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The Raven

The Raven(1963)

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The newest batch of MGM's Midnite Movies series focuses on several Vincent Price films (the one anomaly is the Ingrid Pitt double-feature Countess Dracula /Vampire Lovers). Like previous releases in the series, the new discs feature quality transfers, letterboxing where appropriate and a few extras all at a budget price. Releasing Vincent Price films is a smart idea since he still has a broad appeal despite the decades since his heyday. Price had the talent and at times execution of a great actor but never had a project that could have tested such potential. It's undeniable, though, that his dedication, intelligence and wit enlivened nearly all his films, so much that some of them would have been nearly unwatchable without him.

Most definitely watchable and probably the pick of the Vincent Price releases is The Haunted Palace/Tower of London, both directed by Roger Corman. 1963's The Haunted Palace is loosely based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, at the time known primarily to horror fans but today considered something of a minor American master. Corman says in an interview on the disc that they wanted to move away a bit from the popular Poe films though they kept a title from Poe just so they weren't too far away. The Haunted Palace has a somewhat familiar story about a man who inherits a castle and after moving there with his wife discovers that the inhabitants of the local town aren't too thrilled about this and neither, more unfortunately, are the long-dead former inhabitants of the castle. But the story isn't entirely the point. With an energetic and sometimes subtle performance by Price and the genuinely spooky atmosphere created by Corman, the film remains memorable.

1962's Tower of London is a somewhat threadbare account of Richard III's machinations but its sprightly pace and historical feel keep it continually interesting. Despite claims on the box and in an interview on the disc with producer Gene Corman (Roger's brother), there's nothing of Shakespeare's play here: none of the dialogue, none of the plot (excepting a small bit in the final scene) and even few of the characters. The film is more a remake of the 1938 film of the same title which also had one of Price's very first film appearances and from which this later film lifts some battle footage in a no-budget touch worthy of Orson Welles or Ed Wood. Tower of London is also not close to the actual facts of Richard III's life (but then neither exactly was Shakespeare) with several years of events compressed into a few days and important events missing altogether. But really that doesn't much matter and isn't far removed from what actor/writer Colley Cibber did in a version published in 1700 where he compressed Shakespeare's play and drastically increased the violence. Corman and his screenwriters similarly approach Richard as the center of more or less a horror story throwing in more ghosts, curses, witches and torture than many of what are actually marketed as horror films. Such elements along with the political intrigue and convincing portrayal of Richard's disintegrating mental state keep Tower of London fresher than it has any right to be.

The second Price disc has The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe (1970). Again, Corman directed the Poe film The Tomb of Ligeia from a script by future Oscar-winner Robert Towne (Chinatown), adding "Tomb of" to Poe's title "Ligeia" so that nobody would think this some artsy European import. For most of the film it's a fairly sedate psychological thriller about a man obssessed with his dead wife and a younger woman who falls in love with him. Corman brings an attention to detail among some quite impressive sets, at least until the final half hour which kicks into Gothic overdrive full of lightning, fire, a damsel in a nightgown, dark corridors and a chain-reaction of surprises. The disc includes two commentaries, one by Corman and one by star Elizabeth Shepherd. An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is something of an oddity. Running barely 53 minutes, it was originally made for TV broadcast and is little more than Vincent Price performing four Poe short stories as monologues. The box claims Price thought this his best Poe work and it's easy to see why, not necessarily because it is his best but because it allowed Price a range of acting. Each segment is performed on an appropriate set and the stories have been trimmed and slightly rewritten so they will work better in this context. Price is lively and convincing even for something like "The Tell-Tale Heart" which could very easily have fallen flat. He's perfectly at ease with Poe's style, keeping the dialogue from sounding artificial. Unfortunately, the production lets Price down at times. The graininess of the video image isn't too big a distraction but the haphazard framing is. Even worse is intrusive music however sparse it might be and somebody's bright idea to make the words more literal with tricks like turning the screen blue when Price says "blue" or rhythmic zooms in time to a supposedly beating heart. Still, Poe and Price overcome such obstacles, leaving An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe a fascinating effort.

Another mixed bag is a disc with The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven, both written by Richard Matheson. The Comedy of Terrors, one of director Jacques Tourneur's final films, came out in 1964 and like other films of that year such as Advance to the Rear, Kiss Me Stupid and Dr. Strangelove aims at a kind of aggressive, freewheeling satire. Alas, like all but one of those films (you can guess the exception) The Comedy of Terrors simply comes out overwrought and frequently tedious. Price plays the scheming, misanthropic owner of a failing funeral home with Peter Lorre as his not-too-bright assistant, Boris Karloff a senile father-in-law and Joyce Jameson his shrill wife. Despite a promising opening, there's almost nothing else worth seeing except maybe Price delivering convoluted dialogue that would have defeated lesser mortals ("emissions of a laryngitic crow"?). The film wastes Karloff who almost literally sleeps through most of it and proves that whatever Lorre's talents, physical comedy was not one of them. Far better is 1963's The Raven, a Corman project that Matheson "adapted" from Poe's poem. In other words, Price reads about half the poem at the opening and the rest has nothing to do with Poe. Instead, The Raven is a light and mild-mannered comedy about three wizards fighting and scheming among themselves. Lorre in particular is a delight with his muttered asides and swings from a Keaton-ish poker face to Daffy Duck-style annoyance. Price's overly-civilized warlock and Karloff's hospitable "villain" work well together. The Raven also has one of Jack Nicholson's earliest screen appearances as Lorre's son of all things though you'd never suspect the career ahead of him from this performance. The disc has two relatively inconsequential interviews with Matheson (a much better novelist than screenwriter) and a more revealing one with Corman for The Raven.

The final Price disc only has one of his films (Cry of the Banshee) though the other is a Poe adapation (Murders in the Rue Morgue), both directed by the undistinguished Gordon Hessler. Unlike the other Price films, 1970's Cry of the Banshee is rated R and has enough explicit violence and nudity to keep it away from the kiddies. Unfortunately, the rest of us won't care much either. Price plays a mean-spirited local judge obsessed with wiping out witches, more or less repeating his role from the far superior The Conqueror Worm (1968). But amongst the witch hunting there's fighting among Price's children, townsfolk attacked by a wild dog (or is it?), a sky-clad occult ritual and a now-grown foundling who can more or less talk to the animals. All of which makes the film sound more interesting than it is though there is a Terry Gilliam credits sequence made around the time of Monty Python's first season. Oh, and the film inexplicably doesn't have a banshee, not even a Scooby-Doo fake one. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971) is a bit more successful, running Jason Robards and Herbert Lom through one of the first detective stories though with horror elements liberally added. It's routine and obvious though the DVD has the original version of the film, restoring around eleven minutes.

by Lang Thompson