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Non-Review Review: The Raven (1963)

Part of me longs for the day that Edgar Allen Poe might get a cinematic adaptation befitting his work. I’m a huge fan of Poe, who is an author who seems destined to receive more cinematic homage that straight-up adaptation. So, despite having relatively little to do with the poem of the same name, is the epic team up of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson worthwhile? Well, The Raven is almost too camp even for me.

I did say “almost.”

The Price is right...

Roger Corman’s film has little-to-nothing to do with the poem that carries the same name. Vincent Price plays a man mourning his deceased wife Lenore. The character’s name is Craven, a word that appeared in the original poem. The film also manages to shoehorn the line “quoth the raven nevermore” into the dialogue. And there is a talking raven, although he does say a bit more than ‘nevermore.’ That’s about the extent to which Corman seems to draw on Poe’s iconic poem. Well, that and the fact that it’s set some time around the sixteenth century – that counts, right?

The movie is one of a cycle of films involving Corman and Price based around the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Corman famously convinced American International to fund his adaptations of Poe’s work (which were in the public domain), setting up the studio as a sort of American counterpart to the Hammer House of Horror, with their films featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The studio would go on to produce cult hits like The Amityville Horror and Blacula.

Gone to the birds...

Here, the movie focuses on dueling magicians, with Vincent Price playing Craven, a sorcerer who never followed his deceased father into the official governing body for the profession. As a result, evil Boris Karloff has been able to take over and get up all sorts of sordid shenanigans, including turning dissenters into black birds. As you can imagine, the movie inevitably pits the two against another in a game of wits and spells, after a talking raven shows up at Craven’s house.

As you can imagine, it’s fairly light on plot, serving as a horror-comedy very much in the spirit of the horror films at the time. There are some nice and stylish trappings, along with a healthy degree of camp. Indeed, being a comedy, the camp is off the scale. To be honest, the movie struggles at the start, trying to find its feet – the talking bird and a series of tired jokes about an old sorcerer’s inventory aren’t especially engaging or fascinating. As fun as it is to watch Peter Lorre on screen, it’s frustrating to see the actor saddled with fake wings for a cheap laugh.

Stepping in for a spell...

It isn’t helped by Les Baxter’s suffocating score, which seems to veer between stereotypical horror music and stereotypical comedy music with little or no attempt to integrate the two. It’s incredibly frustrating, because this continues well past the point where the movie manages to find its own groove, so to speak. Still, the actual production values of the film aren’t half bad – the movie looks a great deal more expensive than they probably were, and considerably more up-market than the work that Hammer was doing over in England at about the same time.

However, the movie does have one quite significant ace up its sleeve, as I alluded above. It has a tremendous cast, and once you start putting them together, it really works quite well. Even today, Jack Nicholson reflects relatively fondly of his experiences making the film (well, save the raven itself), and you get a sense that the four key actors are enjoying the opportunity to play off one another. It’s hard not to laugh at a gleefully ridiculous “magic battle” between Peter Lorre’s inebriated magician and Boris Karloff’s sorcerer supreme, complete with Lorre spouting Latin clichés like “veni vidi vici!”

Not quite movie magic...

Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson, in particular, have a wonderful chemistry, bantering back and forth. “What were you doing in a lady’s room?” Lorre’s character demands of his son, played by Nicholson. With the same charm Nicholson would display over the next five decades, he replies, “Father, that’s beside the point!” Reportedly, the pair were quite fond of improvisation on set, much to the chagrin of Boris Karloff, who preferred to work from the script.

These moments are charming, but the whole film doesn’t really add up to much. It’s a light enough comedy for those with an interest in the work of Corman. Unfortunately, it’s really too campy and too light to appeal too much to anybody outside of that.

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