The Raven (1963) ***
It’s a safe bet that none of Edgar Allan Poe’s works but “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” have been filmed more times than “The Raven.” This is awfully strange, when you think about it, because even though the poem does tell a story, the events it describes would take less time to act out than would be necessary to read “The Raven” aloud. As a consequence, filmmakers seeking to bring it to the screen have been forced each time to use the poem as a jumping off point for a story all their own, and for this reason, the various films entitled The Raven have differed more among themselves than is usual for sets of movies based on other Poe writings. Though they diverge greatly in the details, most film versions of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Fall of the House of Usher” are essentially similar at their core. Not so with the movies inspired by “The Raven.” The first of them that I know of, which was made way back in 1915, was a fictionalized, sensationalized biography of Poe himself. The 1935 version concerned a mad doctor so obsessed with Poe’s writings that he went so far as to convert his basement into a torture dungeon stocked with devices featured in the author’s stories; inevitably, this mad doctor was perpetually quoting lines from “The Raven.” Roger Corman’s 1963 version— which I think is the best of the bunch— takes yet another approach. Corman unexpectedly uses the poem as a springboard for a remarkably successful horror comedy about a trio of feuding sorcerers.
The Raven features what I think is the finest opening scene in the entire Corman-AIP-Poe canon. After the usual proto-psychedelic credits sequence, during which the inescapable Vincent Price recites the first three stanzas of “The Raven,” the movie launches into what starts out as a completely straight rendition of the poem’s story. We meet Dr. Erasmus Craven (Price) as he broods over the casket of his beloved wife, Lenore. Craven bids his daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess), goodnight, and then retires to his study to read— from “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” of course. While Craven is thus occupied, suddenly there comes a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. As per the poem, there is no one there when Craven gets up to answer the knock. No sooner has he shut the door, though, than the tapping begins again, this time from the window on the other side of the room. Open here Craven flings the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, in there steps a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore. Not the least obeisance makes he; not a minute stops or stays he, but, with mien of lord or lady, he perches above the chamber door. While the bird sits, nearly motionless, on top of the bust of Athene that adorns the door-frame, something possesses Craven to ask it— in words that suggest Poe’s handling of dialogue, even if the exact phrasing differs from that in the poem— whether it is some messenger from the spirit world bearing news of Lenore’s fate in the afterlife. Will his soul be reunited with hers in the hereafter?, Craven asks. Quoth the Raven, “How the hell should I know? What do I look like— a fortune teller?!”
The raven seems to know a thing or two about Erasmus. Otherwise, it would surely not ask him if he has any dried bat’s blood, or jellied spiders, or dead man’s hair— all vital ingredients for the magic potion that will turn it back into the man it once was. Craven plays dumb at first, but when the bird scornfully huffs, “and you call yourself a magician!” he agrees to have a look down in the basement where his father’s old laboratory is located. Sure enough, all the necessary ingredients are there, and within moments of quaffing the vile green potion that they form in aggregate, the raven is transformed into Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre, from M and Tales of Terror). As you might have gathered, Bedlo, too, is a magician. He has just come from the home of the notorious Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the president of the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, after coming out rather the worse from a duel of magic with that eminent wizard. It was Scarabus who turned Bedlo into a bird, and Scarabus is now in possession of all Bedlo’s magical gear. Bedlo means to go get his stuff back, but Craven tries to detain him. Evidently, Craven’s father, who held the Brotherhood’s presidency himself when he was alive, was a bitter rival of Dr. Scarabus, and the stories Craven the elder told his son about his formidable foe were enough to keep Erasmus from joining the Brotherhood at all. But Bedlo has a piece of information up his sleeve that will soon have Craven clambering to take the dreaded warlock on himself— Bedlo has seen Lenore at Scarabus’s castle. In fact, he saw her there this very evening. Now the only way such a thing would be possible is if Scarabus had somehow captured Lenore’s soul on its way to the next world, and there’s just no way Craven is going to stand for that!
He and Bedlo don’t go alone, though. First of all, Estelle insists on coming along, mainly because she doesn’t want her father, powerful though he may be, getting himself into danger unless she’s around to bail him out. Secondly, Bedlo’s son, Rexford (a pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, in an astonishingly restrained performance), shows up at the Craven place looking for his father just in time to horn in on the action. This is just as well, really, because Craven’s servant, Grimes (William Baskin, who was also one of The Zombies of Mora Tau), ends up on the receiving end of a mind-control spell from Scarabus, and has to be knocked unconscious to prevent him from killing his master. Thus the two magicians will need somebody like Rexford to drive the coach to their enemy’s castle. Rexford, too, gets possessed along the way, but rather than attacking his companions, all he does is drive way too fast.
And now the guessing games begin. Scarabus, when at last we meet him, seems a rather different sort of fellow than Bedlo had led us to believe. Not only is the hot young redhead Bedlo took to be Lenore just the old sorcerer’s maid, it quickly comes out in conversation that the duel of magic that ended in Bedlo’s transformation into a bird was his idea in the first place— apparently Bedlo gets rather belligerent when he’s drunk, and he was thoroughly sloshed at the time. And what’s more, Scarabus offers a rather different take on his history with Craven’s father; sure, they were rivals, the old man says, but they were never enemies. Just to show there are no hard feelings, Scarabus offers Craven, Bedlo, and their offspring to have dinner with him. This is a mistake. Bedlo has scarcely been in the man’s company for an hour when, in another drunken outburst, he challenges Scarabus to another duel. At a loss for how to handle the situation, Scarabus reluctantly agrees, and the shorter and funnier of two such battles begins. After defeating several of Bedlo’s small conjurings (“You dirty old man...” Bedlo snarls when Scarabus turns his opponent’s magic wand flaccid with a wave of his fingers), Scarabus watches in what looks to be bemused dismay as Bedlo starts setting up a really grand weather-control spell. Bedlo should have taken more time to rehearse this particular trick, though, because something goes wrong, and a bolt of lightning strikes him through the window, reducing him to a sticky, red smear of... raspberry jam!!!!
Then again, maybe it was all Scarabus’s doing. Rexford happened to notice that Scarabus was twiddling his fingers while Bedlo conjured up his storm, and he thinks that Scarabus cast some counter-spell that resulted in his father’s death. While Rexford tells Estelle of his suspicions, we learn that Lenore really is in the castle— Craven sees her standing outside the window of his guest room. Furthermore, Bedlo turns out not to be dead after all, but to have faked his death in order to give him a free hand to work against Scarabus. He’s not the only one who’s been faking death, either. Lenore (Hazel Court, from The Curse of Frankenstein and The Masque of the Red Death) is no imprisoned spirit, but rather just your common, garden-variety adulteress, who feigned her demise so that she could run away with Scarabus— and never you mind that he’s old enough to be her father; he’s got power, and that’s what counts as far as Lenore is concerned. All this backstabbing is leading to a sorcerous showdown between Scarabus and Craven, who turns out to be far more powerful than anyone but the two wizards themselves realize. Indeed, the whole bizarre chain of events that comprise The Raven’s plot was contrived by Scarabus in an effort to force Craven to reveal the secrets of his most potent conjurings.
It’s really a shame, given the high caliber of what has preceded it, that the climactic duel of magic is both so incredibly long and so incredibly lame. Ending a movie with a huge special effects set-piece is always a risky proposition, but it becomes a sure-fire formula for outright disaster when there’s no money in a movie’s budget for special effects! Really, I can’t imagine what Roger Corman was thinking here. Up to this point, The Raven has been a comfortably low-key movie, driven by acerbic wit, careful characterization, and brilliant casting. Even if it had worked (and even if it hadn’t included that same goddamned house fire footage from The Fall of the House of Usher that would show up again and again over the course of the AIP Poe cycle), this ending would still have been completely out of step with the rest of the movie. And by dragging it out for as long as he does, Corman draws the greatest possible attention to the climax’s shortcomings.
But even so, The Raven is, on the whole, a success. Corman the director displays much the same sense of humor that he would later cultivate in others as a producer. What’s more, he succeeds in striking the delicate balance between respect for and subversion of his source material that marks all of the best horror-comedies. (Young Frankenstein might be the most obvious example here.) It’s the actors who really sell the movie, though. Price, Lorre, and Karloff all display a deft comedic touch, and the entire movie plays like the blackly hilarious Black Cat/Cask of Amontillado segment of the previous year’s Tales of Terror. Nicholson also makes a surprisingly effective straight man for Lorre. If it hadn’t been for that ending, The Raven might have been the best of all the Corman Poe flicks.