One of my favorite things about American International Productions is their opening credit sequences. While low-budget, the opening credits are clever, creative and, often, gorgeous. The Raven (1963) starts with the title and then Vincent Price reciting from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” as a raven in silhouette fusses before a swirling mixture of paint and water, and then the screen cuts to more prosaically Gothic images of waves crashing and brooding storm clouds.
The credits bring us to the late Fifteenth or early Sixteenth Century and the chambers of Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price), father, widower and master of the magical arts. Using only gestures, Craven draws a raven in the air. A fine use of magical power, by the way. Craven is interrupted by what he believes is a rapping at his chamber door but finds only darkness and nothing more. Then he hears the clapping of an open window. And finally, a raven tapping on the window pane. Craven asks the raven if it is a spectre with some knowledge of his lost Lenore and how she is. The raven answers, in the voice of Peter Lorre, “How the hell should I know?”
And with that line, The Raven reveals exactly what kind of film it is.
Director Roger Corman adapted a goodly number of Poe’s works for American International Pictures (AIP) between 1959 and 1965, directing them and usually working with Vincent Price and writer Richard Matheson. The Raven is one of the looser of Corman’s film adaptations of Poe’s works, though the honor of loosest adaptation might go to The Haunted Palace (1963), which loosely adapts Poe’s poem, “The Haunted Palace” (1839) as H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) or maybe loosely adapts H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as Poe’s “The Haunted Palace.” I have always enjoyed the style of The Masque of Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965), but The Raven is the Poe film I’ve grown fondest of over time.
As a child, expecting more gloom and seriousness, I was disappointed by its silliness. As an adult, I’ve come to enjoy The Raven‘s joyful charm and its comedic take on not so much Poe, but on Corman’s own low-budget, elegant and stylish Gothic Poe films. And what I enjoy most now is the acting. It is just so fun to watch Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Hazel Court act with each other. I especially enjoy Price’s work with each actor–and his tour-de-force acting with a raven at the beginning of the film. And since Price ultimately became best known for his most villainous characters, I get a kick out of any role where he plays against type as a mild, gentle, kind man. It’s even more enjoyable when he is in exactly the kind of film in which Price would likely play a tragic villain.
The story is relatively slight: The raven at Dr. Craven’s window is Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), a magician who has come to Craven for help after losing a sorcerous duel with Dr. Scarabus, played with obvious relish by Boris Karloff. Bedlo seeks Craven’s help in regaining his human form. After Craven changes him back, Bedlo wants Craven’s help in retrieving Bedlo’s magical equipment, which he had left at Scarabus’ castle. Craven recommends that Bedlo cut his losses. Craven’s father was a renowned magician, President of the Brotherhood of Sorcerors and rival of the very Dr. Scarabus who transmogrified Bedlo. Craven himself is immensely talented but modest, mild, pleasant and even a little timid. He reminds me very much of the Taoist secret sages in so many kung fu movies. Living a quiet life with his daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess), Craven drinks goblets of warm milk and mourns his dead wife, Lenore.
Incidentally, I love the paintings used in Corman’s AIP films. The paintings are almost always abstract and Expressionist in style and they work so well at conveying mood—much better than I think any completely period portraiture would. In this case, Lenore’s portrait appears influenced by Modigliani. Glancing Lenore’s portrait, Bedlo mentions that he just happened to see her at Scarabus’ place. Mention of his lost Lenore is enough to motivate Craven to accompany Bedlo to Scarabus’ castle–with his daughter Estelle and Bedlo’s son, Rexford, (Jack Nicholson) where Scarabus invites them all to dinner.
Lorre somewhat reprises his role as a cat-hating drunkard in “The Cask of the Amontillado” segment from Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962). In that film, Price plays his foil and his cuckolder in another role I love: Fortunato Luchresi, a supercilious dandy, aesthete, and cat-lover. Bedlo is loud, rude, insulting, touchy and drinks too much for a man with his flaws. Bedlo has little patience with his son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson). At dinner, Bedlo insults Scarabus until Scarabus finally consents to a second duel.
As Dr. Scarabus, Karloff displays fantastic false geniality that slowly reveals an equally fantastic villainous brew of calculating malevolence, cunning and lasciviousness. He not only easily–but cruelly–defeats Bedlo, making it appear that Bedlo’s own Latin cliches have left him nothing but a smoking slick of raspberry jam. That night, it is revealed that Lenore (Hazel Court) had faked her own death in order to take up with the wealthy, powerful and ambitious Scarabus (in a clearly dreadful but well-matched relationship) and that Scarabus has lured Craven into a trap. As Lenore, Hazel Court has a fairly small part, but she displays a wonderful and even charming calculation of her own. In particular, I love the scene where she plays with Estelle’s hair as Estelle is locked in stocks and threatened with torture to make Craven reveal his magical secrets to Scarabus. Everything about their stepmother-stepdaughter relationship is revealed in one terrible pair of ponytails.
All of this leads to a final, most entertaining duel of magic between Craven and Scarabus for the lives of all concerned and for dominion in the Brotherhood of Sorcerors.
Matheson’s script rides the line between Poe and relatively contemporary English, comically charming and possibly corny very well. The names are excellent, whether the names of the magicians; the love interest, Estelle; or “Rexford,” which becomes a synonym for “disappointment” when uttered by Bedlo. And Matheson uses the poem to frame the film, in the sense that it starts with Price reciting the poem and then re-enacting a portion of it and ends with Price telling the re-ravened Bedlo, “Shut your beak” before intoning, “Quoth the raven, Nevermore.” I enjoy the little touches that are so natural that they seem unscripted—Dr. Bedlo considerately wiping dust off of Dr. Craven’s father’s casket with his feathered arms and Dr. Craven quietly thanking him.
The Raven is charming, fun and lovingly composed. It’s a Sixties deconstruction of Gothic horror as well as Corman’s own period Poe films. And it is very enjoyable to watch old hands acting effortlessly with each other. The whole film itself is effortless.
Well, almost the whole film. I’m afraid that young Jack Nicholson does not fare so well as the romantic lead, Rexford. The more experienced Olive Sturgess does much better as Estelle. In fact, I think the raven does better in its scenes with Price. Nicholson does really poorly with the raven and, reportedly, hated it. Worse yet for young Jack Nicholson, most of his scenes are with Peter Lorre. Lorre is really trying, but young Jack Nicholson can’t keep up with the man who prefigured our own film and television serial killers in Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
But Rexford does remind me that actors can be dreadfully miscast and it can make it look like they are terrible actors; and that actors improve with time and experience. Ability has thousands of components beyond some innate, inborn talent that might or might not remain constant. Nicholson was lucky to have the opportunity to improve. Many young actors now are just written off as “bad.” So I think of young Jack in this whenever I see a young actor struggling now. And there is a brief glimpse of future Jack Nicholson, the one who was canny enough to know his limits and make sure he was not cast as a young romantic lead. That moment is when Rexford is magically possessed as he drives the carriage from Craven’s home to Scarabus’ castle. He embodies malicious glee as he bares his teeth and flashes his eyes. There he is, Jack.
But the kids don’t matter all that much, because what this movie is about is watching the older, more experienced Price, Lorre, Karloff and Court as they act with or as a raven, attempt to betray and win over each other, and, most of all, engage in magical duels full of whimsy, fun, animated knives and colorfully yet eerily-lit gargoyle heads.
Vincent Price has been associated with “The Raven” for a long time now. Here he gives a dramatic reading of the poem.
And Boris Karloff starred with Bela Lugosi in a very different adaptation of “The Raven.” Here’s a few clips from The Raven (1935).
This was written as part of Nitrate Diva’s Vincent Price Blogathon. Instead of trying to write about her favorite Vincent Price performance, which is impossible for her to determine, Carol Borden decided to choose something for The Vincent Price Blogathon that seemed like it was getting less love and write about other works another time. Also, she once made some Abominable Dr. Phibes wrapping paper for a Phibes-themed wedding. She would also like the gargoyle fire pit in Scarabus’ living room.