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The fifth of Roger Corman's eight Poe-inspired films brought together some old horror masters, behind and in front of the cameras, for The Raven (1963), a loose comic take on the classic poem that pleased audiences, critics, and those involved in its making.
Vincent Price is Dr. Erasmus Craven, a 15th century magician in retirement following the death of his wife, Lenore. He is startled one night by the appearance of a talking raven, who is actually another former magician, Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), turned into a bird for daring to challenge master sorcerer Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven returns Bedlo to human form, and the grateful man tells him he has seen a woman resembling Lenore living in Scarabus's castle. Traveling to the castle with Craven's daughter and Bedlo's son, the group soon learns that Lenore and Scarabus are partners in treachery. In the end, Bedlo is once again a raven, and that's all we're going to give away, other than to note that the whole affair is a fun romp with its tongue firmly in cheek.
Upon the picture's release, Variety called it "a corn-pop of considerable comedic dimensions" and deemed the screenplay "a skillful, imaginative narrative." Nearly 40 years later, David Pirie of Time Out Film Guide said The Raven is "one of the few fantasy comedies that hangs together as happily as a fairytale, and it climaxes with a suitably splendid duel of marvels between Karloff and Price." Much of the credit can be given to screenwriter Richard Matheson, who gave the world such movie gems as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), one of the very best sci-fi pictures; Spielberg's debut Duel (1971); and the novels that were adapted with varying degrees of success (by himself and others) for the films What Dreams May Come (1998), Somewhere in Time (1980), The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007), the title of his 1954 novel from which these latter three were taken. He also wrote many episodes of the TV anthology series The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
In 1960, when producer-director Roger Corman launched his highly successful series of films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, he turned to Matheson for the first screenplay, House of Usher (1960). Matheson went on to pen Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven. Appropriately, Matheson later won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for his writing on The Night Stalker (1972).
Among the humorous touches Matheson worked into the screenplay were the Latin incantations used to cast spells, which any student of the language would recognize as the adages: "I came, I saw, I conquered"; "Beware of the dog"; "If you want peace, prepare for war"; etc.
Jack Nicholson has a role as Lorre's son, Rexford. In later years, Nicholson had high praise for everyone he worked with on the film except for the Raven himself, who had a nasty habit of relieving himself all over the set, particularly on Nicholson. "I would look down when the Raven flew off my shoulder, and it would be covered in poop," he said. "I hated that bird."
Karloff had appeared in another film with the same title in 1935, co-starring Bela Lugosi. Other than the name, however, the two pictures have nothing to do with each other.
Nearly a year after this film's release, American International, the studio that produced The Raven, would try to recapture the magic of the three stars teaming for a horror parody, The Comedy of Terrors (1963), once again scripted by Matheson and directed this time by Hollywood veteran Jacques Tourneur, a key talent from Val Lewton's legendary horror unit of the 1940s. Although it had Price, Karloff, and Lorre (now known as the Triumvirate of Terror) and both the comic talent of Joe E. Brown and the eerie presence of Basil Rathbone, the film didn't quite live up to its predecessor's appeal.
Corman wasn't only banking on his stars to give The Raven its high place in the Poe series. He also brought back the technical talents of many of the crew members from the earlier pictures, including composer Les Baxter, editor (and former child actor) Ronald Sinclair, and the two men most responsible for the distinctive look of the Poe series, art director Daniel Haller and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, father of rock legend David Crosby and the man behind the camera on many other American International movies of the period. Notably, Crosby made an auspicious debut many years before on F.W. Murnau's Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), winning an Academy Award for his cinematography.
Director: Roger Corman
Producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Editing: Ronald Sinclair
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Original Music: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price (Craven), Peter Lorre (Bedlo), Boris Karloff (Scarabus), Hazel Court (Lenore), Olive Sturgess (Estelle Craven), Jack Nicholson (Rexford Bedlo).
by Rob Nixon