The Raven (1963) [31 Days of American Horror Review]
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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Olive Sturgess, Jack Nicholson
Roger Corman had already experimented with adding comedy to his series of Edgar Allan Poe films with The Black Cat, the middle segment of his 1962 anthology Tales Of Terror, but for the fifth entry in the Poe Cycle, he would go all-in.
Taking as inspiration one of the Bostonian writer’s most famous poems as inspiration, Corman and regular collaborator Richard Matheson next film would be The Raven. Reuniting The Black Cat’s comedy duo of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, it would also have it’s cast bolstered by a young Jack Nicholson and horror legend Boris Karloff, but this would be a tale told in more broad strokes than its predecessor. Played much more for laughs, The Raven is an exercise in camp and very little else.
Still mourning the death of his wife Lenore (Court) two years after the fact, 15th Century sorcerer Dr Erasmus Craven (Price) is visited by a Raven who turns out to be a transformed Dr Bedlo (Lorre), another wizard who has fallen foul of the evil Dr Scarabus (Karloff). After restoring his acquaintance’s humanity, Craven accompanies Bedlo on a mission to the evil sorceror’s castle.
Bedlo is seeking simple revenge, but Erasmus’ motives are more complex, as he wants to search for his wife’s ghost, which Bedlo has told him he saw in Scarabus’ castle. Joined by Craven’s daughter Estelle and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Nicholson) the group set out on their mission, but soon find that there is more going on at the castle than they first assumed…
Looking at it on paper, there’s so much talent involved in The Raven that you could be forgiven for thinking that it couldn’t fail to be passable entertainment at the very least. Corman and Matheson behind the scenes, Les Baxter on soundtrack duties, Price, Lorre, Karloff and Nicholson up on screen…it should have been an open goal to make something worthwhile with a lineup like that.
Instead though, we have The Raven.
The comedy in Tales Of Terror was clumsy and poorly-executed, so why Corman felt the need to do a full feature of it beggars belief. Comedy and horror is a difficult thing to get a balance in, requiring a deft touch in both script and direction, as well as performance. The Raven fails on all counts, being neither funny or frightening.
Right from the off, with Peter Lorre flapping his wings around in a ludicrous bird costume, the tone for the rest of the film is established and it’s bordering on irritating. Talent like his, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price (who we know is more than capable of hitting an amusing mark) is absolutely wasted on material like this.
Jack Nicholson would go on to much bigger and better things shortly after this, but even at this nascent point of his career, he could surely have been delivering more than what we get from him? The others are doomed to work with awful material, but Nicholson is just awful in himself here, which sums up the dearth of positives that The Raven suffers from.
Les Baxter, after conjuring such incredible atmospherics on recent classics like House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum seems to be lost, switching from dramatic horror music to silly comedic numbers with all the grace of a chainsaw, but it’s hard to blame him as he didn’t have much to work with in the first place.
The final duel between Craven and Scarabus is… well, entertaining would be a stretch, but it at least has a feeling of importance to it, which you have to put down to the actors irrepressible screen presence and nothing else.
There’s very little of Poe’s original poem in here, so Corman and Matheson had plenty of scope to do what they wanted with it.
If only they had elected to play their tale straight, we could have had yet another strong entry in the Poe Cycle, one of warring magicians, battling over not just power but the love of a duplicitous woman. Cast Boris Karloff and Vincent Price in that and you have a potential classic on your hands.
Instead, we have the comedy stylings of The Raven. A black mark on the Poe Cycle and an absolute waste of both the talent involved and the time spent watching it. Awful.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy
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