By PATRICK McCRAY
It’s the world of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe. Visually lush. Masterfully acted. Written with lean intensity by one of the great writers of the horror and fantasy genre.
The inspiration? That poem most associated with Poe.
Oh, yeah, and there’s Vincent Price quietly giving the camera the finger.
And then he smells it. As Boris Karloff looks on.
Welcome to THE RAVEN.
If you’re not sold on the film by that, I can’t help you. Really, please go away and never contact me again.
Alternately, if that image makes you giggle like a demented pre-adolescent, embrace me and call me brother.
The more I watch the film, the more I appreciate its legitimate wordplay, lazzi, and shtick (which is also the name of my law firm), and the fact that the entire ensemble (Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson included) are trying to get away with as much as possible under the radar.
I think it’s easy to think that wit, broad humor, and bawdiness are mutually exclusive. In THE RAVEN, Corman and Matheson make a marvelous argument that the heartiest wit is not an effete matter of utter discretion, but a banquet of quiet irony and crass delights.
What else can you say about a film in which Boris Karloff is desperate to find out the secret of Vincent Price’s “hand manipulations,” a phrase used again and again in the film? And what are you going to do with adapting the poem, anyway? Poe is commercial. The name, instantly recognizable, might be money in the bank, but what do you actually do with it? Universal was stumped when they put Karloff and Lugosi in an “adaptation” of it in 1935, creating one of their silliest offerings.
Corman must have known there was little horror film inspiration to be had in the words. Yes, there is beautiful music to the poem’s language, but the storytelling meat is less substantial. So, at last, let them have fun. “Them” as in the audience and “them” as in the ensemble.
The plot is just solid enough to give them an excuse to goof around. One sorcerer, Craven (Vincent Price), mourns for his lost wife, Lenore (the reliably stunning Hazel Court), not knowing that she’s joined forces with his jealous nemesis, Scarabus (Boris Karloff.) A third mage, Peter Lorre’s Bedlo, is recruited to lure Craven to Scarabus’ lair, where the two duel for the secrets of “hand manipulation” as well as Hazel Court. (And, I can hope, some combination of the two.)
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That’s pretty much it. But the plot is wholly irrelevant. In many cases, Corman just sets up the camera and allows three giants (Lorre, Price, and Karloff) to make hay with Matheson’s one-liners, all of which are too pithy to ruin with repetition, here. All three earn their reputations as great actors in the “dying is easy, comedy is hard” department by making it look like a cakewalk. All three play with the tropes and rhetoric of the genre with what seems like magnificent relief. Neither Lorre nor Karloff were athletes, resulting in laughs that come from situations and comebacks rather than pratfalls. Oh, and a comedic pair of giant raven wings with which Lorre spends much of the film flapping about.
The real art of THE RAVEN comes from the ability of Price and Karloff to show discretion. It would be so easy to topple the film by breaking the fourth wall one too many times. Wisely, they remain just serious enough to make what’s going on around them look even more ludicrous. Well, mostly.
While Price and Lorre are noted comedians, Karloff was less so. When he would find himself in a comedy — such as his eternal fixture in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE — he had to play it totally oblivious to the fact. In this, we see him finally flaunting those chops. He knows it’s a comedy, and it gives an in-depth visit with the humanity that always hummed under the surface of his characters.
Frankenstein’s Monster is such a heartbreaking performance because we somehow sense all of the potential this creature has, humor included. As Scarabus, Karloff justifies our suspicion. Just as he inevitably brought menace to each part, he also blended in humor. Now, we see it on full parade… tastefully, lustily, and with marvelous relish, but as the featured quality.
PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.