The Raven

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Raven at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Jack Nicholson
Rated: NR

After three more or less straight—or at least non-comedic—attempts at bringing Edgar Allan Poe’s work to the screen, Roger Corman opted to turn Poe’s poem “The Raven” into a comic horror/fantasy, with the aid of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and a very young—and very awkward—Jack Nicholson, in his 1963 The Raven. The film is one of those creations that has its moments without being anywhere near what its pedigree suggests it ought to have been.

The story is a simple one about battling 15th century magicians played with great enthusiasm by Messrs. Price, Lorre and Karloff, who are more childish than sinister, which is actually the point. Price is Dr. Erasmus Craven, a benign practitioner of magic, who spends most of his time—as one might expect, given the source poem—“mourning for the lost Lenore,” his late wife. Indeed, he’s been reciting the poem in question when a raven actually shows up at his window. Sensing some magical sign he questions the bird as to whether or not he’ll ever see Lenore again, only to have Peter Lorre’s voice answer, “How the hell should I know?” (It’s a good moment that would have been better if everything leading up to it had been played a little straighter or at least less broadly.) It transpires that the raven is actually another magician, Dr. Bedlo, who has been put under an enchantment spell by an extremely powerful magician, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff). Bedlo has come to Craven for help.

As things work out, Bedlo reveals that Lenore (Hazel Court) is at Scarabus’ castle, which prompts Craven to go there in the mistaken belief that the rival magician has captured her soul. Reality is a bit more tacky, since all that’s really happened is that Lenore dumped Craven for the more powerful Scarabus. For that matter, the whole thing is a put-up job to get Craven to engage in a duel of magic with Scarabus.

Some of it works—especially the earlier scenes. Lorre partially restored to human form is certainly a sight to behold in his raven suit, and in fact most of his remarks are very funny. (“Hard place to keep clean, huh?” he remarks casually of the family crypt.) Unfortunately, the overall notion of great magicians behaving like petty-minded children only carries the film so far, and the actual duel between Price and Karloff hasn’t worn well. Some of this comes down to that musical pox that plagues so many American International productions—the Les Baxter score. Baxter’s music is never as distracting and annoying as when it’s trying to be funnier than the on-screen action, and that’s exactly the case here.

On the plus side is the splendid widescreen cinematography of the great Floyd Crosby, who did more to free up the use of Cinemascope than anyone (mostly by just ignoring all the things the Cinemascope people said you “couldn’t” do with the process). And there’s no denying that there’s entertainment to be had in watching the three stars poke fun at the genre—something that they’d do better the following year in Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors—it’s just that it’s not quite as entertaining as everyone involved seems to think it is.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “The Raven

  1. Erik Harrison

    We can now amend the heading to read “Directed by: Academy Award Winner Roger Corman”

  2. arlene

    Your assessment of this little trifle is spot on. Looking on it from here, as in 2009, it was not what it could have been.

    Remembering it from the perspective of a …nine year old? , I believe, who was watching her first “horror” movie in a theater, I thought it was perfection. Karloff, Price and Lorre (who the hell is this Nicholson kid?) , what more could one wish? And their was that moment in the crypt that gave one (at least a young ‘un) a genuine jolt. Not COMEDY OF TERRORS, for sure, but well worth that semi-annual walk down memory lane,

  3. Ken Hanke

    I suspect I might feel a little warmer for it if I’d seen it as a child. Then it would have some nostalgia. But I saw it much later and so much of it felt forced. The opening should have been played completely straight (or as straight as Price can get) up till Lorre’s “How the hell should I know?” But instead we get the clumsy knockabout of Price bumping into his telescope (augmented by Baxter’s dreadful score), cutting the laugh on Lorre’s line at least in half. For me, it’s something I might watch every 5 years. Now, Comedy of Terrors is another matter.

  4. Chip Kaufmann

    There’s no denying the impact of seeing a movie as a kid. I saw THE RAVEN on its original release (when I was 11) but missed COMEDY OF TERRORS on account of poor grades (I was banned from movies for 6 months back in 1964). I didn’t see it until many years later and to me TERRORS is the movie that feels forced while THE RAVEN brings a smile to my face. You can definitely see the future Jack Nicholson of the 1970s. Now his playing is as broad as Price and Lorre’s. The Les Baxter score IS terrible but that’s a given and long ago I learned to tune it out. A trifle yes, but one I still enjoy.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I didn’t see it until many years later and to me TERRORS is the movie that feels forced while THE RAVEN brings a smile to my face.

    Okay, I have to admit I saw Terrors in its original release, but I didn’t much like it then. I only warmed to it in my late teens. Not sure how much that means. I do think the screenplay is a lot funnier than The Raven, the addition of Basil Rathbone is a huge plus, and Tourneur in the director’s chair is an improvement over Corman.

    You can definitely see the future Jack Nicholson of the 1970s.

    Oh, that I don’t see at all. I think he’s just plain bad in The Raven.

    The Les Baxter score IS terrible but that’s a given and long ago I learned to tune it out.

    I wish I could manage that, but I’ve never been able to. I actually think it hurts Terrors more than The Raven — that it’s in fact what makes Terrors feel forced.

  6. Chip Kaufmann

    Jack’s not bad he just doesn’t register up against all that ham and he doesn’t seem to want to. He gave livelier performances before THE RAVEN and of course afterward but I find his laconic delivery style similar to his later films until he got older.

    I like Basil Rathbone and he is always worth watching (even in HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE) but I find him to be the weak link in TERRORS. For me his continual returns from the dead just get old after awhile.

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