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Friday, October 31, 2008

The Raven (1963) review


Vincent Price (Craven), Boris Karloff (Scarabus), Peter Lorre (Dr. Bedlow), Jack Nicholson (Rexford), Hazel Court (Lenore)

Directed by Roger Corman

Dr. Eurasmus Craven, a magician, is visited one night by a mysterious raven tapping outside his chamber window. Upon letting the bird inside, he discovers the creature can talk! It is soon revealed that the raven is really Dr. Bedlo, another magician belonging to an order of wizards lorded over by the sinister Dr. Scarabus; a group that Dr. Craven used to be a member of. Seeing a picture of Craven's dead wife, Lenore, Bedlo tells Craven that this woman is alive and living in Scarabus's castle. Believing the evil Scarabus to have possession of his wife's soul, Craven and company head for Scarabus's domain. There, a final duel of the wizards takes place.

Roger Corman directs this lively, funny and hugely entertaining entry, the fifth in his Edgar Allan Poe series of films. This one has little to do with Poe's original work save for the passages read over the opening of the film and a line or two spoken by Price. Comedy is the order of the day here. According to Corman, everybody had a great time participating in this production. However, Boris Karloff was slightly annoyed during his time on the film working with Peter Lorre who ad libbed much of his dialog. Karloff, a classically trained actor, preferred to recite his lines exactly as they were written and this on-the-fly style wrecked havoc with his method.

Hyped as the biggest budgeted of the Poe adaptations, the $350,000 production still utilized sets and shots from all previous films in Corman's Poe series. The set designer, Daniel Haller (who later became a director himself), created some vivid, elaborate sets with limited means. Some of the effects work are uneven and the magician duel at the end is done with animation for some shots. Considering the tone, these cartoon effects fit the playful atmosphere just fine. The magician duel is easily the major highlight of THE RAVEN (1963) and a joy to see two titans of terror going head to head in a sequence not too far removed from a Warner Brothers cartoon.

With the release of TALES OF TERROR the previous year, a slight decrease in profits was noticed. However, audiences were receptive to the 'Black Cat' episode in that film so it was decided by writer, Richard Matheson, that THE RAVEN (1963) would be a light-hearted affair. According to Hazel Court, though, she didn't think the film was initially supposed to be a comedy, that being decided on-set. From the opening moments, the viewer assumes this will be a straight horror picture.

Once Price lets the raven into his home, he begs the creature to divulge its purpose. The comedic aura is revealed when Price asks this winged messenger if he shall ever hold his wife in his arms again prompting the bird to crudely respond with, "How the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?!" The bird then spouts, "Why don't you give me some wine?"

Vincent Price is wonderful here as Eurasmus Craven, a wizard formerly of the Brotherhood of Magicians. A somewhat timid man who still mourns the death of his wife, Lenore. Upon his fateful encounter with the talking raven, Craven learns it's really Dr. Bedlo, another magician; an intemperate one at that. Demanding that Craven restore him to his former self, Bedlo says he needs a number of ingredients for the spell-- dried (or evaporated) bat's blood, chain links from a gallows bird, Jellied spiders, rabbit's lard and dead man's hair among the prime components. Of course, this requires Eurasmus to venture down into his dad's old and dusty laboratory to check for the unusual ingredients. The potion prepared, the result is only partially successful leaving Bedlo with feathered arms!

Once the excitable Dr. Bedlo is finally returned to normal, Price asks how he came to be in such a predicament. Bedlo spins a story about Dr. Scarabus, the grandmaster of the Brotherhood. He states that he had become critical of his sorcerous abilities and challenged him to a duel. Had he been sober, "...which I admit, isn't very often...", the outcome would have been different. Bedlo then sees a picture of Craven's wife, Lenore and says she lives in the castle with Dr. Scarabus.

Craven shows Bedlo the moldy corpse of Lenore but comes to the conclusion that Scarabus has possibly seized her spirit. Later on it's revealed that Lenore was never dead, but grew tired of her husband's leadenly paced lifestyle, preferring the more adventurous frivolities of Scarabus. Bedlo was in with the devious duo to lure Craven there so Scarabus could learn the secrets of his magic. Even still, Bedlo somewhat redeems himself by the conclusion prior to the battle of the wizards.

Peter Lorre is the supreme cartoonish caricature of lewd and outrageous behavior. He steals away so many scenes in THE RAVEN (1963). One of the funniest bits is when the group have entered into Scarabus's castle. Once Scarabus has eased Craven's mind on his supposed intentions, he invites them all to a feast. Of course, this prompts Bedlo to drink himself into a drunken fit again challenging Scarabus to a duel of magic. One of his tricks is the use of a small wand. When Scarabus uses his power of hand gesture to make the wand go limp, Bedlo utters disappointingly, "Oh, you dirty old man...!"

Another of the best scenes occurs earlier in the film when the group are preparing to leave. As Craven opens the door, Bedlo's son Rexford (played by Jack Nicholson) is standing ready to knock. Bedlo is noticeably annoyed that his son has followed him there. Rexford says his mother has sent him to fetch his dad. While he explains, he begins touching and grabbing at Bedlo's coat. Bedlo smacks his hand away but Rexford continues. Bedlo has finally had enough and yells, "If you do that once more Rexford, I shall smash you right in the face!!" Lorre's bugged out eyes and agitated demeanor add lots of hilarity to Corman's film.

Boris Karloff has a grand time mixing it up with Price and Lorre as he essays the role of the nasty Dr. Scarabus; the sorcerer with designs on Craven's skills. Karloff could barely walk while shooting the picture but he shows what a trouper he could be by trudging along never showing the real pain he was in. The following year, Price, Lorre and Karloff would re-team for THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, another humorous entry albeit with a more darkly comical tone than the child-like, cartoon indulgence of THE RAVEN (1963). In that film, Karloff was relegated to a wheelchair for all his scenes. After THE RAVEN finished, Corman retained the services of Karloff and Nicholson for the odd little film, THE TERROR (1963), a film which Nicholson handled some of the directing.

The score by Les Baxter is a perfect balance between the light horror elements and the drollness of the film accompanied by the witty exchanges from Lorre. The finale featuring the duel of the sorcerer's is possibly the biggest highlight of THE RAVEN (1963). A sequence that literally brings the house down. From beams of light, to animated knives and axes, to levitation and turning an array of stone lions into a passel of puppies, this contest of magic wit is one of the best moments in all of Corman's Poe ventures.

Previously available in a terribly washed out VHS tape from Warner Brothers, MGM brought THE RAVEN (1963) to dvd a couple of years ago paired with the similar in tone, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1964) as part of the Midnite Movies double feature line. It looks even better and just as colorful as when I first saw it on the Late Show in the early 1980's, a time when monster movies dominated the weekend airwaves.

One of Roger Corman's favorites of his films, all the stars were aligned for this one. One of the best examples of the horror comedy, the film contains all the best elements that made Corman's prior Poe outings such a success-- musty dungeons and dank crypts, a big, spooky castle, moldy corpses and three of the greatest stars of horror ever to grace the screen. Adding to this recipe, a light-hearted flavor and colorful set decoration for a film that, despite not having any real monsters, is a sure-fire attraction for monster movie lovers both young and old.

This review is representative of the MGM Midnite Movies Double Feature DVD.


X7 said...

this is a great fun movie, entertaining with three memorable leads. i saw it as a kid and loved it. one can tell Stan Lee saw it as well, since i've always believed Dr. Strange was based on Vincent Price's portrayal here.

great review!

venoms5 said...

I saw this one as a kid, too. It quickly became one of those movies I could watch over and over again and not get tired of it. I never made the Dr. Strange connection, but that's an interesting thought and I can see the similarities.

The Rush Blog said...

"MANDINGO" was a race hate film? How did you come to this conclusion?

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