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Sunday, October 23, 2011

It's a parlor game for 19th Century literature freaks and nothing but to speculate on such questions, but let us take a moment to muse upon the most famous short story written by Edgar Allan Poe - that is, name the first Poe story that comes to mind. Ask a dozen people, and I suspect you'd get around a half dozen answers - "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", and "The Tell-Tale Heart", plus maybe "The Black Cat", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Pit and the Pendulum", or "The Masque of the Red Death".

Now let's open it up a touch, and drop the "short story" qualifier - ask a dozen people to name anything written by Edgar Allan Poe. Smart money is that you get twelve people answering "The Raven". It's hard to say why that 1845 poem has attained such prominence among the writer's output (and my little thought problem notwithstanding, I think we can all agree its his most famous work by a mile): the musicality of the rhyme, the massive repetition in the structure, the shivery Gothic splendor of the imagery ("each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor" is maybe my favorite phrase in all of Poe). That last one has the most to do with it, I suppose - it's a supremely gloomy, creepy bit of verse, clammy and cobwebby even on the page.

Accordingly, it is one of Poe's writings that has been adapted the most times to film, even more if we count the number of times it has been recited or parodied as part of a TV show's Halloween episode (when Tiny Toon Adventures did that in 1991, they even got Vincent Price to read it!), despite the seemingly obvious objection that its story takes a full five minutes to tell through the poem, and most of that atmosphere and not narrative. And, needless to say, none of these "adaptations" have much to do with the poem beyond quoting it at some greater or lesser length.

Naturally enough, AIP and Roger Corman eventually cranked out a version of The Raven of their very own during their series of Poe films in the 1960s; and sure enough, it was pretty far afield from the source, though shockingly, it is not remotely the least faithful of all "Raven" films. In fact, it does begin (after Vincent Price recites the first few paragraph over a surrealistic ink-in-water backdrop) with an aged man on a bleak December night, poring over a volume of quaint and curious lore. This is Dr. Erasmus Craven (Price, duh), a pleasantly doddering old man living alone with his daughter, Estelle (Olive Sturgess) these two years since his second wife, her stepmother, Lenore, died unexpectedly.

Two things immediately propose themselves about this opening scene: it is tremendously like what Poe wrote, given the nature of these AIP Poe movies, and it is tremendously hokey: Les Baxter's score is a bit goofier than it has been in previous films, and Price especially is playing up the doddering confusion of the lonely old man in a weirdly pathetic way for that actor. It's only the second time around that you figure out what's going on is that Corman and company are playing all of this so desperately straight that it has to be tongue in cheek. Our tell is when a raven flutters in to Craven's study, and alights on his pallid bust of Pallas, upon which the old man eagerly asks if that bird is a messenger from the Other World, where Lenore and Craven will someday be reunited. The raven caws those words made so famous down the years: "How the hell should I know? What do I look like, a fortune teller?"

And from there we're off in what is indisputably the odd duck among the AIP Poe movies, although it is also one of the very best. Taking their cues from the "Black Cat" sequence in the anthology film Tales of Terror from the year before, Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson (adapting Poe for the fourth and final time) turned this moody, brooding poem into a farce about three dueling wizards in the Middle Ages. Amazingly, it works - if not as a Poe adaptation (this is almost certainly the flimsiest of Corman's eight films on that front), and assuredly not as horror, then certainly as a playful comedy that makes the turn from absurd curio to minor classic on the basis of a tremendous cast: and not just Price, who moves through a crazy number of different registers as we learn more and more of his character's secrets, and proving in general terms that he's a far more sophisticated and thoughtful actor than most people really want to give him credit for. He's joined by his Tales co-star Peter Lorre as Dr. Bedlo, a pudgy, cowardly, alcoholic wizard who was turned into a raven by the mysterious Dr. Scarabus in a wizards' duel - really, as punishment for being a tremendous worm, we are tempted to think. Scarabus himself is played by Boris Karloff, another actor who doesn't really get his due, stuck as he was in an endless cycle of B-pictures; and this film is particularly gratifying, given how little chance the naturally witty actor was given to show of his comic chops in a straight-up comedy.

Hell, a freakishly young Jack Nicholson even shows up in one of his first really big roles as Bedlo's son, who along with Estelle Craven supplies the movie with a weird jolt of early-'60s youth culture energy that actually manages to work more than it doesn't; it's worth it for the shock of seeing Nicholson under-act, if nothing else.

The story plays out in such a confused layering of who knew who at what point and who did what to whom when and for what reason that I think it best not to even make the attempt at explaining it: clearly, Matheson relished the chance to do something that was just plain wacky, and went crazy filling The Raven with all manner of plot contortions both amusing and simply befuddling; with bright anachronisms; with filthy innuendos (at one point, Price does a double take at what sounds like a reference to mother-son incest; at another, Scarabus makes Bedlo's magic wand go limp with a cartoon droop noise); and, crucially, with plenty of space for Price, Lorre, and Karloff to react off one another - and for all that one would never automatically assume that those three actors of all people would be born to star in a movie together, they're immaculately well-matched.

It's a breezy lark, funny without being brazenly hilarious, and feeling not at all like a Poe movie, though the contrast between Daniel Haller's ubiquitous sets (and, once more that House of Usher fire footage) and the matinee silliness of the story is pretty damned appealing all on its own. The film manages to poke fun at the Poe movie formula without ever actually mocking it, a fine needle to thread; but Corman's filmography is pockmarked by examples of self-lacerating light humor, though he is not customarily thought of in those terms. Anyway, it's a charmingly off-kilter hybrid, not a comic masterpiece and not a Gothic classic, but hugely entertaining on its own very low-key terms.

The climax alas, goes on far too long and robs the film of its inertia, feeling rather like a strained attempt to get the running time over 80 minutes (the last scene does a very good job of bringing us back to the tone of the rest of the film), and commits a wildly uncharacteristic sin for Corman: it looks cheap. Let me rephrase that; obviously, every Corman film looks cheap. But they do not often look as cheap as they really were, for though the director-producer was a dynamo at stretching a buck, he also had an artistic heart, and he knew how to make the most out of the little had. Yet in The Raven, he and Matheson end things with a huge effects-driven magic duel that works about half the time, and involves some horribly dodgy animation the other half. It doesn't look any worse than every other no-budget fantasy from that time period, but that's the point: Corman's films always looked the best.

Oh well, a tiny thing. And it gives Price and Karloff a lot of good chances to pantomime and they both do it outstandingly well. The Raven is hardly the sort of film to live or die on one scene anyway; it's too much a film of the moment, with stakes that never rise above wondering what tricky thing Our Vincent will do next to outsmart everybody. It is a supremely weird movie, and it has about as little to do with "The Raven" as anything with such a faithful opening scene could; and yet I kind of love it. Never underestimate the magnetism of talented B-grade actors being relaxed and wildly self-amused.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

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