Beyond the Slimy Wall: The Raven
By Stephanie Star Smith
August 16, 2006
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook-movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture Beyond the Slimy Wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
The seven films* based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe that Roger Corman did for American International in the early ‘60s varied wildly in their faithfulness to Poe's stories. In the case of The Fall of the House of Usher and Masque of the Red Death, the films hewed fairly closely to the their source material (the apparently de rigueur romances grafted upon the tales notwithstanding). Others, such as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Oblong Box, contained but a few basic details in common with the stories from which they supposedly sprung before running off on unrelated tangents.
But it was the movie based upon Poe's poem The Raven that strayed farthest afield from its source material, retaining little of the Poe poem save its title. To be fair, it must have been infinitely more difficult to create a screenplay for a 90-minute film based on what is, at its core, a conversation between a perhaps-slightly crazy person and a bird that only knows one word regarding the man's dead love, but the plot of The Raven gives but the barest nod to the proceedings in the poem. Instead, it exists mainly as a tour de force for three of Hollywood's horror greats, and a showpiece of the state-of-the-art of special effects at that time. The result is a delightful comedy populated by wizards good, bad and venal; spells and curses galore; and not a few reversals of loyalties and personality perceptions before all is said and done.
The story, courtesy of legendary horror writer Richard Matheson, revolves around Price's character, Erasmus Craven, who has forsaken his hereditary role as leader of the Brotherhood of Magicians and Sorcerers, due as much to a retiring nature and distaste for the politics that surrounded the succession after his father's death as to his grief over the loss of the love of his life, his deceased wife, named...yep, you guessed it, Lenore. Erasmus has instead retired from the world, content to putter around his enormous castle, dabbling in the talent for magicks inherited from his father, watching his daughter grow up, and generally not bothering anyone and wishing not to be bothered himself. Of course, there wouldn't be much of a movie if something didn't come along to change this, and it does, in the form of a talking raven. The raven turns out to be a fellow wizard by the name of Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who has been changed from man into bird by Dr Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the wizard who was Erasmus' father's biggest rival and who fought so hard to take the leadership of the brotherhood that he basically bullied Erasmus out of the position and the fraternal order.
It is in the course of Bedlo's transformation from feathered reptile back into human being - a process that requires a magic potion that can only be concocted by certain gifted wizards - that we get the foundation for our tale. Seems there are two types of wizards: those that require equipment to perform magic, and those who can perform magic simply by thought and gesture. Bedlo is one of the former; Scarabus, Erasmus and Erasmus' father, Roderick (in a nice nod to another Poe tale) are the latter, and it was Bedlo's hubris - bolstered not a little by him being well into his cups - in believing his form of magic more pure and taunting Scarabus with that fact that caused his transformation into a fine black bird. We also learn that there is trouble brewing, as Roderick - pressed into service due to one of the potions ingredients, the hair of a dead man - warns his son to beware of treachery and evil in one of the few truly creepy scenes in an otherwise scare-light film. Then Bedlo, once again on two feet, drops a proverbial bombshell: laying eyes on a portrait of Lenore, he tells Erasmus that he had seen her that very evening at Scarabus' castle, the scene of the disastrous dinner party that ended when Bedlo literally sprouted wings and flew out the window.
And so the plot truly begins, as Erasmus, Bedlo, Erasmus' daughter Estelle, and Bedlo's son Rexford (played by a very young Jack Nicholson), head off to Castle Scarabus to release Lenore's sprit from the enslavement Erasmus is certain Scarabus has cast upon her. Oh, and to pick up Bedlo's "magical equipment" (as phrased by Lorre in a manner that is for some reason hysterically funny) while they're about it. To reveal much more about the plot really would be to spoil part of the fun, as the script truly is a ripping good yarn in and of itself, rather than the thin skeleton that underpins most star vehicles.
The cast is, naturally, superb, with Price, Karloff and Lorre obviously enjoying themselves immensely and bringing the audience in on the fun. They are matched nearly equally by Nicholson, who, although still rather new to the big screen, here displays much of the charisma that would carry him to such an illustrious career in the decades to come. And whilst Olive Sturgess doesn't quite match up to the boys in the ingénue role of Estelle, Hammer scream queen Hazel Court more than makes up for any lag on the distaff side with her delicious portrayal of the lost Lenore Craven. This may sound like a somewhat small cast for what was the 1963 equivalent of a tentpole, special-effects extravaganza, but when you've got Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre giving life to a Richard Matheson script and directed by Roger Corman...well, you don't need a whole lot else. But that's not to undercut the effects, as the various magical travails that the characters must undergo are still impressive set pieces even from a 21st century perspective, and the end game between Scarabus and Erasmus is every bit as entertaining and amazing today as it must have been to theatregoers in early ‘60s. No small feat for old-school processing to still carry off that sense of wonder in the age of CGI and digital everything.
The Raven is sadly not available in what I would consider a proper DVD release; although it is on DVD and in widescreen, it is paired with The Comedy of Terrors and the package offers no extra features whatsoever. However, given that The Comedy of Terrors is the follow-up film that these three horror greats made together the following year - when they were joined by another screen legend and Slimy Wall fave, Basil Rathbone - and which is a marvelous film its own darn self, it's not so much the pairing that I lament as the lack of extra features that both these fine films deserve. One can often catch The Raven on Turner Classic Movies, although it is usually shown pan-and-scan (the same fate that generally also befalls The Comedy of Terrors, which pops up occasionally on one of the premium channels), but every once in a while, one of the premium cable channels will show it in widescreen and HD, thus bringing the viewing experience close to the original theatrical release in all its glory.
Still, if you've never seen this wonderful film, don't wait for it to come round to TV again; grab a carriage and head down to your local video emporium to grab a copy and settle in for 86 minutes of the some of the finest fare the fantasy factories of Hollywood have produced. But mind the evil spells that might be cast in your path en route.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.
*This likely comes as a surprise to many, but there are two films AIP tried to tie to Corman's Poe series that didn't belong. The first, The Haunted Palace, is actually based an HP Lovecraft tale, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Though it was a marketing ploy by AIP - Corman's Poe series had proved immensely popular at the box office - one could draw at least a few, albeit shaky, parallels between the elements of the film's plot and the events described in Poe's poem. Mostly, however, AIP simply tacked the final stanza form The Haunted Palace onto the end of the film and called it macaroni. The second film with which the studio tried this tactic is an even worse example of misleading advertising: Not only was Roger Corman not involved in any way, shape or form, but the plot of the film that became known as The Conqueror Worm couldn't be related to the Poe poem of the same name by even the wildest stretch of the imagination. Thankfully, the flick that started theatrical life titled Witchfinder General - a film that was incredibly boring by any name - didn't perform very well at the box office, nipping AIP's tendency to trade on Poe's and Corman's reputations for the sake of a quick buck in the bud.