Friday, 19 August 2016

The Raven (1963) [Mini Review]

Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson
Cast: Vincent Price (as Dr. Erasmus Craven); Peter Lorre (as Dr. Adolphus Bedlo); Boris Karloff (as Dr. Scarabus); Hazel Court (as Lenore Craven); Olive Sturgess (as Estelle Craven); Jack Nicholson (as Rexford Bedlo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #20

The Raven is one of the few Corman adaptations of Edgar Ellen Poe that's deliberately humorous. One of the best things about these adaptations is that, while fun, they took themselves seriously. The Raven is different in terms of having its tongue in its cheek but because it's still depicted with sincerity, the result is entirely riveting. The original poem of The Raven is merely an opening catalist to start a completely unique story, more drastic than the other Poe adaptations I've seen from this series in changing the original narrative, where isolated but humble magician Dr. Erasmus Craven (Price) lets a raven into his study only to find soon after that it can talk. The raven, once helped by magic, is revealed to be fellow magician and alcohol enthusiast Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), turned into a bird after a duel with the sinister leader of the main magician's guild Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), whose maleficent reputation is matched by the possibility he has captured the soul of Craven's late wife Lenore (Court) and made her his possession, leading Craven and his daughter Estelle (Sturgess), alongside Bedlo and his son Rexford (Nicholson) to head to Scarabus' castle.

There's a great sense with The Raven that everyone is having fun while contributing said energy to great performances. Playing a hero for once in these Poe films for Corman, Price is so affable and a gentleman it's not surprising this his real off-screen personality effectively comes through, Craven the warm milk drinking man hesitant to get involved with Scarabus but pressed on to do so through Price giving him nobility rather than plot contrivance. Some might find Lorre's bumbling, drunken Bedlo an embarrassment for the actor, near the end of his life, but for me personally (in drastic contrast to the opinion of Harun Farocki's documentary The Double Face of Peter Lorre (1984)) this doesn't come off as an insult to Lorre but a talented actor gladly throwing himself into a lovable buffoon with decent material. Other actors had worse ends to their careers, such as Karloff sadly, who here thankfully gets to play menacing but by a grace without need for going over-the-top, the elegance of his performance even for slapstick a reminder the most beloved actors in horror cinema then and now had theatre experience or had worked in areas which had them flex their acting talents, not to mention a natural nobility to many of them away from the camera. Add to this Court vamping it up, and chewing more scenery than Price, Karlof and Lorre combined, and a very young Jack Nicholson in a role that surprises knowing where he'd be a decade on, at one point showing the stereotypical mannerisms when possessed while driving a horse driven coach but effectively playing the slightly bumbling son figure to Lorre.

Also significant is how Corman emphasised a clear quality to these films technically. Having Richard Matheson, legendary author and the man who penned the Poe films that came before this one helps, as does the rich production design onscreen. Still low budget, Corman's decision to use the money used to make two smaller films to make one Technicolor work with distinct sets helped immensely, the gothic look of the film elegant even in a film like this that's exceptionally goofy at points, the colour especially restored for Blu-Ray as well immensely appealing for this type of story. While it has significantly less of the psychedelic colours and none of the dream sequences of other Poe films, the distinct style is pitched at a quality above a lot of substandard colour horror films at this point in the sixties which couldn't use any of this then-new aesthetic properly. Even the antiquated magic effects have a handmade charm especially in the final magician's duel which comes off as a series of Looney Tunes punch lines one-after-another. It's with the serious tone here that, even if it has the likes of Price and Lorre involved in comedic pratfalls, it never becomes obnoxious irony and retains a respectability that makes the humour and chills work.


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