Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.
I said not that long ago that horror comedies aren’t that difficult, or at least don’t have to be. There are more or less two basic ways to do it. The first and most impressive way is the make the film equal parts horror and comedy. Plenty of movies have done this and done it successfully. The other way to do this is to make no real pretense about the horror part of the film and instead create a comedy that dances on the edge of horror—something that implies horror without actually being horror or anything like it. The Raven from 1963 follows this second path. It wants its audience to believe that it has something to do with the well-known poem by Poe, but in truth, aside from a few hints at the start and an overt mention at the end, they’ve almost nothing in common.
Not content to stick with something contemporary with Poe, we’re going to jump far into the past, into something like the 15th or 16th century. Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) sits in his study when he is visited by a raven, eventually letting the bird into his house. It turns out that this raven is actually a person named Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who has been turned into a raven by a magical rival. Bedlo is convinced that Craven is also a practitioner of magic and should have the ingredients on hand. Craven denies this, but then claims that his father was a wizard and would have such ingredients like dead man’s hair and evaporated bats blood. Two concoctions later (the first one brought back Dr. Bedlo but left him with raven wings), and our two magicians have decided that they must pay a call on the man who transformed Bedlo.
For Bedlo, this is about revenge. For Craven, this is about his late wife, Lenore (Hazel Court), who Bedlo is convinced that he saw at his rival’s castle. As they prepare to leave, they are joined by Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and then by Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson!). Eventually, they reach the castle of Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), who soon proves himself to be petty, dangerous, and a true adversary. At Scarabus’s castle, the following things will come to light. First, Bedlo wants revenge, but is willing to work with Scarabus as long as he gets out with his equipment returned. Second, while Craven initially believed that Scarabus had somehow trapped Lenore’s spirit, the truth is that she left him for a guy with more power and money. Finally, Scarabus is exactly the sort of guy who will imprison guests and threaten someone’s daughter in exchange for all of his magical power.
The upshot of The Raven is that Scarabus and Craven are going to have a magical duel to see which one of them comes out on top. Before we get to the conclusion, we’ll have lots of pettiness from Lenore, some eyebrow wiggling and sighing between Estelle and Rexford, and we’ll also get Bedlo being turned back into a raven, if only so we can get the concluding line of the film.
The Raven is so completely harmless and silly that it feels really strange to even call it a horror movie at all. There really isn’t even the pretense of horror here, although there might be a couple of places that would fit in a more traditional horror movie. For instance, when forced with the need to make a second potion for Bedlo, Craven goes to the family crypt to snip some hair from his late father. This means we’ll get a good view of the corpse, as well as a moment when it animates and gives a warning to his son. This is as close as we get to a real scare here.
The rest of this is entirely in good fun and good fun it is. Seeing three legendary actors at this stage in their career as well as a fourth before his career took off is a hell of a lot of fun. Not many goofs like this one can brag of a cast that includes legendary horror actors as well as someone who would eventually win three Oscars. The true highlight here is the magical duel between Scarabus and Craven. The effects are silly, often appearing to be literally drawn onto the film, but both Price and Karloff (especially Price) appear to be having a great time with it.
This is not the first time that Roger Corman went off on a tangent with a Poe story. Corman, of course, is a legendary director for a number of reasons. A lot of directors learned their craft under the tutelage of Roger Corman, and, whatever you can say about him, the many puts whatever little money he had on the screen. In this case, it’s all wrapped up in his cast, the sets, and the costuming. When allowed to, Corman could make an entertaining film. And that’s all he did here. He took a hint of a premise and made something fun. It’s not scary. It doesn’t try to be. It’s also not even that funny. It’s rather sweet and kind of cute. It’s fun, and that’s enough.
Why to watch The Raven (1963): It’s silly and harmless in all the right ways.
Why not to watch: Beyond the title and a couple of lines, it has about as much connection to the Poe poem as I do.