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

Fiend Without A Face, 1958. 6.5/10

Right in the cockpit of ’50s sci-fi, Fiend involves a creature concocted somehow through a dose of nuclear energy. A device in play is that the creature’s “face” isn’t revealed until the latter part of the film (it starts out invisible). The fun begins when a rogue scientist (aren’t they always up to something?) taps into the nuclear power–intended for the nearby military base for its radar–to enhance his experiments on the subconscious. Sounds dangerous, but in a cool way.

On deck for this movie are Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker, Stanley Master, Terry Killburn, James Dyrenforth, Robert MacKenzie, and Peter Madden. Thompson is the base commander Major Cummings, Reeves is our scientist Prof. Salvage, Killburn is Captain Chester, and Parker is Barbara, Walgate’s assistant. Dyrenforth is the town’s mayor, and MacKenzie is Howard Gibbons.

We start with a sentry at a military base who see some suspicious stuff whiz across the sky. When he goes to investigate, there’s a bunch of oozy gooey whatever in a clearing, along with a dead guy. Thompson has to figure out how the man died. No autopsy possible; locals have whisked the body away.

Pesky locals–don’t they get that the nearby nuclear reactor isn’t a bomb? The Army has a point in that an autopsy would show if radiation was involved or not. The victim’s diary isn’t much help. Barbara is only slightly perturbed about her brother’s death; she has it in her to find the Captain amusing.

At the command tower, something funny is happening on the radar screen (Siberia giving us dirty looks?) There’s a power fade; that is, the reactor needs to be spooled up so their equipment will work better. Something’s draining the power off. Well, it was just a test anyway, all that fuss for nothing.

“Our beloved Jack” is lowered into his grave just as there’s a B-47 flyover, drowning out the funeral oratory. Meanwhile, on a nearby farm, what looks like an incredibly huge mole tunnel is rapidly closing in on a farmer’s wife–she’s strangled by invisible stuff (not murderous moles). The old guy tries to pitchfork it, but it gets him too. Sounds like a pig, actually.

Well, what is it? Not radioactivity! The brass is worried though “it will be tough if the town turns against us.” Well, at last we get an autopsy–the brain and spinal cord are missing, a “mental vampire” at work? Which burrows like a mole, sounds like a pig, but is invisible. Time for the Major to make a house call on Barbara. What’s this lying about? “The Principles of Thought Control, by R. E. Walgate,” her boss’s book that is.

Hmm. Stop right there. Suppose Walgate is using nuclear energy to jump-start his thought control experiments? All the evidence is there: dead folks piling up with their brains missing. That doesn’t explain the invisible whatever it is.

Anyway, the Major gets his comeuppance from Howard. No “tom-catting” around here (Howard’s the town constable, not exactly Barbara’s chaperone). Next step for the Army is to sleuth Walgate’s repertoire. Ominously, we here the invisible critter stalking the Mayor. Sure enough, he gets it too. Does he have a big brain or something. “It’s the atomic fallout!” cry some locals.

Time for vigilante action–they think a wigged-out GI is the murderer. Ok, but how do they know where to look for it? At the base, here’s the dope on Walgate: “a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Einstein.” Describes most scientists in sci-fi movies. The erstwhile unwelcome Major comes calling on the elusive Walgate.

“It’s just ignorance!” These townspeople…he means, four deaths? well. They talk about the look of the first victim’s (Barbara’s brother’s) face after he died. Outdoors, the posse is restless. We hear the wumf-wumf of the creature. (Now I can place it’s crawling sound as similar to that of the invisible creature in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.)

Gibbons has had the misfortune to wander into the gooey clearing in the forest. Bradley gets the deputy mayor, Melville, to summon a council meeting. The Colonel and Major are called in on it. Again, they testify that radiation is innocent of all wrongdoing. They also dismiss the “mad GI” theory. Gibbons crashes the meeting.

Groaning with real horror, he looks like rubber jello. The Major is going to do a cemetery inspection. Down in a crypt he finds the partly open coffin with one of the victims inside. Of course, the Major gets locked in the crypt. A secret passageway? The Captain is worried about the Major; Barbara tells him about the cemetery.

They hear him pounding from down in the crypt. Rescued. They go to see Walgate. “Man can create power from thought… [impossible you say?] …maybe with atomic power…” And why was Walgate down in the crypt–the dummy had left his pipe there? Time for Walgate to have a fit.

The brass agrees to shut the nuclear plant down. Uh–oh, the “rods” have been destroyed; can’t shut down the power. Ok, finally Walgate levels with the military guys about his thought experiments. Something about detaching thoughts to make them “entities.”

So we get via flashback Walgate doing stuff in his lab (absurdly, Barbara didn’t even know that he had a lab). An electrical storm gives him enough of an energy boost: viola! He can move objects. Conveniently, the nuclear plant proves to be a more reliable power source. He can now give “life, and mobility” to his thought projections.

He realizes that he’s created a “fiend.” That is, he finds he can’t control the wayward thoughts. Using the military’s terminology, he’s talking about having created a “mental vampire.” Ok, but there’s an environmental angle: the nuclear plant, and therefore it’s energy, is inherently “evil.” Thus the destructive bent of the thing(s).

The doctor thinks the evil is actually in Walgate’s mind. Sounds plausible. Well, scratch another guy, the ol’ Fiend is breaking in. Kind of a hum-drum barricading scene. Anticipation builds though, as the ‘entities’ might become visible, thanks to the escalating power level.

Great: we see–brains with spinal cords; scorpion-like things with heads and tails. They are pretty creepy. The solution is to blow up the control room at the plant. A too-long scene ensues, with the main characters holed up in Walgate’s house under siege by the creatures. Outside, the Major hi-tails it to the plant.

Needless to say, the brain creatures quickly up and die as soon as the control room blows up. The end. Why the power plant itself doesn’t go off is a mystery.

This could’ve been better. There’s lots of potential, but problems everywhere: the premise, the pacing, the logic (merely the suspension of disbelief), some of the scenes… What’s the point of keeping the creatures invisible for most of the movie?

In Forbidden Planet, which also doesn’t reveal its critter until late in the game, it hardly matters; that film is loaded with special effects. But Fiend Without A Face has nothing else tangibly monstrous going on, except Gibbons’ hideous fate.

Had all the victims ended up like him, it would’ve been both more horrific and truer to the thought-control concept. That is, the victims might’ve become so many pod people (ala 1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers).

There’s a false sense of isolation when the creatures actually appear. Who cares about a handful of people stuck in a house? There’s a military base nearby with, presumably, more than a few soldiers on hand (we see both fighters and bombers as well). Certainly, a low budget movie can’t have cities destroyed or bases attacked, but a truly isolated setting can give a small group or community a palpable sense of danger.

The most notable example of an isolated community in danger–1951’s The Thing–uses little more than some prefabricated buildings for most of its very chilling scenes. Or the ‘giant bug’ movies (Them!, Tarantula, The Giant Scorpion), most of which used the desert (and its small towns) to generate their creatures.

What’s interesting here is that there’s a quasi-horror aspect alongside the sci-fi. Walgate is after all something of a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein trying to animate thoughts (“mental vampire” is an apt phrase). The graveyard scene wouldn’t be out of place in any vampire movie. Plus, we even have superstitious townspeople.

All of those trappings are more or less wasted, or there impact diluted, by the nuclear power plant/military base settings. That sets up some needless duplication; if lightning (again a Frankenstein-like horror touch) works initially for Walgate’s energy source, who needs nuclear energy? The entire rationale for the base, the radar, is not really figured into the plot.

I’d rather have some alien presence (detected by the radar) cause the Fiend to appear, or just junk all that stuff, give us Wingate conjuring his thoughts into their grotesque existence to run amok in the sticks somewhere. And so the townspeople band together to exterminate the little buggers. As it is, the plots needlessly complex. The pay-off just doesn’t offer much; the weak ending really hurts.

Fiend Without A Face isn’t bad, it’s just not very good. 6.5/10

The Horror Of Dracula, 1958. 9/10

In the classic vein of British horror, 1958’s Horror of Dracula features Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough. They’re Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing, and Arthur Holmwood. Arthur’s wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) and Lucy (Carol Marsh) are sisters. The unfortunate Johnathan Harker role is played by John Van Dyssen.

Plus, we’ve got a female vampire (Valerie Gaunt), some servants types, Inga Barbara Archer), Gerda (Olga Dickie), and her daughter, Tania (Janina Faye). And there’s a Dr. Seward (Clarke’s Lloyd Beck). Got to be some superstitious innkeepers and villagers too.

In this iteration of Bram Stoker’s tale, Harker is a librarian; doesn’t much matter what he’s supposed to be. Anyone who’s summoned to ye olde house of Dracula draws a tough assignment (it’s notoriously a pain in the neck).

Harker starts off narrating his visit to Castle Dracula. Looks like the maid service has just tidied up; not so much as a spider lurking about inside. Dracula’s note shows some calligraphy skill. Ms. Vampire glides up on Harker, looking very nice, but very desperate. “I’m being held prisoner!” Too late for a rescue, however.

“I am Dracula” Lee looks more suave than Lugosi (in his 1931 role), but both make Dracula quite the gentleman. I don’t think we need the voice-over. Wait, why is he in-the-know about Dracula already? He’s there to “end this man’s reign of terror.” We’ve got to assume he’s referring to the the woman’s plight. When Dracula leaves, the girl comes up to Harker “you have no idea what an evil man he is!”

Unfortunately, she decides to sink her fangs into Harker; just then Dracula shows up, throws her aside, and attacks Harker himself. Of course, Harker comes to in a daze, with those tell-tale bite marks on his neck. “I have become a victim of Dracula and the woman in his power.” He knows he has to find the sleeping Dracula and kill him.

In ye olde crypt, Dracula is literally chilling. Harker spikes the girl first; but the commotion awakens Dracula, who magically appears above Harker. We segue to the village inn. Wind chimes, and garlic are the motifs. Like the castle, everything’s spotless. Van Helsing comes into the picture, inquiring about Harker.

Now we gather that Harker’s mission was a ruse, designed to get him into the castle with the express purpose of killing Dracula. Van Helsing doesn’t get help with the locals; the innkeeper’s daughter, however, has retrieved Harker’s diary. So Van Helsing scoots to the castle, only to see a hearse leave as he arrives.

Security being non-existent there, he rumages around Harker’s room, then goes down to the crypt. There’s two coffins: the suddenly ancient corpse of the woman in one, and Dracula in the other. And there’s the spike and mallet. Kind of a good time for a segue.

Yes, he’s back in London (?) filling in Arthur Homewood and Mina about her sister’s fiance’s death. Arthur’s more than a bit suspicious. Poor Lucy. She’s ill, and then this. But, we soon see why she’s ill; waiting up for a late night bedroom guest. What’s this? Van Helsing has an early type of dictaphone. This is what’s so great about the late-Victorian era–the dawn of technical wonders alongside dark medieval legends.

It’s not Johnathan, it’s Dracula swinging in on Lucy. I don’t get how Dracula escaped his fate back at the castle. The doctor (Seward) is sort of a blithering idiot; haven’t they noticed the bite marks? Mina comes to see Van Helsing; she describes Lucy’s symptoms. Aha! “Anemia,” huh? His exam of her is preemptory, but he’s seen the bite marks.

So he gives orders to shutter her room at night. Let’s get some garlic flowers, they’re so fashionable just now–they indeed are to die for. But Lucy really wants Dracula; she tells Gerda to ditch all the defensive measures. The full moon’s behind a cloud…next thing we know, she’s dead. Gerda confesses her role in the catastrophe.

Van Helsing now seems like a bad guy; he has to tell Arthur and Mina the real deal on both Johnathan and Lucy. The inspector shows up with Tania–what does the kid know? She’s seen…a ghost? Yes, Lucy. It looks creepy crawly down in the crypt, and, by now, Arthur’s convinced something’s up.

Right, Lucy’s coffin is empty. Incredibly, Tania leaves the house again at night, and meets the undead Lucy. Arthur intercepts them. Van Helsing, luckily, is wingman here. Before Lucy can get her midnight snack, Van Helsing scares her off with a crucifix. Poor Tania has witnessed everything.

Well, at least Lucy is back in her coffin. Thoroughly spooked, Arthur wants to finish her off right away. Van Helsing, thinking more strategically, wants to keep her around to lead them to Dracula. Well, Arthur gets his wish; Dracula, wherever he is, can’t be happy either.

First really quiet scene–at the Holmwood’s. He and Van Helsing discuss vampire lore. Van Helsing remembers seeing the hearse leaving the castle–he now figures that must’ve been Dracula himself. Good old provincial officials prove corruptible, so the good guys find out where Dracula’s coffin went from the castle.

Meanwhile, Dracula has a cunning plan; he sends a fake message to Mina to meet her husband. Actually it’s to meet the Count’s coffin. Next morning, she’s one of ‘them’ (I realize how similar the vampire’s possession of a victim is to the sci-fi Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of ‘alien’ takeover). The official leads the doctor and Arthur to the mortuary. Dracula’s coffin has gone missing.

A remote graveyard might turn up the old boy. When they try and hand Mina a crucifix it toasts her hand. So Arthur, seeing how he could’ve put Dracula out of business earlier, now agrees to use Mina as bait. The guys wait outside, underneath Mina’s window…shazam! Dracula’s already inside, buy some devilish art.

Mina screeches, but the good guys think it’s a owl. Nope, it was her, another casualty. Well, a transfusion may do wonders. We can’t kill everyone off. That night, they strategize. If one of them stays by her…ah, but Gerda mentions the cellar.

So Dracula is already in the house. Indeed, Dracula zips upstairs, and hies off with Mina. A coach driver is the latest victim. In the village, the customs inspector can’t stop either the bad guys or good guys. Just as Dracula buries Mina outside, Van Helsing and Arthur interrupt him.

Van Helsing struggles with Dracula, breaks free, and utterly destroys him by tearing the curtains down as day breaks. An incredibly grotesque and prolonged decomposition overtakes the vampire. The end.

This was great horror–one of the best Dracula films, the best British one, anyway. Aside from spot-on performances from Lee and Cushing, and the excellent period atmosphere (too well manicured), it’s the restless pacing that gives such an impressive impact.

My only quibbles would come with the plot, and maybe the premise. We can assume that anyone tuning in is going to be familiar with the story of Dracula (and vampires generally). So the quick-and-dirty treatment that Van Helsing gives Arthur is all we need; what doesn’t add up, though, is that we’re to assume that Van Helsing and Harker have prior knowledge that Dracula is a vampire.

Changing Stoker’s plot isn’t a problem. I’m dealing here with the movie’s premise about Dracula. I suppose that Van Helsing could’ve doped all of this out from studying Harker’s diary–but he seems to know what’s happened to Harker even before he gets the diary from the girl at the inn.

In any case, this stuff presumes inside knowledge, as though we’re supposed to have seen a prequel And, if The Horror of Dracula had followed up a previous story, wouldn’t Dracula already be dead?

The other thing is that it’s unclear if the English characters are ever in London, or whether the whole movie is set in Hungary (at least I know that in this time frame, Transylvania was Hungarian, despite it being of mixed Rumanian/German ethnicity).

When Arthur and Van Helsing go looking for Dracula, for example, there’s no sea voyage alluded to–which would be necessary to get from England to central Europe. That also explains why Dracula quickly appears on the scene to attack Mina; he doesn’t have to travel far, apparently.

Despite these misgivings, Horror of Dracula is a must see for horror fans generally, and Lee and Cushing fans particularly. 9/10