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.