Roger Corman’s The Raven

Raven1Perhaps one of the best known of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, certainly during his lifetime, The Raven was a poem first published in January 1845. The inspiration for several films including Lew Landers’ 1935 version starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi and James McTeigue’s 2012 thriller based on the last days of Poe starring John Cusack and Luke Evans as well as the final segment of The Simpsons’ first ever Treehouse of Horror broadcast in 1990, the most famous version of Poe’s most famous poem remains Roger Corman’s 1963 adaptation, now released as a remastered Blu-ray by Arrow Films.

Raven3The eighteen stanza poem was obviously insufficient to support an entire feature, the fifth of Corman’s inspired by the works of Poe, so the immediate question was how to proceed. The first three, House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Premature Burial (1962) had all been expansions of short stories while 1962’s Tales of Terror had broken that format, structured instead as a portmanteau of three shorter pieces, Morella, The Black Cat (also including aspects of The Cask of Amontillado) and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.

In a supporting archive interview from 2003, screenwriter Richard Matheson explains that his specialty has always been to do “something different, something interesting” rather than the predictable, and given this assignment he felt obliged to take liberties it would have been “ludicrous” to adapt it directly.

Raven4Inspired by this, prefaced with regular star Vincent Price’s recital of the opening section of the poem against a series of abstract visuals matching the atmosphere associated with the genre, the signature appearance of the raven is only a jumping off point for Matheson’s concept of duelling magicians in the fifteenth century.

Price is Doctor Erasmus Craven, practicing magic in the seclusion of his study, still in mourning after the passing of his beloved wife Lenore (Hazel Court, best known for Ghost Ship (1952), Devil Girl from Mars (1954) and who had appeared for Corman in The Premature Burial and would feature again in the penultimate film of the sequence, The Masque of the Red Death). He conjures a figure in the air, a raven, when suddenly he is disturbed by a knocking.

Raven6He checks the door, but there is no one there, but the noise continues and he traces it to a raven knocking at the window. Allowing it into his chamber, he questions its purpose, and is most surprised when it answers him, revealing itself to be Doctor Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), transformed in a magical duel which he feels was unfairly won by his opponent. “If I had been sober, which I admit doesn’t happen very often, it would have been an entirely different story.”

Returning Bedlo to approximate human form with supplies from the family crypt beneath (“I don’t think papa would mind if I took just a snip or two in a good cause,”) Erasmus is astonished when Bedlo claims, upon sighting the portrait of the departed Lenore, that she not only lives but that he has seen her at the castle of Scarabus.

Raven7So it is that Erasmus, his daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess), Bedlo and his son Rexford (a very young and subdued Jack Nicholson, though with manic flashes on display) depart for a confrontation with the wily Doctor Scarabus (Boris Karloff) and the duplicitous Lenore…

It was in the middle section of Tales of Terror the previous year that the prevailing brooding of the earlier Poe films had been broken when The Black Cat was played as a comedy; with all parties pleased with the success of that segment, it had been decided that The Raven was to embrace that theme and so was created one of the earliest horror comedies which was not played as a farce such as the crossovers of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello of previous decades, one of which, 1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, even featured Karloff.

Raven9Interviewed separately, Corman confirms that wary of the similarities between the films they wished to take action to prevent them becoming stale, but while the tone changed, the producer was always keen to make his features economically, and reusing flats constructed for the previous films allowed them to make each successive release on an apparently bigger scale.

Certainly, regular production designer Daniel Haller’s expansive sets are both grand and menacing, while Les Baxter’s soundtrack is atypical, empahsising a keyboard flavour which at times presages Ray Manzarek’s work with The Doors several years before they broke on through to light fires, though as is inevitable in the Corman/Poe sequence, The Raven itself ends in the same flames as consumed the House of Usher thanks to the reuse of footage.

Raven11At times verging on becoming an indulgent whimsy, the film culminates in a magical duel between Erasmus and Scarabus created through optical effects, lighting, double exposures and split screens, and animated effects; while the optical work remains fresh, the cartoon inserts would have been more suited to Tom and Jerry rather than Defence Against the Dark Arts.

Despite the technical limitations Corman’s ambition cannot be faulted, and he proudly names The Raven “one of my favourite films.”

Raven10Marjorie Corso’s costumes are somewhat florid, the lead characters dressed as though for pantomime as they ham it up, Price in particular looking as though he has been gift wrapped, but it is apparent the cast are enjoying themselves on the whole, though the elderly Karloff did apparently find the on-set improvisation of Lorre off-putting.

“They were all famous good actors,” Corman states, recalling that Price acted as the mediator between Karloff’s traditional approach and Lorre’s looser attitude. “They were good to work with, they got along well.” Matheson echoes the sentiment that often followed the ever popular Vincent Price: “Without exception, he was the nicest man I ever met in Hollywood.”

Raven12Not in the best of health during filming, Matheson was aware that Karloff was in difficulty but maintained professionalism throughout. “Every step hurt him.” By the time the trio of Price, Lorre and Karloff had reunited for The Comedy of Terrors, released only a year later, the elderly actor could barely walk, and his planned role was substituted for one which allowed him to perform the majority of his scenes while seated.

Also included in the package are Peter Lorre: Double Face, a meticulous but somewhat dry documentary on the actor subtitled in English for the first time, The Trick, a 1997 short film directed by Rob Green which is similarly themed to the main feature, principally of interest for the appearance of Don Warrington, and a feature recreating a promotional record released to tie in with the original release of the film.

The Raven is available now from Arrow Films




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