Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Poem and Two Films

Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems are so vivid that it's natural for filmmakers to turn to him quite often with the intent of adapting his stuff to celluloid. But most of his poems and short stories are pretty.. well.. short.  So if you're going to make a movie out of Poe (even if it's a B-movie that only runs an hour), you've got to add a lot of extra stuff.

That's what happened both times Poe's poem "The Raven" was turned into a movie. In both cases, the finished product really doesn't have a lot to do with the poem, but there is a slight connection in each case that does kinda sorta make sense.

In the mid-1930s, Universal Studios was teaming up their two horror stars--Karloff and Lugosi--in a series of films to play off their respective successes in Frankenstein and Dracula. Several of these films were loosely based on works of Poe.

The poem "The Raven" was about obsession with a lost love (and perhaps taking a perverse pleasure in dwelling on that loss). The 1935 film version gave us Lugosi as neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Vollin, a man at first obsessed with Poe and then obsessed with a woman he couldn't have. So he invites the girl, her boyfriend and her dad to his mansion for a party. His plan: kidnap and torture them all to death with methods that had been used in Poe's stories.

So the theme of obsession with someone you can't have runs through both works. Other than that, though, the movie is pretty much an original story.

And that's just fine, since it's a fun story. Karloff plays a killer on the run from the law who asks Vollin to perform plastic surgery on him. Vollin instead scars half of Karloff's face (Jack Pierce's makeup job here is perfect) and promises to fix him only after he helps carry out Vollin's nefarious scheme. Vollin's mansion, equipped with secret doors, rooms rigged to act like elevators and a hidden torture chamber, is the perfect setting for a horror movie

Karloff, as usual, is great in his role. He plays a brutal killer, but he still generates an aura of sympathy. And in the end, when he struggles over whether to keep helping Vollin or help a girl who acted kindly towards him, he demonstrates a deep emotional conflict with just his expression and a few terse words of dialogue. The Raven would have been a fine B-movie regardless, but Karloff's performance helps make it even better.

Nearly three decades later, Karloff returned to "The Raven" one more time. This time around, it was the 5th of 8 films based on Poe's work that were directed by Roger Corman. 1963's The Raven was written by Richard Matheson, who dealt with expanding the short poem into a full-length film by using the idea of a raven flying into a room and speaking to a man, then going off in a pretty much completely original direction from there. He also decided to make it a comedy, something that hadn't yet been done in the Corman-Poe cycle.

You may notice, though, that neither the poster nor the trailer (posted below) tell you that the film is a comedy. A plot summery doesn't really hint at this either. But it is all played for laughs and it is a really, really funny movie

The man visited by a raven is mild-mannered magician Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price), who is still mourning his two-years dead wife Lenore. The raven isn't actually a raven, but a magically transformed man named Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre). Craven turns Bedlo back into Bedlo, then learns that Bedlo had been turned into a raven by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), a powerful magician and old rival of Craven's father.

Craven's supposedly dead wife Lenore has been seen at Scarabus' castle. So Craven, Bedlo, Craven's daughter Estelle and Bedlo's cloying son Rexford all pay Scarabus a visit.

This all turns out to be a plot by Scarabus to steal Craven's magical secrets and this in turn leads to a truly epic duel between the two wizards.

As I said, none of that tells you its a comedy. But it's often hilariously funny.  Price, Lorre and Karloff were all great comedic actors when they needed to by and they play off each other seamlessly, with Price most notably bringing real charm to his role as a mild-mannered but ultimately powerful magician.

And the whole movie looks magnificent. In a DVD extra, Roger Corman explains that the sets from previous Poe films were each kept intact and added to by the budget of the next successive film in the cycle. By the time they got to The Raven, the sets that made up Scarabus' castle were elaborate and elegant.

So there you have it. Two films both supposedly based on "The Raven," though both maintain a very tenuous connection to the poem. But both great films in their own way.


  1. I love THE RAVEN (1963). I've often thought that Dr. Strange has more than a passing resemblance to Vincent Price and he did appear right after this movie came out.
    Apparently Lorre would improvise many of his lines, throwing some of the cast off their own lines. It's a very funny movie.

  2. There was a lot of improvisation. According to the DVD extras, Lorre and Jack Nicholson together came up with the bit where Jack was always adjusting Lorre's clothes as a way of seeking approval from his dad, to which Lorre would react with anger.


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