Thursday, January 25, 2024

Quoth THE RAVEN (1963) Forevermore

On this day--25 January--in 1963, Roger Corman's THE RAVEN first hit the screen. On paper, the film is an adaptation of the poem of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. In practice, it just uses the poem as a jumping-off point for a raucous horror comedy about dueling wizards written by dark fantasy legend Richard Matheson, directed by the Pope of Pop Cinema and starring genre royalty.

THE RAVEN was the 4th of Corman's adaptations of Poe, which are real highlights of his work as a director. The cycle kicked off in 1960 with HOUSE OF USHER, followed by THE PIT & THE PENDULUM then PREMATURE BURIAL (both 1961) and TALES OF TERROR (1962).

Vincent Price, who headlined all but one of the Poe flicks, had become a horror star in the 1950s and these movies helped catapult him to genre superstardom. While, castwise, he was the initial featured attraction, Corman began bringing into the Poe pictures other current horror stars--Barbara Steele, fresh off Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, appeared in THE PIT & THE PENDULUM; Hazel Court, who had been in Hammer horrors THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, co-starred in 3 of the Poes--and teaming them great actors who were perhaps past their primes--Ray Milland, just off his second retirement and opposite Court, in PREMATURE BURIAL[1] and Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone in TALES OF TERROR.

TALES OF TERROR had been an anthology featuring adaptations of 3 Poe tales. One segment, a take on "The Black Cat" crossed with "The Cask of Amontillado," featured Lorre as a cat-hating drunk who finds a pal--and eventually a nemesis--in Price's comically urbane wine-taster. It was a straight-up black comedy and arguably the high-point of the movie.

THE RAVEN springboarded off that segment, a feature-length farce bringing back screenwriter Matheson (who had written TRILOGY and 2 of the other 3 Poes), Price, Lorre and, from PREMATURE BURIAL, Court, while adding Boris Karloff and an impossibly young Jack Nicholson, whom Corman had discovered a few years earlier.[2]

Karloff and Lorre had very different acting styles, which caused tension on the set. Karloff, who was approaching 80 by then, was a classically trained actor and, as Corman described it, he knew his lines, knew his character, understood his role and how to play it. Lorre, said Coman, "had a vague idea as to what the script was, but was prepared to come in--as a matter of fact, could only--come in, improvise, make up his lines, do outrageous things on the set and just kind of flow."[3] This constantly threw Karloff--no big improv guy--off his game.

Karloff told Corman he wasn't happy with his scenes with Peter, but their conflicting approaches actually worked to the film's advantage, as their characters were hilariously mismatched rivals. Karloff is the dignified, aristocratic schemer Dr. Scarabus, plagued by the alcoholic wizard version of a yapping, ineffectual feist dog in Lorre's Dr. Bedlo. The irritation Scarabus projected toward Bedlo reflected Karloff's genuine irritation with Lorre's antics.

That isn't to say the movie was an entirely sour experience for horror's elder statesman. Corman encouraged collaborative input. In Corman's autobiography, Vincent Price recalls how

"Boris, Peter and I wrote some additional jokes and brought them to Roger. He approved almost everything we'd done, added business to match, and integrated the result into the script. This was one instance where the actors and the director made a funny script into an even funnier picture."
Jack Nicholson, then 25, plays Rexford, the son of Lorre's Bedlo. He recalls[4] that:
"Roger gave me one direction on that picture. 'Try to be as funny as Lorre, Karloff, and Price.' I loved those guys. I sat around with Peter all the time. I was mad about him. They were wonderful. It was a comedy and Roger gave us a little more time to improvise on the set."
Rexford craves his father's love--or at least recognition--while Bedlo is perpetually annoyed by his attentions and wants nothing to do with him. Rexford would sort of hang on Bedlo's cloak while trying to talk him into coming back home. Nicholson recalls that
"I grabbed his cloak--actually, I grabbed a lot of other things that aren't visible in the frame--just to keep him alive to the fact that I was trying to get him out of there. Of course, the good actor that he is, he just reacted to it spontaneously, slapped me and lashed out."
THE RAVEN is the first time Jack Nicholson, then 25, got to show off the full-on Bring The Crazy that, later in his career, would become one of his trademarks.

ike the other Corman Poe pictures in which she appeared, the film shows off how badly Hammer had wasted Hazel Court in something like THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Here, she's Lenore, who faked her death in order to leave her husband--Price's Dr. Craven--for Scarabus, who calls her "my precious viper." Given a good part, she's a magnificently evil, conniving, red-hot ice-queen. "Are we going to have some torture?", she asks at one point, clearly relishing the prospect.

The film culminates in a no-holds-barred special-effects-heavy wizard duel between Karloff's Scarabus and Price's Craven--an astonishingly daring undertaking for a low-budget movie made decades before CGI tech. Some of the effects don't hold up very well today--some of the animation is crude and Price phasing through the floor didn't looks so great, even in its time--but the goofy tone of the movie makes one play along with even these moments and overall, it's an inventive, effective sequence that is constantly throwing something new and surprising at the viewer.

And, of course, it culminates--like all of the Poe pictures until then--in a fiery cataclysm, as the castle goes up in flames. During the production of HOUSE OF USHER, the first of the Poes, Corman had found a barn that was scheduled for demolition. He, instead, sold the owner on the idea of burning it down--for the princely sum of $50--while his team filmed it. The footage was great, worked in that film and since it became a bit of a convention that the castle burned down at the end of these flicks, Corman always cut it into them.[5]

That kind of recycling was another boon to the Poe pictures. From the first, Corman would send his art director Danny Haller to Universal studios to buy stock sets and scenery--things a small movie would never be able to afford to build but that the big boys would sell for a song just to get it out of the way. This would then be stored after each movie then pulled out again for the next, when the art department would have an all-new budget to repeat the process and add to the collection. In this way, the Poe pictures, all done on very low budgets, looked progressively larger and more elaborate.[6]

THE RAVEN thus displayed, in effect, the art department budget of 5 such movies. It shows. It's beautiful, a very impressive design.

In his autobiography, Corman writes, "I have always felt THE RAVEN... is one of the most accomplished films I directed." It is.
Quirky performances, an always-moving camera, unusual angles, memorable shots. While not his best movie or even his best Poe adaptation, this is still definitely Corman the director at the top of his form.  His affection for it, however, may have contributed to its major shortcoming. One of Corman's signatures is tight editing, but THE RAVEN does tend, at times, to drag, as if the director perhaps fell just a little too much in love with it and couldn't bear to part with some runtime-stretching material that may have been better left on the cutting-room floor.

Still, the movie is a lot of fun. Humor in movies usually doesn't weather the ages so well. THE RAVEN's context, sending up the other Poe pictures, gives it some shelter against the winds of time, at least to the extent that the other films in the cycle are still appreciated. Standing alone, it plays almost like a children's movie. And as long as there are children who are monster kids, genre geeks, horror fans--or, like this writer, one of those kids who grew up--there will always be an audience for it. On this, its birthday, I'm very pleased it exists.



[1] In became a sort of Conventional Wisdom (and thus oft repeated) that Milland in badly miscast in PREMATURE BURIAL, a part written for Price but for which Price was unavailable. While it's easy to imagine what Price would do with the role then compare it unfavorably with Milland, I confess that I've never seen this as the gross mismatch of actor with material that some insist it to be. In any event, Milland made up for any deficiencies here with his work with Corman the same year in the excellent X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.

[2] Corman first met Nicholson in Jeff Corey's acting class, where Corman had gone to try to better understand actors and their craft. Corman cast Jack in the actor's big-screen debut and first starring role, THE CRY-BABY KILLER, in 1958 and Nicholson appeared in his movies from time to time for the next 9 years. It was with Corman that Nicholson did his first comedy acting, first horror acting, did some of his first screenwriting and his first directorial work.

[3] Corman's account of all of this comes primarily from his 1990 autobiography, "How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood & Never Lost A Dime," and an interview with Bob Costas that same year on Costas' show LATER.

[4] The Nicholson quotes in this piece are from Corman's autobiography.

[5] Though an ill-advised long shot of the RAVEN castle in flames, the characters standing outside watching it, looks fairly terrible.

[6] Loving the ornate sets created for THE RAVEN, Corman decided, after intending to play tennis one day and getting rained out, to quickly produce an entirely original picture in this "genre" he'd created with the Poe movies, a project which became THE TERROR. All of that film's castle footage was shot on the sets for THE RAVEN on the weekend before they were torn down. The story of THE TERROR is a great one but one for another time. Corman's next Poe wasn't really a Poe at all. THE HAUNTED PALACE, which was shot in the Poe style and reused material like its predecessors, was actually a rather extraordinary adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's story, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." AIP slapped the name of the Poe poem on it and marketed it as a Poe. From there, Corman went to the UK, where he made his last 2 Poes, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, though AIP would continue marketing various movies as Poe movies--whether they were or not--for several more years.