The Raven, 1963. 6.5/10

Roger Corman doesn’t hold back in this snarky psuedo-Poe horror film. Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre star as magicians (Doctors Scarabus, Erasmus Craven, and Adolphus Bedlo, respectively). They’ve each got some issue. Craven’s wife, Lenore (Hazel Court) has died…or has she? Bedlo’s been changed into a raven by Scarabus. Lenore (is she ‘lost’ as Poe said?) has been spotted at Scarabus’s castle.

To help sort out the spells are Bedlo’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson), and Craven’s daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess). Although 1935’s The Raven owes nothing to this interpretation, Karloff was featured in the earlier film as well.

Nice atmospheric introduction: Vincent Price reciting The Raven, with a hallucinogenic lava lamp background. That effect segues into castles, foggy graveyards, and, finally, Craven in his sitting room. He’s drawing a raven into existence, well, a spectral one, just for practice, it seems. Next thing we know, he’s dusting off Lenore’s coffin.

He freaks out as Estelle appears right next to him, with his glass of warm milk (!). Now we hear something knocking, gently rapping at his chamber door, it’s…our raven. “Are you some dark-winged messenger from beyond?” He asks of it. “How the hell should I know?!” Quoth the Raven.

The Raven wants to be changed back to its “rightful form.” Does Craven have jellied spiders and such like? Not at hand (he’s a vegetarian), but maybe in the old laboratory. Lots of cool ingredients (entrails, eyeballs, dead-man’s hair). Well, it’s quickly brewed up, and the Raven partakes of it. Shazam! It’s Bedlo.

Apparently, they’ve met at a “sorcerer’s convention.” Of course, there’s still an issue: Bedlo has a feathery look because Craven’s concoction wasn’t strong enough. They’ve got to scare up some more dead man’s hair. Where? The graveyard? No need, there’s a family crypt handy. Anyway, Craven asks Bedlo how he got turned into a bird–Scarabus won a duel of spells with Bedlo–thus the enchantment.

Another problem: Craven’s dad’s corpse grabs him, moaning “beware…” They get the snippet of hair. Bedlo sees a miniature portrait of Lenore; at first he thinks that Craven’s scared her off or whatnot, because Bedlo’s seen her at Scarabus’s. Ladlo has to journey to that guy’s place, anyway, as the other magician took possession of Ladlo’s magic “equipment.”

Sounds like a road trip. But first, check Lenore’s coffin–a convincingly horrid corpse nesting in there. Perhaps, though, Scarabus has possession of her soul. Craven’s servant, sent out to prepare the coach, is overwhelmed and dazed. He returns with an ax, ready to kill them all (Estelle is up and about too). Just as she’s about to be cut up, Craven is able to zap him. He collapses.

When he comes to, it’s obvious that he has no idea what he just did. A Scarabus victim, no doubt. At this point Rexford makes himself known. So, they all make off in Craven’s coach. It’s clear that Estelle’s mission is to get to know Rexford. For his part, Rexford seems to have fallen under a Scarabus spell; he’s pretty much trying to crash the coach.

They make it to Sacrabus’s castle; it’s an obvious prop, probably a drawing, though well-done. As is usual in these situations, the door opens on its own, and the foursome enters. It’s certainly an ominous place–Scarabus appears “I bid you welcome” as Bela Lugosi did to his visitors in 1931’s Dracula.

He summons Lenore; but it’s not actually his Lenore, says Craven. Nice banter ensues between Bedlo and Scarabus, as the former complains about being turned into a raven. Scarabus: “but sir! You tried to kill me!” Bedlo: “So what?!” The competition between Bedlo and Rexford is great too. Scarabus is certainly playing the gentleman-magician role.

They talk magic. But Bedlo isn’t ready to let byegones be byegones. He gets his case of equipment back, anyway. Bedlo tries a spell or two on Scarabus, to no effect (even Bedlo’s magic wand droops). He does, however, conjure a pretty good storm; but, probably thanks to Scarabus’s intervention, he destroys himself!

Well, the Cravens are spending the night. Big deal, what about the ‘fake’ Lenore? Rexford enlists Estelle’s aid in talking her father into somehow saving his dead dad. Rexford prowls about, trying to get to Craven’s chamber. Hey! Lenore (the ‘real’ one) appears at his window. She’s obviously in cahoots with Scarabus, as his mistress.

Seems weird that she would take up with an old fossil like Scarabus; yes, he’s rich and powerful, but Craven’s no peasant himself, and about half Scarabus’s age. Next surprise is that Rexford is jumped in the dark by…his father. Dad not only didn’t die, he’s not even changed into a bird “what am I? A ghost?” Rexford tells his dad that Scarabus is holding Estelle prisoner.

Meanwhile, Lenore and Scarabus are up to something. Rexford rescues Estelle, while Bedlo distracts Scarabus; we discover that Craven’s magic is Scarabus’s object now. Craven’s awakened by his daughter and Rexford; they’re going to split. Will Scarabus try to turn Bedlo against Craven? Lenore taunts Bedlo, who’s easily preturbed.

Scarabus doesn’t like guests leaving without saying goodbye. He turns Craven into stone, and Bedlo is encased in ropes. Soon, all of the ‘good guys’ are tied up in the dungeon. Lenore is enjoying their discomfort; Craven wonders if she’s under a spell…could be. Bedlo is pitiful–trescherous once again, he’s unceremoniously turned back into a raven.

Estelle is used as bait–either Craven turns over his magic secrets to Scarabus, or his daughter’s burned with irons. Surprisingly, Ledlo/the raven comes to the rescue by pecking away at Rexford’s restraints. Rexford jumps the jailer, which leads to a sort of laser fight between Scarabus and Craven.

Scarabus says they should have a “duel to the death” (I thought that’s what they were doing ). A snake is turned into a scarf into a bat into a fan….eventually, into a cannon. The cannonball is now the focus…but it’s turned into confetti. Now the stone gargoyles come to life, and end up as puppies. And so on.

Scarabus turns into a corpse, and spears Craven. But it’s not the real Craven. Are they going to run out of spells? More laser beam fights. The green (good?) energy prevails. All seems well–but Craven doesn’t buy Lenore’s I-was-under-a-spell excuse, and leaves her as the whole place goes up in flames.

Remarkably, she and Scarabus survive, albeit with little magic left amid the ruins. Back at the Craven’s, there’s time for some Raven quips before we leave these nuts. The end.

It’s amazing how easily the three masters of horror–Price, Lorre, and Karloff–can retune themselves into macabre jokers. Some of the one-liners are great. This works because each interprets their roles differently: Karloff is sort of Jack the Ripper dastardly, Price is smug and sarcastic, Lorre is just hapless. Nicolson, even at this very earlier stage, plays along famously.

The atmosphere and settings (even with the cleverly faked castle) complement each other quite well. There’s that pesky too-clean look, though, even in the dungeon; at least the lab in Craven’s place looks suitibly neglected. Other than the costumes, the 15th century may as well be the 19th; that’s not much of a big deal–there’s no ‘real world’ to get in the way with annoying tell-tale stuff from the wrong era.

The premise is something different, and leaves a lot of possibilities open. It would seem that the primary goal is for Craven to win Lenore back. It is, but, ultimately, he loses interest. That’s a bold switch. I think what it does is shift the focus to the magic itself; what goes on among the three magicians, particularly the climatic battle, pretty much takes on a life of its own.

In a way, the two women are just sort of there, in that incidental way that so many women’s roles were in movies of this sort. Nonetheless, it’s Lenore who gets the ‘good guys’ to invade Scarabus’s castle. And it’s hard to think that Scarabus would be so hostile to Craven if the two guys weren’t in effect fighting over her for almost the entire movie.

The fact that the plot sort of implodes with Craven’s renunciation of Lenore is, in a way, the nuttiest thing that could’ve happened. The entire story is thematically meaningless, because Craven really doesn’t want his wife back. Well, at least he knows that she isn’t dead. But is that better than knowing that she’s unfaithful? Maybe I’m taking The Raven too seriously.

As entertaining as this was, the goofiness made it essentially cartoonish. Despite the legitimate creepiness all around (the coffin inhabitants in Craven’s crypt most notably), it’s clear almost immediately that no one is really going to get killed off. Consider that Bedlo, despite incurring Scarabus’s wrath more than once, is indestructible (if not necessarily human).

I suppose that a slightly more serious tone, along with a palpable sense of danger, would make for a more interesting movie. This is worth seeing for the star power alone–these guys don’t disappoint. But, in this case, the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. 6.5/10

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