Sunday, October 23, 2011

Classics Revisited: The Raven

(1963) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Richard Matheson; Based on the poem “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court and Jack Nicholson; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

“…Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” 

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.” – Edgar Allan Poe

What’s It About?

Wait a minute… Two “Classics Revisited” in one month? What gives? Besides, this is supposed to be Horror Month. Does Roger Corman’s version of The Raven really qualify as horror or is it something else?  In response to the first two questions: because I can. As far as the last question is concerned, well… okay, you’ve got me.  If I had to classify The Raven, it’s basically a gothic comedy, with some horrific elements thrown in. The story is vaguely associated with Poe’s original poem, which serves merely as a starting point.  Black magic, dark castles and treacherous deeds abound, which fit in nicely with the Halloween spirit, don’t you think? Let’s move on, shall we?

Producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson typically started each new film project with a title, and worked from there. The Raven is no exception. Screenwriter Richard Matheson took over where Poe left off, with a man tortured by the nocturnal visit of the eponymous raven. Since the source material could never be stretched into a feature-length film, Matheson was tasked with taking the story on a whole new tangent. As a result of his dilemma, Matheson commented that he felt “obliged” to turn the lugubrious poem into a comedy. 

Producer/director Roger Corman, ever budget-conscious, recycled sets from earlier Poe-themed productions. Thanks to the fact that this was one of the later films in the series, the sets were more elaborate than before, consisting of components progressively accumulated from Corman’s earlier productions.  Because the filmmakers had more to work with, The Raven, for the most part, ended up looking like a much more expensive film. The dungeon and family crypt set pieces are suitably gloomy, while Dr. Scarabus’ castle interior appears fittingly cavernous. 

The main draw of The Raven is witnessing three classic horror actors poking fun at their established personas. The Raven marked the first time that Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff (as Drs. Craven, Bedlo and Scarabus, respectively) had appeared onscreen together, hailed as the “Triumvirate of Terror.” The film also served as a fitting signpost in each performer’s career.  rice was at the top of his game, riding the success of the previous Poe features, while Karloff was nearing the end of his long and illustrious profession.  Sadly, this would prove to be one of Lorre’s final chapters, as he died the following year at age 59. 

Considering his formidable company, Lorre nearly steals the show as the incompetent Dr. Bedlo. He utters some of the film’s most memorable lines (“Milk!  How vomitable.”), as he verbally spars with Price and Karloff. According to Roger Corman, Lorre was prone to improvisation, much to the classically trained Karloff’s chagrin. This caused some friction on the set, which Price tempered, employing an approach that was somewhere in between the other two actors’ opposing styles.

The supporting cast complements the headliners admirably. Hazel Court is deliciously unscrupulous as Craven’s scheming, duplicitous wife Lenore. Her character’s number one interest is herself, content to back whichever side prevails in the wizards’ feud.  Another noteworthy performance is by Jack Nicholson, in one of his earlier roles, as Bedlo’s loyal but somewhat obtuse son Rexford. He awkwardly shambles in his father’s footsteps, attempting to be the hero, but not quite measuring up to his lofty aspirations. 

Why It’s Still Relevant:

One of the obvious charms of The Raven is the unprecedented chance to see three masters at work. While the multiple-stars-on-one-screen motif is nothing new under the sun, it’s handled surprisingly well.  Price, Karloff and Lorre seem to be having a blast with their roles. It’s a delight to see the three leads play off of each other, and the climactic duel between Craven and Scarabus is a delight to behold, as they match wits and magical prowess. 

Roger Corman has often been maligned for his cheap, quickie productions, but The Raven proves that he was more than capable of creating quality work, given the right material and actors. Corman gained a reputation for fostering the careers of many young filmmakers, but he was actually a talented director in his own right (Bucket of Blood or The Intruder are some additional examples of Corman at his creative zenith). He kept The Raven moving along at a brisk pace, and definitely received a return on his investment with his actors’ performances.

Who ever thought that Poe could be so much fun? Richard Matheson openly interpreted Poe’s seminal work, typically viewed as brooding and melancholic, steering it into a completely unexpected and humorous direction. Of all the Corman-directed Poe films, this is easily the most enjoyable, and also one of the best.  Thematically speaking, it’s a perfect palate-cleanser for the Halloween season, and a nice break amidst the glut of serious, self-important horror flicks that seem to dominate this time of year.

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