The movie begins with a voice over of Vincent Price reciting the first few verses of Poe's The Raven.
Inside a 1500s castle at night, the wizard, Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price: THE FLY, THE RETURN OF THE FLY, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, TALES OF TERROR, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN!, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), draws light in the air with his finger to pass the time. An errant wind blows his shutters ajar and he rises to jar them.
Soon he stands by a covered casket, beseeching a horribly amateurish painting of a woman, his lost Lenore, to come back to him. A woman's hand touches his shoulder, startling him. It is his daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) with his goblet of warm milk. He bids his daughter good night and returns to his self-pity. Then there is a knock on the door. Only instead of a person, it is of course, a raven (not at the door, that was an error, but at the window).
It perches upon a bust of Pallas and then the goofy comedy begins. The bird talks with the voice of Peter Lorre and he wants some wine.
It turns out that the raven is enchanted, not a real bird at all. He has come to Craven to be changed back, but Erasmus doesn't know how.
Throughout all of this, intentionally silly, clippity clop cartoon Les Baxter music plays.
The enchanted creature knows what it needs to return to its own form and he walks Dr. Craven through it. I'm guessing that for audiences of the time, watching otherwise serious actors mock their years of cinematic villainy, was funny at the time in an Airplane! kinda way.
The raven turns back into Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre: THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, TALES OF TERROR, A COMEDY OF TERRORS): The two men met at a sorcerer's convention several years ago.
It seems Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff: FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, ISLE OF THE DEAD, BEDLAM, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, TALES OF TERROR, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, BLACK SABBATH), the arch rival of Dr. Craven's father, changed Bedlo into a raven during a fit of pique. Why? Because Dr. Bedlo, drunk and abusive, challenged Scarabus to a magic duel and lost.
Restored, Dr. Bedlo prepares to return to the castle of Scarabus and get back his magic equipment that the doctor stole. Craven wants nothing to do with the mad scheme until Bedlo sees the terrible painting of Lenore and insists that he saw that woman (Hazel Court: GHOST SHIP , DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, DR. BLOOD'S COFFIN, PREMATURE BURIAL, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) just this evening at Dr. Scarabus' house.
Fearing that Dr. Scarabus may have been behind the untimely death of his lost Lenore, Dr. Craven along with his daughter Estelle, accompany Dr. Bedlo off to Dr. Scarabus' castle. They are accompanied by Bedlo's son, Redfeld (Jack Nicholson: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, THE TERROR, THE SHINING, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, BATMAN, WOLF, MARS ATTACKS!).
Redfeld offers to drive the coach, Estelle asks her father for permission to ride next to Redfeld, and we see where that's going.
Naturally Redfeld loses his mind almost immediately, driving like a wild maniac all the way to Dr. Scarabus' castle.
Redfeld finds his mind again and all enter the hinge creaking castle of Dr. Scarabus.
As they wander the interior of Castle Scarabus, they come across the doctor himself (Boris Karloff). He welcomes them all with the sinister affectation of kindness Karloff perfected.
Scarabus, complimentary and generous with his magic gestures, reveals the truth of Bedlo being turned into a bird, as Bedlo admits that he was turned only because he tried to murder Scarabus.
Dr. Bedlo is a raving, self-deluded idiot, blinded by his own ego. Soon he is abusive to everyone and insulting Scarabus to his face. Finally Scarabus succumbs to another challenge and Bedlo looks ready to lose again, refusing to listen to the sober counsel of either his son or even Craven.
Scarabus is so powerful that he can create magic and material out of thin air with nothing more than a wave of the hand. He is clearly more powerful than Bedlo. It remains to be seen if he is more than a match for Craven.
Screenwriter Richard Matheson, tasked with the absurd difficulty of making a rather short poem into a feature length film, had no choice but to turn it into something entirely un-Poe.
Producer and Director, Roger Corman, was concerned by what he saw as a similarity of Poe's stories. Readers, bound only by the limits of their imaginations, could interpret Poe's stories and poems into their own world experience. But when you watch a movie its all laid out and bounded. So Corman wanted more differences in his cycle of Poe movies and with THE RAVEN, Roger hoped that he and Matheson could inject new creativity into the Poe movies. Matheson decided to take it where they hadn't gone with the Poe movies before, so Richard used the poem as a launching point and turned it into a comedy instead.
The sets were recycled from the previous Poe movies and Karloff, Lorre, and Price all got along with each other wonderfully. Peter Lorre improvised much of his lines, which Corman found funny on the set. And to audiences at the time, it probably was funny to see such a serious, villainous actor be so ridiculous.
Speaking of recycled, Roger also used shots from the previous Poe movies in THE RAVEN and several others, under the strange assumption that fans of the series wouldn't notice. He was actually surprised to find they did notice, and his later Poe movies suffered at the box office for it in the form of diminishing returns.
So is THE RAVEN funny today?
Like any topical comedy the passage of time is unkind. From movies like AIRPLANE! to SCARY MOVIE, the pop culture tropes slough off in embarrassment. The audience concept of Peter Lorre and his deadly serious persona is virtually unknown. To a lesser extent the same is true for Boris Karloff and Vincent Price's body of work. The humor of THE RAVEN is supposed to come from watching all three men act goofy in a straight story, as well as against each other, may have been a hoot in 1963. Roger still adores it, and the movie was profitable.
That said, without actual humor to carry it through, it hasn't aged well.
Two Shriek Girls
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