Synopsis: “The wheels of horror churn amid touches of humor” (The Film Daily) in this twisted tale of sorcery most fowl! Inspired by the gothic poem by Edgar Allan Poe and starring horror legends Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff-and Jack Nicholson in an early screen role-this Roger Corman classic about two wizards dueling for magical supremacy is utterly bewitching!
The Raven (1963) 6.5
eyelights: its incredible cast. its relatively stunning production.
eyesores: its hammy performances. its poor comedy. its cheap quality. its lack of excitement.
“Shut your beak!”
Edgar Allan Poe and comedy, you’d think never the twain shall meet.
In the fifth entry of his Poe cycle, 1963’s ‘The Raven’, Roger Corman decided to fashion a comedy loosely based on the Gothic author’s eponymous poem. Yes, poem. Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson actually fleshed out a full script out of a narrative poem.
Of course, there’s really not much to it: Sorcerer Erasmus Craven is interrupted one night by a raven tapping at his window. When he lets it in, he discovers that it’s actually Dr. Bedlo, a sorcerer who has just lost a spellcasting duel with Dr. Scarabus, a rival.
With Craven’s help, Bedlo is restored to his human form. But, when he comes upon a painting of Craven’s deceased spouse, Lenore, he is surprised to see that she looks exactly like a woman he saw at Scarabus’ castle. Still grieving, Craven decides to go see for himself.
It will be a perilous journey for he and his companions.
Seriously, there’s really not much in common between the original poem and this picture: there’s the arrival of the raven, which is somewhat similar, and there’s the grieving of our protagonist for his beloved Lenore. But, beyond that, there’s little else. That’s it.
And, even then, all of it is played for laughs: Craven keeps bumping into a large telescope as he makes his way back and forth through the room, and the raven says absurd and sarcastic things to him. Even the music is comical, featuring generous blasts of tuba.
By the time Craven decides to restore Bedlo, we are subject to a long list of ridiculously-named ingredients needed for the potion – the kind that would have been at home in ‘The Addams Family‘. So it’s no surprise when he fails and Bedlo is half man-half raven.
The comedy is nothing short of campy, but it’s surprisingly limp, weakly-written, performed by non-comics and directed without flair. Comedy isn’t an easy genre to do well, and ‘The Raven’ is amateurish at best in its delivery. The most one can expect are chuckles.
However, the picture isn’t without redeeming values.
For starters, there’s the illustrious cast, which consists of Vincent Price, Boris Karlof, Peter Lorre and even Jack Nicholson in an early role. While they tend to ham it up, which can be irritating at times, their very presence bolsters the picture considerably.
Unfortunately, Lorre is nearly insufferable as Bedlo: his performance is so broad that Price seems subdued in comparison – he doesn’t so much chew the scenery as chomp it. It’s said that his frequent improvisations irritated Karloff who prepared from the script.
He does get a few funny lines in, like his passing comment as Craven takes him down to the crypt: seeing all the cobwebs, he reflects “Hard place to keep clean, eh?”. Because it wasn’t written as a joke and given the spotlight, it played far better than the rest.
Karloff is, without a doubt, the best performer here, taking the role of Scarabus very seriously indeed, adding a few touches of gravitas. In comparison, Nicholson seems so unskilled here that it’s hard to imagine that he’s become one the silver screen’s greatest.
Another terrific aspect of ‘The Raven’ are the sets. I have no idea if they built all of this or if they rented it from other studios, but the sets are elaborate, large-scaled and pleasing to the eye. It’s surprising how much effort was put into this… gothic comedy.
Granted, they look theatrical (you couldn’t confuse them with the real thing, the way they’re lit), but they’re still impressive. The same could be said for the matte paintings, which are absolutely gorgeous but which don’t blend very well with the live action.
Finally, the effects used for the spellcasting is really well done for the time – and considering Corman’s reputation for filmmaking on the cheap. It’s off to a rocky start when we’re forced to watch Craven drawing an animated bird on the screen, but it gets better.
In fact, though the finale lacks the suspense it warranted, the spellcasting duel between Craven and Scarabus is the 1963 equivalent of today’s action extravaganzas: short on plot development, but bursting with artifice. I could totally see this being redone today.
You know, in full CGI and at 100 times the budget.
Sadly, it’s not enough to rescue ‘The Raven’: it’s a peculiar experiment to begin with, but it isn’t delivered with the skill needed to make it work. Its neither funny nor spooky, the plot contrivances are barely justifiable and the performances are nothing to crow about.
It’s the kind of movie that’s probably best watched really late at night, when you’re so tired that you’re giggly, and perhaps in the company of friends who dig campy humour. Otherwise, though, it’s not a picture that I can recommend – or plan on seeing again.
Quoth the raven: “Nevermore”.
Date of viewing: February 17, 2017