Not a Faithful Adaptation, but Certainly a Fun One!
DIRECTED BY ROGER CORMAN / 1963
BLU-RAY STREET DATE AUGUST 31, 2021 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
In an interview included on Kino Lorber’s blu-ray of Roger Corman’s The Raven, screenwriter Richard Matheson says that the notion of turning Edgar Allen Poe’s poem into a feature length film was so ridiculous, you might as well make it a comedy. And that’s how Poe’s somber verses of grief and loss became a movie about two rival wizards who use their fantastic powers to throw eggs at each other.
Now lest you think that The Raven ignores its source material completely, fret not. The film opens with Vincent Price’s dulcet tones reciting the first couple of stanzas. This seques into a scene where we meet Price’s character, a magician named Dr. Erasmus Craven, practicing his sorcerous arts in his drawing room. He’s soon startled by a tapping, as if someone gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. He is in fact visited by a raven. When Craven beseeches the raven whether he shall ever again clasp his dear departed wife Lenore, he’s startled when the bird croaks out (in the voice of Peter Lorre no less): “How the hell should I know?”
And that’s the tone of Matheson’s script in a nutshell. It takes Poe’s poem as its starting point but spins off in a much sillier direction. The film’s publicity bills itself as starring three titans of terror, yet only small children would find it scary (maybe). Still, it has a charm all its own, and if you get on the movie’s wavelength it’s a lot of fun. Price, in particular, finds the exact right balance between camp and earnestness.
Lorre’s character, Dr. Bedlow, lost a magician’s duel with the evil Dr. Scarabus. If you know that Scarabus is played by Boris Karloff, you’d not wonder that anyone would be outmatched by the wily wizard. Bedlow wants Craven to restore him to his natural form, and then journey back to Scarabus’s castle to exact his revenge. Craven discovers he has his own reasons to confront Scarabus and so the two, joined by Craven’s daughter (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlow’s son (Jack Nicholson – yes, that Jack Nicholson), are off to see the wizard.
The Raven falls smack-dab in the middle of Corman’s run of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Starting in 1960 with House of Usher, Corman got a bigger budget (though still meager compared to the big studio productions). He shot in technicolor (better to compete with companies like Hammer), constructed lavish sets and costumes, and brought on recognizable stars like Vincent Price. And by tying his films to a literary source like Poe, he could offer them the veneer of respectability. The result was a financial success, and Corman and his screenwriter, Matheson, began turning out more Poe projects, totalling 7 through 1964.
Despite (or maybe because of) the rapid pace at which Corman was making these, he tried to switch things up from film to film, chiefly by changing up key behind the scenes personnel (though all but one of these movies would star Vincent Price). He also wasn’t afraid of changing tones. One of the sequences in the Tales of Terror anthology film, “The Black Cat,” was written with more humor, and when that proved to be popular with audiences, Corman and Matheson decided to continue in that vein with The Raven.
The resulting film is a far cry from Poe’s text, but it’s an entertaining watch in its own right. Fans of Price, Lorre, Karloff, or Corman certainly won’t want to miss this one, as everybody involved is firing on all cylinders. Karloff was terribly ill at the time, and was in a great deal of pain during production, but he’s still as charming and menacing as he ever was.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release does justice to The Raven. It’s sharp image and vibrant colors bring out the best of the movie’s sumptuous sets and costumes. The movie is packaged with a feature-length audio commentary by David Del Valle, an interview with Roger Corman, a brief segment with Richard Matheson, a Trailers From Hell video with Mick Garris, and the usual collection of theatrical trailers. The back of the case labels this as a ‘musically edited version,’ but I haven’t been able to find out what this means.