Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE RAVEN (1963)

The Raven is certainly one of the most famous poems ever written in the English language, and it has earned a particular place of honor in the realm of popular culture, where everyone from John Carradine and James Earl Jones to John De Lancie and Christopher Walken has recorded a version of its irresistible lines. Roger Corman's loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's iconic poem is more a lark than an "ominous bird of yore," but that won't stop fans of the poem or the horror director's work from enjoying this funny, star-studded horror-comedy.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Erasmus Craven, a scholarly magician whose nightly studies are interrupted when a large raven seeks admittance to his home. The bird turns out to be Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), another practitioner of the dark arts. Along with their respective offspring, Bedlo and Craven make a journey to the castle of a rival sorcerer, Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), where the magicians enter into a deadly contest of supernatural skill.

While the stars of the film are some of horror's most prolific masters, The Raven relies primarily on comedy for its effect. The performers all seem to be having a good time, although Peter Lorre's hangdog looks and hilarious dialogue make him a real scene-stealer. Any viewer with an affection for Price, Lorre, and Karloff will enjoy this romp, although it's best to come at the picture with an expectation of campy pleasures rather than credible thrills. Scream queen Hazel Court plays Craven's supposedly dead wife, Lenore, but one of the most interesting casting choices in the film is the appearance of a very young Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son, Rexford. Nicholson had worked with Corman before in the original film version of The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), but seeing the three time Oscar winner as a handsome young fellow in tights is an opportunity not to be missed.

Fans of horror-comedy who enjoy The Raven might move on to other examples of the genre, including The Ghostbreakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). If Corman's Poe pictures suit your tastes, try House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). You'll find Price, Lorre, and Karloff joined by the elegant Basil Rathbone in another delightfully macabre horror-comedy, The Comedy of Terrors (1963), directed by Jacques Tourneur. Richard Matheson, best known today for his often filmed novel, I Am Legend, wrote the screenplays for both The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.