REEL RETRO CINEMA: New looks at old flicks and their comic-book adaptations …
Last October, Rob Kelly dedicated his REEL RETRO CINEMA column to Dell’s loose adaptations of the Universal Monsters. (Click here. It was fantastic.)
This year? It’s all about Vincent Price, Roger Corman and Edgar Allan Poe: Across three successive weekends, we’ll be featuring a different ’60s horror film and its Dell version.
First up? THE RAVEN:
By ROB KELLY
“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
Roger Corman’s 1963 cinematic “adaptation” of Edgar Allan Poe’s world famous poem The Raven opens with wizard Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price, who else?) quoting lines directly from it, as he mourns the loss of his beloved wife Lenore (Hazel Court). One night he is visited by a raven, which Erasmus takes as a sign. He asks the bird, “Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?” And it replies, “How the hell should I know?”
From this point on, you know that Corman’s The Raven will not exactly be the most straight-faced interpretation. The bird, voiced by Peter Lorre, instructs Craven to brew a potion that will return him to his human form of Dr. Bedlo, also a wizard. Once this is accomplished, Bedlo informs Craven that he was transformed by the evil Dr. Scarabus while in a duel with him. Bedlo intends to go to Scarabus’ castle to get revenge, and convinces the lovesick Craven to come along by telling him he saw the ghost of his beloved Lenore there. Joining them are Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess), and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson!).
The group is received by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff) and at the beginning it’s all smiles and friendship. But things take a turn when it is revealed that Lenore is alive and well, having faked her death to take up with Scarabus. Bedlo attempts to get his revenge but is outmatched by Scarabus, who turns him back into a raven. Craven and the rest try to leave, but Scarabus stops them. He threatens to torture Estelle if Craven does not reveal the secrets of his magical abilities.
This leads to a showdown between the two wizards, which gets so out of control it burns the castle down around them. Craven eventually defeats Scarabus, leading Lenore to beg Craven to take her back, saying she was bewitched by the older wizard. Craven rejects her, and soon the castle collapses into rubble onto her and Scarabus. They survive, but Scarabus learns he has lost all of his magic powers.
Back at his home, Bedlo begs Craven to turn him back into a human, but Craven tells him to shut his beak, saying “Quoth the raven—nevermore.”
I remember first discovering The Raven as a teenager, probably playing on my local UHF station, where these Corman/Poe movies were an afternoon staple. If you were a horror fan like I was, on paper this movie can’t be beat—Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Hazel Court and Jack Nicholson?!? What a cast!
Even all these years later, however, I’m still uncertain about Corman and screenwriter Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson’s decision to make this so light-hearted, to the point where you could easily classify it as a horror-comedy. With these titans of horror all together, why didn’t they go for something genuinely blood-chilling? Matheson said later that trying to make a whole movie out of a poem was a joke, so going broad was baked into the cake from the beginning.
Those considerations aside, The Raven is still a lot of silly fun. Lorre seems to be really be enjoying himself, walking around part of the time in a bird costume and using a patois completely incongruous with the time period the film is set in. It is a truly bizarre sight watching him act alongside the soon-to-be-iconic Jack Nicholson, playing father and son, when they don’t even look like the same species.
Price is in there giving it his all, as he always did. Karloff was 76 at the time of filming, which I think led to the film’s relatively underwhelming climax, which features just him and Price sitting down waving their arms at one another. Hazel Court is terrific as always playing a 15th Century golddigger, and there’s one scene where Rexford is momentarily taken over by black magic and we get to see a glimpse of that scary Nicholson grin that would go on to be used to such great effect in The Shining, Batman, etc. And Corman, who knew how to get as much as possible from meager budgets, drapes the proceedings in lots of gothic imagery, all of it lushly photographed.
Dell Comics, which pretty much had a lock on movie adaptations in the ’60s, published their tie-in, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven (part of their Movie Classic line), bearing a photo cover and interior art by Frank Springer. Draped in DayGlo colors, this version omits all of the film’s admittedly mild horror elements (a talking corpse, a box full of eyeballs) to presumably make it as inoffensive as possible. Backgrounds are nearly non-existent, which suggests to me Springer didn’t have a lot of time on this job.
It also cuts back on a lot of the film’s dry humor, leaving the whole thing just a sort of watered down version of the movie. There’s really no horror to be found in this comic at all, which makes me wonder why Dell bothered adapting it. Marvel and DC weren’t doing movie adaptations much (if at all) at the time, but I would have loved to have seen what Warren, free of the Comics Code Authority, could have done with The Raven, using its stable of EC veterans and dynamic up-and-comers. Even in black and white I think they would have gotten closer to the spirit of Poe’s story more than Dell.
The Raven was the fifth of Roger Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” which lasted eight films (two more of which we’ll be covering in subsequent weeks). Bearing a beautiful poster by legendary artist Reynold Brown, it was a hit at the box office and ensured further adaptations of Poe’s work, which was conveniently rights-free, something undoubtedly always at the forefront of Corman’s mind.
While something of a missed opportunity, The Raven is still a good, semi-spooky story to watch on Halloween, even five decades later. Little kids can handle it and older horror fans will get a kick out of seeing these legendary figures of the genre all in the same movie.
NEXT: Masque of the Red Death. Click here.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, the host of The Film and Water Podcast, and the host of TreasuryCast. He actually likes candy corn.