Classic Film Review: Price and Lorre, Karloff and Jack Forevermore — “The Raven” (1963)

With Godard as my witness, I swear I remember Roger Corman’s “The Raven” being more subtle than this. And funnier.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still amusing — here and there — and a treat for classic horror fans seeing Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in the same movie.

The future star of “The Shining” “Wolf” is here, stifling a grin as he got to share scenes with guys whose glories dated back to the silent film era. Jack Nicholson had to play the straight man here, pretty much, saving his loonier turns for “Batman” and “The Witches of Eastwick.”

Indie icon Corman, who gave so many future filmmakers their start, knew that having Vincent Price recite the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven” was practically a movie all by itself (James Mason had narrated a classic animated short, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a decade before). He had novelist and “Twilight Zone” veteran Richard Matheson vamp up a story that has Price play a sorcerer grieving over his lost “Lenore,” longing for her return when a raven comes tapping, gently rapping at his chamber door.

“Are you some dark-winged messenger from beyond?  Shall I ever hold again that radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?”

Turns out, the raven talks.

“How the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?”

The raven has clues about what happened to Lenore, and Dr. Erasmus Craven first has to be persuaded to help the bird transform into Peter Lorre, then round up his daughter (Olive Sturgess) and the beautifully chapeau’d son (Nicholson) of Dr. Bedlo (Lorre) to seek answers from the sinister-sounding Dr. Scarabus (Karloff) in his castle.

Lenore’s got to be around this dank dungeon somewhere, you figure.

Legend has it that John Waters saw this film as a young Baltimorean and said, “Well, the only word for this is ‘camp.'” True? Who’s to say?

This was one of eight films Corman made from the works of Poe, and it is far and away the silliest. Truth be told, the “Treehouse of Horror” episode of “The Simpsons” that had James Earl Jones reciting the poem while Bart and Homer acted it out was scarier. And funnier.

As a “romp,” this classic isn’t really holding up. Whatever glory it enjoyed in its initial run, its peak era was during the college film society days when tipsy coeds could hoot and holler at its dated jokes and its soundstage bound goofy gloom.

“I am Doctor Bedlo’s son!” Rexford (Jack) declares.

“I am sorry,” Lorre’s Doctor Bedlo apologizes…to Dr. Craven, Rexford, the audience. Who knows?

The effects are adorably cheesy, but the performances are muted. Only Price is truly up to snuff, as Karloff settled into the grandfatherliness that made him the perfect narrator for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” a couple of years later. Watch the way the camera regards Karloff as he keeps his robe from tripping him as he descends a steep flight of stairs. It’s as if Corman was waiting for something dangerous to happen.

Scary? Not a bit. And camp value only takes it so far, these days.

Even Price was far better in “Tales of Terror” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But watch how delighted he is interacting with that real, live bird.

At this stage, if you want to see “The Raven,” make it a Halloween party activity. Watching it cold, and sober and alone robs it of whatever communal glee it once had.

Rating: G, of course

Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Olive Sturgess and Jack Nicholson.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Roger Corman. An American International release on Tubi and many other streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:26

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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