The Raven (1963)
For the fifth entry in his cycle of Edgar Allan Poe films, Roger Corman decided to take a new tact. Instead of an atmospheric, haunting chiller set in a Gothic castle, he made a wacky, slapstick comedy set in two Gothic castles. The results are enjoyable, if not always successful.
Sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) mourns the loss of his beloved wife Lenore (Hazel Court). Fellow magician Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who gets transformed into a raven more than he'd like, breaks the fugue state by informing Craven that Lenore isn't dead - she's living it up in the company of the sinister Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Soon, it's off to Scarabus's domicile and into mayhem, mishaps, and magical duels.
If the plot seems slight, that's because it is. Richard Matheson's screenplay doesn't bulk up the source material- it ignores the poem entirely save for some quoted passages. What we get instead is is a series of comic setpieces followed by a saggy middle section. The film caps off with a spectacular and hilarious face-off between Craven and Scarabus. Don't come looking for Matheson's typical depth and subtext, because it ain't here.
The three lead horror heavyweights are in fine form, which is surprising given the age of Lorre and Karloff. One suspects that those two are another reason for comic approach - to the young-skewing audience of the Poe films, the actors were more curiosities than actual figures of terror.
Price gets to play a type of role we rarely see him in: the gee-golly dogooder, the kind that drinks warm milk before bed. Price's delivery is wonderfully wide-eyed and innocent, and he delivers such lines as "We're vegetarians" in such a genteel manner that one wonders how we ever saw him as villainous in all those other movies.
Lorre enjoys himself immensely here. Often, the picture benefits from this as the actor ad libs with great fervor. On occasion, though, he can be rather grating, as if he's talking simply because he loves his own voice. Still, it's a game performance, and when it's good, it's very, very good.
Of the three, it's not surprising that it's Karloff playing it straight. The Gentleman of Horror seems to take every role seriously, even the most ridiculous ones. Here, he has some fairly light lines, and he plays them with a friendly air that almost (but not quite) obscures his malevolent intentions. Karloff never raises the audiences ire - he never acts as if he's above the material even though he probably is. It's performances like this that make him one of the most admirable actors in the genre.
Corman's direction here is less studied than in, say, Pit and the Pendulum, but his more standard point-and-shoot method works for the comic tone of the film. He neglects to utilize the full Cinemascope frame, though, leaving a lot of unattractive dead space. Despite some fancy camera work during the climactic duel, The Raven isn't the director's most visually appealing work by far.
Oddly enough, the most annoying airborne thing in this movie isn't the trained raven (the effects there are actually quite good), but Les Baxter's "wacky" score. Baxter fills the film's audio track with blatting tubas and trilling trumpets, as if he was composing for a bad Three Stooges short. He refuses to give the gags any space to breath; he just demands your amusement, because the music says that this is amusing, dammit. The real misfortune, however, is that there are sections of strong atmospheric work tucked in around the edges, reminding us exactly what we're missing.
I'm not sure I'd like The Raven half as much as I do if it weren't for my fond childhood memories of its stranger moments ("Raspberry jam!"). It's such an inconsequential film, so full of fluff that it weighs almost nothing. Still, the fluff is choice, for the most part, and the three legendary leads appear to be having a marvelous time. I enjoy watching the movie because it's so obvious that they enjoyed making it, and you should, too.
Karloff worked directly from the script and Lorre's ad libs would throw him off, annoying him.