Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Richard Matheson (with several lines taken from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe)
The Raven was Roger Corman's fifth of eight adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, and by the time I got to it yesterday it was the only one I'd never watched. I had semi-consciously avoided it: it's a film that, from the outside, practically seems to court a certain hostility. It asks, "Do you enjoy the poem, 'The Raven'? Is it your favorite of Poe's works? Is it not only beautifully structured and rapturous to listen to, but also a flattening examination of the infinite possibilities of human grief? Does the phrase 'other friends have flown before' make you cry?" And it laughs, and says, "oh, fuck you, you sentimental loser."
It damn near says this out loud. The film begins with Vincent Price reciting the poem—it goes without saying that he recites it well—and he keeps reciting the poem, line after line, while Corman plays around with cheap impressionistic montage, not all of it great (a California seaside! a reused shot of the House of Usher! though the stills of a coffin under a prismatic filter are neat), but all presented with gravity. It's a bold opening gambit for any movie, let alone a junky B-movie like this, testing its genre audience's patience and their aesthetic sensibilities alike, having its star read so much of the poem you begin wondering if they're actually going to let him read the entire poem, which would be so amazing it's insane to contemplate it. He does not read the entire poem, of course. Price ends with the third stanza, and we glimpse what The Raven's up to as we meet a magician, Erasmus Craven (Price), sitting in his study and conjuring a whimsical image of a raven for no obvious reason, though perhaps it's an unconscious premonition. For soon enough he does indeed hear that tapping, tapping, and he is indeed in mourning for his lost Lenore (not to get ahead of ourselves, Hazel Court). He's sufficiently distracted that he can't help but do a little bit of physical comedy whilst searching for the source of the noise. So we have an inkling what we're in for, though this isn't enough to prepare you for the raven that appears, of whom Erasmus, suspecting he must be a messenger from some world beyond, inquires of the fate of the maiden the angels name Lenore. Quoth the raven, who sounds a lot like Peter Lorre in a sound booth, "How the hell should I know?"
That must've been a deeply bizarre moment for a kid in the theater in 1963, especially given the film's marketing as more Poe-based horror, now boasting a full-on triumvirate of terror in Price, Lorre, and Boris Karloff. I laughed at the provocation of it—I doubt anyone could help laughing at it—but I certainly wasn't sure I liked it. I would not necessarily say that "The Raven" is genuinely unadaptable into a motion picture, but I concede it would be difficult, and probably could only be done "faithfully" by doing what Corman and his collaborators had done with "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Cask of Amontillado," that is, inventing a narrative and using the poem as its climactic setpiece; the problem is that those stories are thrilling, and "The Raven" is just sad. It would be cool, then, but not very AIP. I don't risk much to declare The Raven a bad adaptation of "The Raven," but, Lord, it may be the worst adaptation of anything. It's a version of "The Raven" where Lenore, one of the most famously dead people in the English language, is still alive, and shacked up with a wizard.
And you know what? It's wonderful regardless. Even the misuse of the poem is a jolt, its sheer irreverence its own reward. It helps to understand its context: by 1963, Corman and his screenwriter, Richard Matheson, had justifiably gotten bored with Poe, and likely would've gone on a tangent no matter what their prompt had been. And yet when they were nudged into using the title of Poe's most famous work, they used that as an opportunity to do something completely different—not least because they realized that a faithful rendition, such as was even feasible, would've been really repetitive, as they'd already mined the emotions of the poem twice with the same star, Price, who'd essayed for them two different flavors of maddened grief for a lost spouse, first in Pit and the Pendulum and then in the "Morella" segment in Tales of Terror. Maybe I even underrate their respectfulness—maybe they came to the conclusion that the least offensive adaptation they could have done was no adaptation at all; and one can make a very persuasive argument, that just by having a lost spouse, a talking bird, and anything reasonably described as "lore," this Raven is the most faithful adaptation of Poe's "Raven" (why, look no further than the other Raven with Karloff, the mad scientist pulp that Universal claimed had been "suggested by" the poem back in 1935)—but whenever they've been asked to explain themselves, they've always just shrugged their shoulders, in Corman's case with a jolly laugh, and in Matheson's with borderline belligerence.
Well, that Lorre-voiced raven is, in fact, Dr. Bedlo, who earlier this evening was transformed into his current state, following a drunken and unsuccessful challenge of the reigning grandmaster of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), to a mystical duel. Bedlo has thus fled to the one wizard around who isn't a member of the Brotherhood, Dr. Craven—these guys evidently all have magical Ph.D.'s—to seek a restoration to his human form, which he requests with a great deal of bitchy importunity. Fortunately, Craven is a sweet and patient man, with nothing to do but while aways his hours remembering Lenore and occasionally interacting with their adult daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess), and so he deigns to help. Presently, they cook up a batch of potion with Craven's late father's ingredients (and since the recipe requires a dead man's locks, his late father's hair), and with that, Bedlo's back to normal. It's at this point that he spies a keepsake with Lenore's image, and wonders why Craven has a picture of Scarabus's concubine. Craven asserts he must be mistaken—he even shows Bedlo the corpse, which naturally he keeps in the room adjoining his study—but he suddenly wonders if Scarabus, a longtime rival of his family (it's strongly implied Scarabus had a hand in his father's death), has snared Lenore's soul for some new foul purpose.
Thus Craven and Bedlo, along with Estelle and Bedlo's son, Rexford (hey, it's Jack Nicholson), descend upon Scarabus's palace to get to the bottom of the mystery. Yet Scarabus welcomes them as friends, and for the moment it looks like Craven owes the old wizard an apology for his accusation. You will not be surprised to learn, however, that what the grandmaster has wanted all along was to put Craven in his power—for what he desires above all are Craven's own secret techniques for "hand magic," the capacity to work sorcery by mere gesture—and now Craven is here, awkwardly attempting polite dinner conversation, and unaware that Scarabus and his "dead" wife Lenore have plotted his downfall.
Matheson considered the instruction to do a movie based on "The Raven" to be such a joke that there was no other option but to respond in kind; and aware that his audience had hailed "The Black Cat" as Tales of Terror's best sequence, and aware, also, of the potential of Price & Lorre as a comic duo, Corman agreed that the best approach was a horror-comedy. I suppose they got halfway there. The horror, anyway, is completely tamped down in favor of what they were obviously really going for, which is full-tilt kid's fantasy; it's "a horror movie" mainly by tradition, sure, but it's a "horror movie" where the body count is, effectively, negative one. It's barely even "spooky," and if it is, it's thanks to production designer Daniel Haller's sickly trees and his most elaborate castle set so far, alongside cinematographer Floyd Crosby's deployment of more dancing firelight and slightly less approximating electric light than usual, thanks to Scarabus's rad flame fountains. Actual scariness is contained almost solely within the otherwise-comic sequence of Craven and Bedlo raiding Craven's father's tomb, whereupon the mummified corpse springs to life to offer a prophetic warning; and it's possible this is only impressed upon my mind because the imagery gets an unexpectedly severe reprise later.
Yet my plot summary probably sounds like Corman and Matheson took their self-defined mission to make a fantasy movie reasonably seriously, and they did: it has strangely robust world-building for something so fairy-tale hazy; Marjorie Corso's costumes are silly but cool (going by this and Tower of London, Corman was extremely into weird hats); and the only thing about it that ever seems desperate was the thing Corman would've had the least control over, namely Les Baxter's uncharacteristically bad score, which punctures the matinee atmosphere with the orchestral version of carnival barking. But even under the burden of farting French horns, it still winds up less slapsticky than either of the Price & Lorre horror-comedies on either side of it (whatever else it was, The Raven was a huge hit, and gave AIP faith in the genre), so that while "Black Cat" is goofiness counterpoised with brutality, and The Comedy of Terrors is outright farce, The Raven operates in a completely distinct third mode, a more-or-less straight-faced adventure film that simply happens to have funny characters. (More than anything, in fact, it feels like a superhero movie, and it has practically the same plot as Star Wars, only Princess Leia is now Darth Vader's girlfriend. If you don't notice the similarity, it's probably because hero's journeys to secure a birthright are so rarely done with 52 year old men!)
Lorre, anyhow, is given an unusually large comic relief role, but he's still a narrative factor, fluctuating between deuteragonist and second antagonist. Price plays off of him perfectly, at his maximum capacity for being the mild-mannered and constantly-perplexed straight-man. They're both overmatched by Karloff, who didn't like improvisation and so tends to act around Lorre rather than with him (but Scarabus is supposed to find Bedlo contemptible), and Karloff, even in his dotage—maybe even because of his dotage, though he unfortunately fails to entirely hide the pain of still being alive as he descends a flight of stairs—embodies a certain sinister imperturbability. With his false garrulousness and his wrinkled scowl, he makes for a hugely effective fantasy villain, and while he's affably funny, I'm not sure he's given any dialogue that's expressly "a gag" until his very final line, which, while completely pigeonholing The Raven as an unabashed kid's movie, is also a bittersweet bit of meta-business regarding the passing of his torch to a new (or "new") generation of screen legend. (For completeness's sake, the film's fourth-best peformance is either Hazel Court or the bird, and there's not one single thing about Nicholson that prefigures "movie star," or even "capable featured extra.")
It becomes a comedy, then, thanks to two things. The first is by simply throwing all of the bric-a-brac of an AIP Gothic horror into a completely different genre, it winds up automatic self-parody, with all the usual revenant corpses and haunted castles now appearing before a very different set of characters who, rather than descending into terrified madness, can only perceive such things as the banal facts of life. The second is one of the oddest narrative structures you'll ever see in any movie, with a breezy unhurriedness about everything, so that the stakes—"rescue Lenore from Scarabus"—don't even come up till almost thirty minutes of an 86 minute runtime have passed, and even then, only at the end of what amounts to the film's first proper scene, which somehow stretches itself out to two reels' worth of Price & Lorre basically just banging around. (Befitting what is essentially a bedtime story, possibly only three things "happen" in the whole thing.) The middle gets slightly draggy, perhaps, but this lackadaisical approach turns out to be great for sly comedy: there's terrifically amusing stuff that doesn't get stressed whatsoever, and my favorite single "joke," I think, is that to cook a potion with jellied spiders and dead man's hair and all sorts of other nastiness, Craven uses a whisk.
The Raven's remarkable low-keyness and its AIP budget combine for the climax, a magical duel between Craven and Scarabus, and I don't think it would be improved much by either more insistence or by more money. (Okay, the cheesy optical effects would have been improved by more money, as would a misjudged angle on a shot with a dummy Price that desperately needed to be redone. But there's an argument that movies like The Raven are precious precisely because of their visible seams.) Obliged by Karloff's physical frailty to keep the final confrontation simple, Corman takes it down to a level of unprecedented minimalism, almost nothing more than the two magicians sitting in ornate chairs on the opposite sides of a chamber and conjuring jump cuts at one another, in what amounts to turn-based tactical combat. It turns out to be impossibly charming: The Raven's magic has largely eschewed visual effects in favor of Méliès-style cinematic tricks, and the final duel doubles down on that, capturing the weirdness of magical war, stilted by unspoken and arcane rules, and waged with ideas as its weapons at the intersection of the psychic and the physical. And because it was so cheap, it also gets to be long—eight minutes long!—getting downright hypnotic as the two adversaries perpetually outflank each other. It sums up a decidedly unpretentious film—actually, what sums it up is the bow they put on Bedlo's arc, and the clever spin Matheson and Price put on the most famous words of the Poe poem, which Price delivers directly into the camera and from which they've audibly removed the quotation marks—but either way, The Raven is so adorably cute. It's suffused with so much easy-going fun that it's miraculous that something made so resentfully could be capable of it.