very loose) adaptation of the poet’s most famous work gathered together horror’s past (Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre) with its present (Vincent Price). Nearly fifty years later, it still sounds like a horror fanatic’s wet dream.
Price is sorcerer Erasmus Craven, who one night ponders weak and weary, feeling sorrow for his lost Lenore (Hazel Court). Suddenly, he receives a visitor in the form of a black raven; you might expect that he only utters “nevermore,” but you’d be wrong, as he endlessly gabs with the voice of Lorre. He’s actually a wizard himself who has been transformed by a rival sorcerer, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), whose castle may also be haunted by Lenore’s ghost. The duo decides to confront the evil wizard to exact some measure of revenge…if they don’t trip up over themselves first.
As you can tell, this has very little to do with “The Raven” as we all know it (from The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode, obviously). It’s about as faithful as the Universal crack at the same material from 30 years earlier; that film also featured Karloff, who faced off against Bela Lugosi in a more straight-laced and grimly violent affair. You’ll find none of that here, as Corman’s take is a humorous effort that plays more to goofball sensibilities more so than Poe’s own black humor. There is much more Richard Matheson here than Poe, as it’s also filled with outlandish fantasy and magical elements; in fact, horror is basically on the back-burner. Though it begins somewhat ominously, with some typical moody establishing shots (such as waves crashing against a foreboding castle) that are accompanied by Price’s velvety-voiced recitation of the poem’s opening lines.
All that’s washed away once Lorre’s distinctive, almost crotchety voice emerges from the raven; the loquacious nature of the bird makes a clear, clean break with Poe’s conception, and the film devolves into a delightful playfulness. The interplay and banter between Lorre and Price as an odd couple duo is often fun; the two had already shared the screen in Corman’s Tales of Terror the year before and they’d again reunite (along with Karloff) for The Comedy of Terrors. Here, Price is far removed from the tortured, wicked personas he’d often play in these; instead, he’s a little bit finicky. He’s downright collected compared to Lorre’s bumbling magician, a nervous boozehound who goes straight for the bottle when he’s told he’ll need something to keep him warm. That’s one of many understated, dry moments the film has to offer; another involves the brief resurrection of Price’s father, whose mummified corpse reanimates to warn vaguely warn his son to “beware.” Of what? That’s what Lorre and Price also casually wonder, as they sort of shrug their shoulders at the whole thing.
Karloff is similarly removed from his typical seriousness; though he’s a villain (maybe--one of the film’s hallmarks is the various tricks and twists to the narrative), he seems more like a grumpy grandpa who twirls his mustache more than anything. As the film brings together the two generational icons, it feels somewhat like a passing-of-the-torch moment (which is interesting because The Raven is featured in Madhouse, which is directly concerned with such meta-fictional stuff) for the horror genre. If nothing else, Corman revels in their climactic showdown, which is an effects laden spectacle that sees the two duel with their magical powers. They fling everything from snakes to bats to spectral beams at each other in a battle that’s light-hearted despite the stakes (the loser might be turned into raspberry sauce, after all).
And of course you get a young Jack Nicholson and Hazel Court’s fine rack too. Her character is actually kind of great, and you’ll never look at Lenore the same way again. You also get Corman in full force; though his career often attached him to cheap, dirty productions, there’s little doubt that this particular cycle represents the work of an auteur. With garish color and lavish production values that deftly stretch a meager budget, films like The Raven definitely carry a distinctive visual stamp--you know a Corman/Poe flick when you see it. Though it’s not a straight horror flick, you’ll often wish it was, as the dreary landscapes and atmospheric interiors set a fine mood. Corman himself obviously thought so, as I believe this was one of the sets recycled for The Terror, though both could just be using leftovers from The Haunted Palace (that’s another way you can spot these flicks--all of the production inbreeding).
Despite the silliness, this still delivers for horror fans who get to see a bunch of genre stars having a blast. Plus, stuff like Poe reciting “The Raven” has an obvious appeal, and his final mugging for the camera is a predictable delight (there’s never any doubt what the film’s last lines will be, and Price crushes it in his typically overstated manner). This may be presented as “Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven,” but it’s definitely Corman and Price’s show all the way. Released on DVD as part of the now unfortunately defunct Midnite Movies from MGM, it can be found as the B-side to the aforementioned Comedy of Terrors. With a vivid anamorphic scope transfer and a solid mono track, the presentation is great; the special features include short features on Matheson and “Corman’s Comedy of Poe,” a promotional record, and the original theatrical trailer. It’s almost like Corman wanted to take the piss out of the gloominess that pervaded his Poe adaptations, so The Raven is “only this, and nothing more,” but it works well enough. Buy it!
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