Friday, November 27, 2009

THE RAVEN (1963)

Boris Karloff Blogathon

The 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon is underway!

During this week, over 100 blogs around the world are posting about the life and art of one of filmdom's most famous fiends, Boris Karloff. Click here to see a complete list of participating blogs at the Frankensteinia site.

Here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we're taking a look at some of "Uncle Boris"'s funniest features. Today we highlight…

Smaller Raven poster

**** out of ****

NOTE: The following review has appeared previously as part of a larger essay on the films of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre which I wrote for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: VINCENT PRICE. The book is filled with entertaining and informative essays by several writers on Vincent Price’s career. It is highly recommended and you can order it by clicking here.

Please also note that while the following has been slightly revised for the purposes of this Scared Silly project, it doesn't follow the format of the previous Scared Silly reviews I have posted.

In 1962, AIP Studios released an anthology film called “Tales of Terror.” It featured three stories (very) loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe tales, all featuring Vincent Price. While the first and last tales were played straight, the middle story, based (extremely) loosely on “The Black Cat” co-starred Peter Lorre and was a riotous comic lark. In the story, Price plays a famous wine connoisseur challenged by a local drunk to a wine tasting duel.

Lorre’s is a lovable drunk, except at home, where he shows a nastier side. When the unemployed slacker demands money from his wife so he can go back out and drink some more, she claims they have no money to spare. But Lorre is convinced she’s got it stashed away.

“What about your sewing money?” Lorre asks.

“We need it for food,” she replies.

“Food? That’s exactly what I need it for—I drink my food!”

Exchanges such as this illustrate Lorre’s ability to be extremely funny while simultaneously having more than a hint of pathos about him. To be sure, this was a time in Lorre’s personal life when things were not going well — including substance, alcohol and diet abuse, so both his physical health and mental demeanor were affected. Don’t get me wrong — Lorre’s dialogue, whether scripted or ad-libbed, is delivered hysterically. However, you just can’t help but feel that he’s a pathetic character. It is this element that made Lorre so perfect for the type of lovable yet troubled sods that populated Richard Matheson’s comedic screenplays. In a way, these characters are a more lighthearted mirror image of the ones Vincent Price played in Matheson’s “serious” Poe films (which were the embodiment of the noble, perhaps romantic yet ultimately tortured soul with a skeleton or two in his closet and a dark spot in his heart). These conflicting emotions are also at the heart of Poe himself, so the spirit of Poe is there, if not always the content.

As it turns out, the Black Cat sequence proved to be the most popular of the three Tales of Terror. With that knowledge in hand, Matheson decided to dive head-first into comedy for the next Poe film, “The Raven,” and once again had the team of Price and Lorre at his disposal. Adding to the frivolity this time around were a young Jack Nicholson, a vampy Hazel Court, and one of the all-time horror greats, the inimitable Boris Karloff.

“The Raven’s” opening is rather serious and melodramatic, hardly hinting at the high jinks to come, as a dour Price laments the absence of his beloved Lenore. The tone shifts gears as Price opens the window to let the raven in. Believing the bird to be a “dark-winged messenger from beyond,” Price asks, “Shall I ever hold again that radiant beauty who the angels call Lenore?”

The solemnity is shattered by the bird’s unexpected reply, courtesy of Lorre’s voice-over: “How the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?” Yes, folks, we’ve officially been launched into comedy—horror style, via Price and Lorre! This leads to a riotous scene where Lorre barrages Price with a series of insults and demands that would make Don Rickles proud as he implores Price, who we soon learn is a sorcerer, to change him back to his human form. Even in the midst of Price’s attempts to do just that, Lorre badgers him with sarcastic banter that is so fast and furious, it could very well take a whole book to record and analyze. Not to mention Lorre’s in-between stage, wherein his transformation’s only halfway complete, he helplessly—and-hilariously flaps the wings that remain on his human body!

One criticism that has been leveled at The Raven is that it contains only the barest of plots. But let’s face it, how many films featuring classic comedy teams were heavily plotted? They, like the television sitcoms which followed in their wake, existed on the simplest of premises, and The Raven is no exception: Lorre wants revenge on Karloff for turning him into a bird (which he claims would never have happened, ”If I was only sober, which I admit doesn’t happen often”); while Price is trying to win back his wife, whom Karloff stole (Lenore wasn’t dead after all!). Likewise, Karloff maintains a grudge against Price’s family, as Vincent’s father was always his chief rival in the brotherhood of sorcerers.

Once the unlikely duo decide to confront Karloff, an inspired bit of tomfoolery follows as Price encourages Lorre to dress warmly for their trip and offers him his choice of hat and cloak. For someone who has no wardrobe, Lorre sure is picky, and delivers his objections in quite a genteel fashion! There is such spontaneity and sparkle to this scene that it is hard to imagine it could ever have been scripted. It is likely that this was one of the famous Lorre ad-lib scenes, and it is also the sequence wherein Price’s persona starts loosening up a bit, as he tries to keep pace with Lorre’s clever improvisational inventions. Price allows himself to be overtaken by the comedy bug as his manservant becomes possessed and attacks him. Knocked out in a slapstick fight, he allows his eyes to roll back into his head. Once he’s made that turn, Price alternates from the character’s earlier serious leanings to one capable of quips and visual humor of his own.

Boris Karloff Vincent Price

Shades of Lorre’s Black Cat character emerge as his son, played by Nicholson, arrives to drive them (via horse and carriage, of course) to Karloff’s castle. Even before he becomes possessed himself, Nicholson is a lousy driver, resulting in more classic Lorre insults and exaggerated faces.

Arriving at Karloff’s castle, a wonderful set piece follows as the seemingly gracious Karloff treats his “guests” to dinner. Karloff’s beautifully understated performance, suggesting a kindly old, cultured gentleman, is nothing short of brilliant comedy itself. It is easy to see how the characters may be deceived by him, even as we the audience sense it’s an act from the start. But we’re not the only ones who see right through him: The irascible Lorre is suspicious as well! This inevitably leads to more Lorre gyrations, as he challenges Karloff on the spot. The fit of mayhem that unfolds, as Lorre attempts to awe the room with the magic he’s conjured, will make your sides burst. Incredibly, even at his advanced weight, Lorre was able to pull off not only facial but bodily distortions as well, with all the manic energy of rubber-limbed Jim Carrey! For his troubles, he ends up hocus pocusing himself right into thin air. We later learn it’s all a ruse—a literal smokescreen thrown for his cover, as we discover he’s really a rat who has sold Vincent out. The way the character is written makes you wonder if Matheson purposely injected personality traits which he knew Lorre would run off with, given his performance in The Black Cat segment of “Tales of Terror.” Namely, that of the crafty, conniving coward—a cousin to Daffy Duck, Bob Hope and George Costanza. Only pickled!

A recurring aspect of the Price/Lorre teamings is the contrast between them. Not only their height and weight differences, but the way they carry themselves and speak as well. In "The Raven" there are some wonderful verbal exchanges between them, that highlight not only their comedy chops, but really point out what fine, underrated actors they were. Witness Lorre deflating Price’s ponderous pontifications as if with a single pin prick:

“Instead of facing life, I turned my back on it. I know now why my father resisted Scarabus—because he knew that one cannot fight evil by hiding from it. Men like Scarabus thrive on the apathy of others—he thrived on mine, and that offends me. By avoiding contact with the brotherhood I’ve given him freedom to commit his atrocities unopposed,” laments Price.

“You sure have!” Lorre leaps in, in no uncertain terms. It is the perfect punctuation, reminiscent of the classic scene in Disney’s Pinocchio, wherein the blue fairy tries to explain why the little puppet’s woes have been mounting: “Perhaps you haven’t been telling the truth, Pinocchio!” Official conscience Jiminy Cricket, staring at the tree trunk that used to be Pinocchio’s nose, can only exclaim, “Perhaps?!?!”

The difference here is that Price rolls with the comedy punches, and with the same candor as Lorre, answers back: “I’m sorry!” But not as sorry as Lorre—who is soon turned back into a raven by Karloff!

Lorre’s earlier magic tricks were but a teaser for the comic delights yet to come: a magical duel to the death between Vincent and Boris! It is in this segment that Vincent’s goofy side shines once more, and the aging Karloff proves more than game for this test of not only their character’s powers, but for the actors’ abilities to make us laugh as well. In a modern day film, the actors might let the special effects wizards do all the work for them. But Price and Karloff come from a tradition of stage acting, and in Karloff’s case, the silent screen, so the special effects are only half the battle. They are accompanied by wild gesticulations and facial tics that involve the audience and invite them to take sides, while simultaneously entertaining with their clever wit and invention.

Having vanquished Karloff, the film ends in Price’s study, where Lorre is pushing his luck. Shooting off his wise mouth and offering his services (unsolicited, of course) as Price’s right-hand magician, he once again pleads to be restored to human form. Price says he’ll take it under advise¬ment, but can only tolerate so much of Lorre’s banter. With a wave of his hand, he commands, “Shut your beak!”

It is a fitting ending for what still remains a first-class romp to this day. It is a testament to the actors, writers and directors that material such as this, attacked by the principals with such understanding and passion, survives as an undated farce sure to entertain generations to come.

“The Raven” has been released twice on DVD - once in a stand-alone edition and once as part of a double-feature DVD with “The Comedy of Terrors.” Unfortunately, it appears that those DVD's are out of print and only available at expensive prices from collectors. However, you can rent or buy a digital download of the movie from Amazon by clicking here, and best of all, you can watch it for FREE at Hulu by clicking here.

The trailer shows that the studio really wasn’t sure whether to sell this as a horror film or the all-out horror-comedy it is. You can watch it here:



  1. I remember being *very* confused when I was a kid, and this was occasionally shown as part of a Poe/Vincent Price week on New York Channel 7's "4:30 Movie", along with the ones that were intended to be "serious". I don't think I ever watched it all the way through, not knowing what to make of it. Now I definitely need to watch it again. Unfortunately, I see the DVD is out-of-print, and very expensive, but at least the film can be streamed via Amazon Video.

  2. You know, when I posted that Amazon link I didn't really look at it - I had no idea the DVD was out of print and so expensive. But as you note, it is available to rent or buy as a digital download, so I will post that link. The movie is well worth checking out.

  3. It's also available to watch for FREE at hulu:

  4. Ah, it's good to see "The Raven" getting appreciation. I watched it a few weeks ago, and darned if it isn't endearing.

    I wish Karloff had done more comedy. He was really rather lovable in this one. Ridiculously lovable, really--as in, he was threatening the young heroine with a red-hot poker, and I still liked his character! That takes some doing.