AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: Now, from ARROW VIDEO in their Six Gothic Tales boxset. Released as a stand-alone Blu-ray March 9th
RUNNING TIME: 86 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the 15th century, the sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven has been mourning the death of his wife Lenore for over two years, much to the chagrin of his daughter Estelle. One night he is visited by a raven, who happens to be a transformed wizard, Dr. Bedlo. Together they brew a potion that restores Bedlo to his old self. Bedlo explains he had been transformed by the evil Dr. Scarabus in an unfair duel, and both decide to see Scarabus, Bedlo to exact revenge and Craven to look for his wife’s ghost, which Bedlo reportedly saw at Scarabus’ castle. Along for the ride are Estelle and Belo’s son Rexford….
The Raven, which bears no relation to the 1935 Universal horror movie of the same title which I reviewed ages ago and which also starred Boris Karloff [plus Bela Lugosi as a Poe-obsessed maniac], is a delight. Pleased with the how the light-hearted The Black Cat episode of Tales Of Terror came out, Roger Corman and his writer Richard Matheson decided to make a wholly comic Poe feature. The result doesn’t at all attempt to be scary like the other Corman/Poe films . In fact The Raven, which now has an entirely appropriate ‘PG’ certificate in the UK [it was garnished with a ludicrous ‘X’ by the BBFC for its cinema release], and is faster paced than the other Corman/Poe movies, would be a good film to introduce kids to this kind of movie [ok, you glimpse some eyes in a box and a couple of shrivelled corpses, but there are far more disturbing images in some of the Disney cartoon classics]. Though generally more amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious, The Raven still works very well, a film where Corman and Matheson have fun parodying some of the elements in their earlier Poe movies, and where the cast are clearly enjoying themselves too, though, as Matheson said, a comic approach was probably the best way considering the script used a mere poem as its source.
Of course The Raven, which tells of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man’s slow fall into madness, remains one of the most famous and greatest poems ever. The fifth of the Corman/ Poe films and the fourth to star Vincent Price, this 1963 film of The Raven was shot, as was par for the course, quickly and cheaply in 15 days. Matheson’s script was adhered to for the most part, but there was also much improvisation on set from Peter Lorre and [in his first major movie role] Jack Nicholson, which confused Vincent Price and, especially, Boris Karloff, the 76 year old actor used to carefully working out and preparing his parts. Meanwhile the raven employed for the film kept pooping on everyone, especially Nicholson: “I would look down when the raven flew off my shoulder, and it would be covered in poop….I hated that bird”. The Raven was one of the most commercially successful of the Corman/Poe films, and Corman shot most of The Terror straight after on the same sets and also with Karloff and Nicholson. I had only seen The Raven once before viewing Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray of the film, and I’m convinced that that was the version that, for some reason, had some rotorscoped bolts of magic missing from the climax.
The Raven opens with psychedelic paint splodges just like The Pit And The Pendulum, then that great voice of Vincent Price reciting the first few lines from the poem. An interesting oddity with these films is the way that the credits proper don’t appear on screen until the end. A rather more amusing feature of these movies, though it’s probably only obvious if you watch the films in quick succession, is the frequent re-using of shots, sets and locations. Almost before you know it The Raven treats us to very familiar shots of splashing waves and a matte painting of a house, and a couple of those darn burning barn shots turn up again at the end. Corman sure wasn’t a person to waste anything, from cannibalising loads of special effects footage from Russian sci-fi movies to, for a while, including the same shot of an exploding helicopter in every trailer for one of his films. The partly redressed sets for The Raven are actually quite impressive – they got slightly larger with each Corman/Poe film – though the film isn’t quite as visually striking as some of the earlier ones, Corman and his usual cinematographer Floyd Crosby opting for a slightly more muted palette. There are though more overhead shots than normal and even some handheld work during a wild coach ride.
The first half hour is mostly taken up with interplay between Price and Lorre, who is initially in the form of a [talking] raven until turned back into human form [well, not entirely, at first]. Far from being boring, it’s tremendous fun seeing the two actors have a whale of a time, Lorre obviously ad-libbing certain lines like: “How the hell should I know?”, after Price asks: “shall I ever see the rare and radiant Lenore again?”. I could have watched and listened to both Price and Lorre for hours, so strong is their Laurel and Hardy-like chemistry, but of course there is a villain to find and destroy, plus the small matter of a supposedly dead wife who may actually be alive. The plot borrows a bit from The Pit and The Pendulum here, but many writers like Joe Eszterhas keep recycling the same ideas for their scripts – in fact, even the majority of Poe’s tales fall into two or three basic premises – and Matheson often slightly subverts the expectations of viewers who would have remembered the earlier films in the 60’s. The introduction of Karloff’s character introduces a dynamic closer to that in something like The Good The Bad And The Ugly, and it all ends in a duel between two wizards. While the special effects are cheap and cheerful, they work well enough, and you know that when poor old Karloff is being strung up in a floating chair, it’s really him.
The chuckles are fairly constant if probably quite low-key for some, but of course humour differs from person to person. When a film has a man offering a talking raven some wine and the raven replying: “What do you expect me to do? Hold it?”, a corpse grabbing a man’s throat just to say: “Beware”, and a guy defending himself against an attacker with an axe by using his cloak like a bullfighter, it certainly keeps me smiling. Though it’s not nearly as sophisticated, very occasionally The Raven approaches the style of the best comedy horror film ever, Bride Of Frankenstein [the non-Corman The Comedy Of Terrors, also from 1963 and starring Price, Lorre, Karloff and Basil Rathbone, and also being released on Blu-ray from Arrow Video, actually gets closer] and that really is high praise coming from this critic. It lacks the psychological elements and Freudian touches of the other Corman/Poe films – on one of his commentaries for one of the other movies Corman said that the houses of Price’s disturbed characters were their minds – but it doesn’t need them.
Much of the enjoyment of The Raven is down to the performances. Price, playing a lighter variant on his Roderick Usher, is the good guy out of the three main character, and exudes more warmth than normal. Lorre is all nervous energy and you never know what he’s going to say, and Karloff, despite his great age and not appearing until halfway through, gives what I think is the second best of his late performances [the best, of course, being in Black Sabbath], exuding that gentlemanly air and icy fear he often brilliantly combined together in spades. As he was in The Terror, Jack Nicholson is astoundingly awkward and wooden. Nobody watching his performance in 1963 would have thought he would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. The gorgeous Hazel Court, despite like Karloff not showing up for ages, shines in the second of her three Corman roles, and Les Baxter supplies an appropriately light and even cheerful score which sometimes seems to spoof his earlier works. The Raven lacks the weight and resonance of classics like The Pit And The Pendulum and The Masque Of The Red Death, but it has a goofiness and charm all of its own. I made some minor criticisms of Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Tales Of Terror, but have absolutely no complaints about their Blu-ray of The Raven, which looks extremely clear and sharp, while as usual coming with a great selection of special features.
* High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
* Original uncompressed Mono PCM Audio
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Peter Lorre: The Double Face, Harun Farocki’s 1984 documentary, subtitled in English for the first time
* Richard Matheson: Storyteller, an interview with the legendary novelist and screenwriter
* Corman’s Comedy of Poe, an interview with Roger Corman about making The Raven
* The Trick, a short film about rival magicians by Rob Green (The Bunker)
* Promotional Record
* Stills and Poster Gallery
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Vladimir Zimakov
The Six Gothic Tales box set from Arrow Films contains:
* Six Edgar Allan Poe movies starring Vincent Price
* 200 pages Collector’s book containing new writing on the films
* Interview with Roger Corman
* Extracts from Vincent Price’s autobiography
* Full reproductions of tie-in comic books for Tales of Terror, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia