After crank­ing out a few suc­cess­ful Poe-derived shock­ers, Roger Corman was smart enough to real­ize he need­ed to change up the for­mu­la a bit if he was going to mine this vein for fur­ther suc­cess.  He fol­lowed clas­sic hor­ror gen­re think­ing by adding a dash of humor for his adap­ta­tion of The Raven.  This tac­tic can some­times mis­fire but Corman man­aged to side­step such pit­falls — and in the process, he cranked out the most pure­ly enter­tain­ing film in the series.

Raven-posRichard Matheson’s script takes a few ele­ments from the Edgar Allen Poe poem — a talk­ing raven, a deceased wife named Lenore — and uses them as the spring­board for a fan­ta­sy adven­ture nar­ra­tive.  Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) is the unwit­ting hero, a mild-man­nered magi­cian who is still mourn­ing the pass­ing of his wife Lenore (Hazel Court) when he is vis­it­ed by a talk­ing raven.  Said raven claims to be a man trans­formed by a spell and when Craven revers­es it, said raven turns into cranky fel­low magi­cian Bedlo (Peter Lorre).

Bedlo asks Craven to help him get the revenge on the magi­cian who trans­formed him, a leg­endary magi­cian known as Scarabus (Boris Karloff).  Craven is reluc­tant to do so until Bedlo swears that he saw a wom­an who looks just like Lenore at the castle of Scarabus.  In short order, Craven and Bedlo are off to Raven-01that castle with Craven’s daugh­ter Estelle (Olive Burgess) and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson!) in tow.   Scarabus seems to be friend­ly at first but he’s got a few sur­pris­es up his sleeve, start­ing a chain of events that cli­max­es in a mem­o­rable magi­cian bat­tle.

Over fifty years lat­er, The Raven remains a charmer.  The comic approach is more nat­u­ral than it might seem at first:  Corman is sim­ply com­bin­ing the state­ly goth­ic style he devel­oped on his ear­lier Poe adap­ta­tions with the quirky, dead­pan style of humor he devel­oped on films like Little Shop Of Horrors.  Matheson’s adven­ture approach lends itself to this light treat­ment and boasts a clev­er array of twists in its final half-hour that enhance its enter­tain­ment val­ue.

Raven-02It helps that Corman had assem­bled a rock-steady tech­ni­cal crew that cre­ates a plush back­drop for the tongue-in-cheek adven­tures: Daniel Haller sup­plies typ­i­cal­ly ele­gant pro­duc­tion design, Floyd Crosby’s pho­tog­ra­phy main­tains the goth­ic tone while Les Baxter’s jaun­ty score sub­sti­tutes car­toon-music style antics and quotes from clas­si­cal sources in place of the usu­al blood-and-thun­der the­atrics.  With their help, Corman achieves one of his best sequences as a direc­tor with the final mag­i­cal duel, which show­cas­es some sur­pris­ing­ly good visu­al effects for the era as it bal­ances Tex Avery-style visu­al gags with kinet­ic excite­ment.

HowRaven-03ever, the biggest fun in The Raven comes from the antics of its tri­umvi­rate of clas­sic hor­ror stars.  Price has fun play­ing again­st type as a more mil­que­toast, less the­atri­cal ver­sion of his tor­ment­ed Poe-film heroes while Karloff dead­pans through his vil­lain­ous role with a play­ful glint in his eye, adding a few extra fun shad­ings to the role when his char­ac­ter is revealed to have an all-too-human Achille’s heel.

That said, it’s Lorre who walks away with the movie as a schem­ing, per­pet­u­al­ly irri­ta­ble magi­cian whose ego out­reach­es his abil­i­ties.  If you want to think of the movie in spaghet­ti west­ern terms, he’s the “Ugly” to Price’s “Good” and Karloff’s “Bad” — and the glee he shows in chew­ing scenery and adlib­bing is pos­i­tive­ly con­ta­gious.

In short, The Raven is the crowd-pleaser of Corman’s Poe cycle, a good-natured comic adven­ture that prompts smiles instead of chills.  You don’t have to be into Poe’s goth­ic hor­rors to enjoy this romp.