I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about Roger Corman. What I do know about him, is that he is very prolific and very influential. He was instrumental in producing and directing a lot of American International Pictures’ (AIP) best campy horror films, often starring Vincent Price. Other horror icons, such as Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone also turned up in AIP’s horror films, with Price in the lead and Corman at the helm. In the 1960s, Cormon and Price brought seven different Edgar Allan Poe tales to the big screen. One of these films, is the very campy adaptation of Poe’s 1845 poem, “The Raven.”
The film opens as Poe’s poem does:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door.
Only this and nothing more.”Edgar Allan Poe “The Raven” (1845), recited by Vincent Price in “The Raven” (1963)
The film takes place at the turn of the 16th century in 1506. Vincent Price’s character, sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven is mourning the death of his wife Lenore. She has been gone for over two years, and Erasmus’ daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess) wishes that her father would move on. One evening, Erasmus is visited by Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), a wizard, who has been transformed into a raven. Dr. Bedlo begs Erasmus to help him transform back into his normal form. He gives Erasmus a simple list of ingredients: dried bat’s blood, jellied spiders, chain links from a gallow’s bird, rabbit’s lard, dead man’s hair, just your normal run-of-the-mill pantry staples. Erasmus looks at Dr. Bedlo in disgust.
ERASMUS: “No, we don’t keep those things in the house. We’re vegetarians.
DR. BEDLO: “And that calls himself a magician. Honestly, this is too much!”
Vincent Price as Dr. Erasmus Craven and Peter Lorre as Dr. Bedlo in “The Raven” (1963)
Erasmus ends up taking Dr. Bedlo down to his deceased father’s laboratory–a laboratory that has sat unused for over 20 years. As Dr. Bedlo waits patiently, Erasmus looks through his father’s old chemicals. This scene allows for the seemingly squeamish Erasmus to come across ingredients that are either repulsive (e.g. a box of eyeballs), and other funny ingredients that Dr. Bedlo scoffs at, as they don’t belong in his recipe. Eventually Erasmus ends up finding all the ingredients and concocts a very powerful looking potion. Dr. Bedlo, still in his raven-form, drinks the potion excitedly. However, Erasmus didn’t make enough and the potion only takes effect part-way. Dr. Bedlo only semi-transforms back into his normal form. It is in this scene where we get the delightful imagery of Peter Lorre wearing a raven costume. He has a human head and a bird body.
Dr. Bedlo implores Erasmus to make more potion so he can complete his transformation. However, the two men discover that they have run out of a crucial ingredient–dead man’s hair. There’s only one thing to do of course–go to the cemetery and get more hair. Eventually Dr. Bedlo is transformed into his normal form. He then explains to Erasmus that he was initially transformed by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff) in an unfair duel. Dr. Bedlo also tells Erasmus that he saw the ghost of Lenore (Hazel Court). Intrigued, Erasmus and Dr. Bedlo set off for Scarabus’ castle, with Estelle and Bedlo’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson). It is at this point when we can laugh at the idea of Jack Nicholson being Peter Lorre’s son.
The gang arrive at Scarabus’ castle. After a variety of mishaps and revelations, the visit culminates with an amazing magic fight between Erasmus and Scarabus. The scene of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff fighting each other with magic, using 1963 special effects, makes the film worth the watch.
This film is so ridiculous. It is very funny and very campy. Do not go into this movie expecting something revelatory. Go into it expecting the absurd. Just go with whatever happens and you will not be disappointed. I absolutely love Vincent Price’s voice. He recites a few passages from Poe’s poem and it is mesmerizing. I wish he were around today to record audio books. He could make any story sound ominous and compelling. Can you imagine if Price had read something like “Little Women” or “The Great Gatsby” ? Peter Lorre also provides the dialogue for the raven. I love that it is just him talking and not someone trying to impersonate a bird’s voice. Lorre has some pretty funny lines.
ERASMUS: “Shall I ever see the rare and radiant Lenore again?”Vincent Price as Dr. Erasmus Craven and Peter Lorre as Dr. Bedlo in “The Raven” (1963)
DR. BEDLO (in raven form): “How the hell should I know?”
Boris Karloff was excellent as the villain, but I cannot help but think of The Grinch every time he speaks. He has an amazing speaking voice as well, as does Peter Lorre. These three would have made an amazing team recording audio books. It is absolutely fascinating seeing a young Jack Nicholson in this film. His trademark grin is present, but his voice is completely different. If I hadn’t known that this was Nicholson, I’m not sure that I would recognize him. He definitely evolved as an actor by the time that Chinatown (1974) rolled around.
I recommend this film to anyone who loves campy horror movies, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Edgar Allan Poe, and/or wants to see a 26-27 year old Jack Nicholson, pre-Easy Rider, pre-Chinatown… and my personal favorite, pre-Tommy.