After flirting with light comedy in “The Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror (1962), ace director Roger Corman took the plunge and made an outright funny Edgar Allan Poe movie. Screenwriter Richard Matheson rates this as his favourite. Sure it isn’t the full-blooded horror of The Haunted Palace (1963) or Masque of the Red Death (1964), but The Raven is a wholly delightful romp in the Charles Addams mode. A wonderfully atmospheric opening has Vincent Price recite Poe’s famous poem over a widescreen miasma of psychedelic ooze, but the first scene really sets the tone. Retired warlock, Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) confronts a raven rapping at his chamber door and queries: “Shall I ever hold again that radiant being the angels call Lenore?” Quote the raven: “How the hell should I know?”
Said raven is really bug-eyed Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), a hapless sorcerer who came a-cropper in his duel with master magician, Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven kindly restores him to his human self, after which Bedlo lets slip he saw the supposedly long-dead Lenore (Hazel Court) at Scarabus’ castle. Anxious to learn whether his great love has truly come back from the dead, Craven sets out to investigate, accompanied by devoted daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son, the dashing Rexford (Jack Nicholson).
In one of his earliest film roles, young, fresh-faced Jack Nicholson displays great comic timing. He is far better than the bland hunks who usually inhabit such roles, but The Raven belongs to the three horror icons. These old pros play wonderfully off each other and clearly relish the chance to camp it up and trade one-liners. Price initially plays straight man to Lorre’s splendid Bedlo, a snivelling alcoholic who enmeshes the hero in an engrossing series of schemes and double-crosses. Bedlo emerges as the only one with any kind of character arc as he realises: “Instead of facing life I turned my back on it. Men like Scarabus thrive on the apathy of others.” The film features a few too many pratfalls, but plenty of good gags, as when Lorre waves his cloak like a bullfighter against an axe-wielding maniac. It’s also surprisingly spooky in parts, especially when a rotting corpse grabs Craven’s throat and croaks: “Beware!”
The combination of old-fashioned scares (a boxful of eyeballs, creepy crawlies, puffs of coloured smoke) with slapstick laughs make this a tasty Halloween treat for all but the youngest children. Boris Karloff had already starred in a completely different version of The Raven (1935), that also featured Bela Lugosi in his second greatest performance. Karloff is given a marvellous intro (“Afraid my dear? There’s nothing to be afraid of.”) and remains in his element as an avuncular, oddly gracious villain. One must mention the lovely and much missed Hazel Court, who is suitably alluring and scary as the scheming minx who flits from one sorcerer to the next in search of wealth and power. Highlight of the movie as to be Craven and Scarabus’ duel to the death, which features magic shields, bats, snakes and a levitating Price savouring every raised eyebrow and sly grin. Broadly comic, but evocative and deliciously atmospheric, with fantastic sets designed by Daniel Haller.