Review: The Raven (1963)

Wits and wizardry run a-fowl!

Wits and wizardry run a-fowl!

THE RAVEN (1963)
Rated G / Color / 86 minutes
Directed by Roger Corman
Also Known As: El cuervo
Purchase this film: Amazon.com (DVD) | Amazon.com (Blu-ray)

“The Raven” is probably Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous written work. It’s a sad ode to a lost love, and features a man’s slow descent into madness brought on by grief. As he mourns his loss, he is mocked by raven that repeatedly says to him, “Nevermore.” Is it in the narrator’s imagination? Is he hallucinating? Or is the bird there and actually speaking to him? And if so, how is it able to speak? Well in Roger Corman’s horror/comedy THE RAVEN, this question is answered.

The film opens with Poe’s titular poem being recited by Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price). He is still mourning the loss of his wife Lenore (Hazel Court), though it has been two years since she shuffled off our mortal coil. Late one night, Erasmus finds a raven tapping at his window, and let’s it into his parlor.

Erasmus poses a query to the bird: “Are you some dark winged messenger from beyond? Answer me monster, tell me truly! Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?”

The raven’s reply: “How the hell should I know? What am I a fortune teller?”

This opening scene took me by surprise the first time I watched THE RAVEN, and it cracked me up. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film, which takes some huge liberties with Poe’s work. So who is this trash-talking avian? It turns out its a sorcerer named Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who was turned into a bird after drunkenly challenging the powerful Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff) to a wizard duel.

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Seconds later, the raven attacked Vincent Price’s finger, mistaking it for a worm.

After Erasmus reverses Bedlo’s transformation, the bumbling magician reveals that Dr. Craven’s “lost Lenore” may actually be a prisoner in Scarabus’ castle. Though seemingly afraid to cross the evil sorcerer at first, Dr. Craven soon decides to face Scarabus in order to save his lady love. With Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson) and Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) in tow, the two crusading wizards ride off to save the day.

But all is not as it seems when they arrive, and Erasmus soon begins to have many doubts. Did Bedlo really see Lenore at the castle? Is Scarabus as evil as the others have made him out to be? And will Rexford Bedlo ever stop pawing at his father? Well there are a few little twists that I won’t ruin for you Vault Dwellers, so you’ll have to watch and find out for yourself.

Shot for a paltry $200,000 in a span of fifteen days, THE RAVEN was the fifth of (technically) eight films produced by Roger Corman, that were based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Boasting lavish sets (reused from previous Corman-Poe films), an all-star cast, and a small dose of comedy to go with the horror, THE RAVEN proved to be a box office success.

The film was scripted by the late Richard Matheson (author of I AM LEGEND), who did an amazing job of crafting a tale that uses Poe’s poem as a jumping off point. Poe’s “The Raven” is pretty much unadaptable, and there’s just no way you could turn the poem itself into a cohesive feature-length film. It was a stroke of genius on Matheson’s part to open the movie with a recitation of the poem, in order to bridge it together with his imaginative tale.

The cast of this film is insanely talented with everyone turning in a great performance. Vincent Price is clearly having a blast playing Dr. Craven, especially during the duel at the climax. He seems to be having the time of his life as he continuously one-ups the dreaded Scarabus. (As you can see below, he was clearly enjoying himself during the crane shots when he’s making his chair “levitate.”)

Vincent Price is pretty fly for a white guy.

Vincent Price is pretty fly for a white guy.

Boris Karloff is also quite good as the evil Scarabus. He stole Lenore away from Erasmus, and now plans to steal the secrets of Craven’s magic as well. Karloff’s role here is a testament to his expertise as an actor as he was in constant discomfort on the set due to health issues. He soldiered through the pain, and provided a classic villain for Price to battle in the film.

Then there’s Peter Lorre, who stars as Dr. Bedlo, the film’s comic relief. Apparently Lorre was allowed to do some improvisation on the set, and he took full advantage, much to the chagrin of Karloff. Lorre’s Dr. Bedlo is a lovable drunken coward (and a screw-up) that gets boastful when he’s been ingesting wine. He provides an amusing sidekick for Craven (who ironically is not actually craven), and delivers some great one-liners throughout the film.

The remainder of the cast isn’t given a whole heck of a lot to do. Jack Nicholson is just sort of along for the ride, though he and Peter Lorre came up with a recurring joke for their characters. In the film, Rexford is always trying to be a dutiful son, and is constantly pulling on or pawing at his father’s robes.

Dr. Bedlo on the other hand seems to despise his son and pushes him away (literally and figuratively) more often that not. It’s a fun dynamic between the two characters and makes their interactions on the screen more interesting.

As for the womenfolk, Olive Sturgess is mainly around to be a damsel in distress, while Hazel Court ended up with the meatier role of Craven’s wife Lenore. In my opinion, she is the true villain in this movie. She faked her death to escape Erasmus because he was “boring,” which begs the question “If she’s alive, then whose body is in her coffin?!”

Lenore is cruel, calculated, attracted to wealth and power, and uses her feminine wiles to keep Scarabus under her thumb. Thankfully Erasmus is not blinded by his love for her, and snubs her at the end of the film when she tries crawling back to him.

Even mighty mages fall before the might of Hazel Court's cleavage.

Even mighty mages fall before the might of Hazel Court’s cleavage.

At the helm of this production was the legendary Roger Corman. He always had an eye for talent (he gave Jack Nicholson and so many others a start in the film biz), and at this point in his career, was already an accomplished producer and film director. His work here isn’t anything too fancy, but he makes good use of the sets, and did a great job setting up the film’s climactic wizard battle, which is the centerpiece of the entire movie.

THE RAVEN is a fun little effort from Corman and company, and though it isn’t one of my absolute favorites, I had a good time watching it. This mixed-genre movie does a good job of balancing humor with its horror and fantasy elements, and builds to a very satifsfying conclusion. While I most likely won’t revisit this film repeatedly, I enjoyed THE RAVEN enough to award it with:

BLU-RAY REVIEW

The Packaging: THE RAVEN is part of Scream Factory’s VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION II. It comes in a large amaray Blu-ray case that rests inside of a sturdy cardboard slipcover. The artwork on both features a portrait of Vincent Price, courtesy of artist Joel Robinson. The packaging is beautiful!

Audio & Video: The film is shown in 1080p HD, with a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Having owned MGM’s previous DVD release of this film, I can easily say that Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray transfer is a huge step up. THE RAVEN looks fantastic! The film’s audio is presented in DTS Master Audio Mono; all of the music, sound effects, and dialogue came through my speakers clear as a bell!

Peter Lorre's reaction if he were alive today to see THE RAVEN in high-definition.

Peter Lorre’s reaction if he were alive today to see THE RAVEN in high-definition.

The Extras: The VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION II comes with a 32-page booklet. The disc featuring THE RAVEN (and THE COMEDY OF TERRORS) features an intro and “parting words” from Price that were shot for the film’s airing on Iowa Public Television. There’s also a cool little recreation of a “promotional record” where the film’s stars read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” an original theatrical trailer, a still gallery, and two short featurettes.

The first one, Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Raven is a brief interview with THE RAVEN’s screenwriter. He reveals that he wasn’t a big fan of Poe’s work, and discusses the challenges of writing a script for a film, that had to be adapted from a poem. Matheson also talks about his friendship with Price, and recalls how Karloff didn’t let his pain show when the cameras were rolling, and always stuck with the script.

The second featurette, entitled Corman’s Comedy of Poe features Director/Producer Roger Corman as he talks about the shooting of the film’s effects, the interaction between the actors, and his use of sets from all the previous Poe films he made.

Finally there is an audio commentary featuring film historian Steve Haberman. As of my writing this, I have not yet watched the film with the commentary, so I cannot comment any further on it.

Final Verdict: On its own I’d say that this disc is worth picking up (especially since THE RAVEN is paired up with THE COMEDY OF TERRORS), but when partnered up with six other Vincent Price classics in the VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION II , it instantly becomes a must own! The entire collection warrants a five from yours truly, but based on its own merits, THE RAVEN disc by itself is worthy of: