1 Hr., 26 Mins.
The Raven October 19, 2020
he Raven (1963) is the fifth movie making up what is now commonly referred to as “the Poe cycle” — an eight-movie-long series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations produced and directed by Roger Corman and distributed by independent studio American International Pictures. The cycle's films vary in their allegiance to their source material; The Raven, which quickly establishes itself as a pretty delightful horror
comedy, almost doesn’t have any at all. If a student were tasked with reading Poe’s namesake story for an assignment but would rather watch a screen adaptation than look to the page, this movie doesn’t provide an easy way out. Aside from a properly dramaturgic reading of the text by star Vincent Price (one part is read in voiceover during the prologue, with more carted off at the film’s closing), it has little to do with what actually happens in the story.
If anything, Corman's The Raven is like a cinematization of an imaginative response to an essay prompt, where the prompt asks the writer to dramatize for the reader what happened to the hero of Poe's story shortly after letting the black bird of the title into his home. Corman’s The Raven can feel a little like fan fiction — not just because it’s a generous reworking of a beloved text but also because its main ensemble has a too-good-to-be-true-ness to it: it comprises a very young Jack Nicholson (still in a phase where he could potentially get away with responding to a compliment with “aw, shucks!” if he had to) and horror-genre mainstays Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Hazel Court.
Poe’s tale is pithy and, predictably, potent. Long story short, a man mourning his wife, Lenore, lets a raven pecking at his window into his home; the raven, who can speak probably because of the teachings of some “unhappy master,” won’t stop saying “nevermore”; the protagonist gets mad when it seems as though the raven doesn’t have a message from his wife from beyond the grave, essentially; then we find out that the protagonist’s soul is imprisoned under the raven’s shadow — to be lifted “nevermore.” Light stuff!
Corman’s The Raven, in contrast, is light stuff — a rambunctious horror-adjacent movie frequently operating at the fever pitch of a farce. Everyone here seems to be having fun in part because the film doesn’t take itself seriously and they know they have to follow suit with the jocular tone set by screenwriter Richard Matheson. Price reliably makes us believe he wouldn't want to be anywhere else; Karloff's face is almost always fixed in a puckish grin; cartoonishly wide-eyed Lorre is very funny — continually in a state of slapstick exasperation. Court, the movie’s arguable MVP, is a quasi-villainess so pleased with herself that her character could let us know that she simply decided to be bad one day because being good was “boring” and we’d believe her. Like other movies in the cycle, Corman’s “adaptation” is doused in glimmering Technicolor and has nice-to-look-at period regality despite the low budget. In the fall, you often hear of people with an aversion to horror wanting to track down movies that are spooky rather than scary. The Raven, and most other movies encompassing the cycle, meet the requirement.
In Corman's take on The Raven, Poe's unnamed narrator is Erasmus Craven (Price), a 15th-century sorcerer mourning the two-year-old death of his wife (like in the story!), played by Court. When the raven comes knocking, we find out that it's really a wizard, Dr. Bedlo (Lorre), who has become a feathered friend because he challenged another local sorcerer, Scarabus (Karloff), to a duel. (He lost.) Bedlo first asks Craven to help him get back into his old body, to which he obliges (though at first he can only get the human head to reemerge). Then Craven, whose family apparently has had a long-running feud with the Scarabuses he simply has avoided, decides he wants to take a trip to Scarabus’ estate after Bedlo claims to have seen Lenore there.
This is the hottest trip in town. Craven brings Bedlo (surprisingly willing, given his recent avifaunal transformation) along with his young daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess), and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Nicholson), who appears basically out of nowhere and whose American accent is so protruding compared to his castmates his Rs could cut glass. Ensuing is a night of friendly rivalry that escalates — the friendliness eventually turns to dust.
The climax of The Raven is a fanciful duel full of fripperies and fake-outs — expect floating chairs, floors turning into quicksand, gargoyles transmogrified into sniffling puppies. I laughed out loud at one of Craven’s particularly ambitious deceptions. Scarabus thinks he has successfully speared Craven in the stomach only to find out, upon closer inspection, that the sorcerer managed to switch out his torso for a bag of bark chips when he wasn't looking. (When he gets speared a second time, his insides turn out to be a crowd of confused, chirping chicks; all, luckily, are unscathed.) The climactic duel lasts only a few minutes but could go on a few more; the movie goes by so quickly that I thought to myself when it finished that I wished it too were longer, not because its story needed any more stretching but because I loved living inside it. Fortunately, there are seven other movies I can turn to. A