"Are you some dark winged messenger from beyond? Answer me monster tell me truly! Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?"
"How the hell should I know?"
Thus begins The Raven, the first full horror-comedy by American International Pictures, Roger Corman, Richard Matheson, and Vincent Price, co-starring Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and a very young Jack Nicholson.
Corman and AIP had been putting out films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe steadily at a pace of one a year since 1960. The first two - House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum - starred Vincent Price, helping to solidify him as a horror movie icon. He was absent for The Premature Burial, which starred Ray Milland and solidified the type of story that these Poe films were: spooky stories of madness and the unquiet dead, buried secrets and buried family members who refuse to stay buried. After three such films in a row, the formula was set and it was time to mix things up a bit.
The first experiment was Tales of Terror, an anthology of three short films, each starring Vincent Price and each based on a Poe story. While two of the three stories were serious Gothic horror, the third teamed Price with Peter Lorre for great comedic effect. Then writer Richard Matheson was given the assignment to write a film based on Poe's most famous poem, The Raven. "After I heard they wanted to make a movie out of a poem," Matheson said, "I felt that was an utter joke, so comedy was really the only way to go with it."
Matheson had already perfect the art, in The Pit and the Pendulum, of using the original Poe work as a starting point, taking it as an inspiration for a scene or a set-up, and then crafting his own story around it. In The Raven, Vincent Price plays the sorcerer Erasmus Craven who is lamenting his lost Lenore and reading many quaint and curious tales of forgotten lore when a raven taps at his window and perches on the palid bust of Pallas just above his chamber door. When asked if he shall ever again see Lenore, Peter Lorre replies "How the hell should I know?" and off we go!
It seems that Lorre's Adolphus Bedlo was engaged in a duel with the vile Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the powerful and ruthless grand master of the Brotherhood of Magicians. Before Bedlo could even unpack his equipment, Scarabus turned him into a raven. Knowing that no other sorcerer of the Brotherhood would help him, he turned to Craven, whose father was once grand master of the Brotherhood but was constantly at odds with Scarabus. Because of that vicious enmity, Craven never took up the inherited mantle. After rejecting Bedlo's entreaties to return with him for revenge (and to get his stuff back), Craven is convinced when Bedlo asks what a portrait of Scarabus' concubine is doing on Craven's shelf... It is Lenore, dead these two years. Is she back from the dead? Is her spirit captive? Craven must know, and along with them go his daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo's son Rexford (Jack Nicholson).
Most of the humour is derived from the petty-mindedness of the characters in what is supposed to be a brooding horror film, and a lot of zippy little bits of dialogue. Early on, Bedlo is giving Craven the recipe for the potion to restore his human form:
"Do you got some dried blood of a bat in the house?"Eventually they pull together the ingredients, but are missing hair from a dead man. That must be found in the family crypt (Craven: "My father was interred below." Bedlo: "Where else?"). It is gloomy, filled with dust and cobwebs, of which Bedlo observes "Hard place to keep clean, huh?" While snipping some of the elder Craven's hair, he comes to life and warns his son to "beware." Shortly thereafter, Bedlo and Craven are sharing a drink when the former observes "A little unexpected what happened down there, huh?" Then, after Bedlo insists that he saw Lenore alive in Scarabus' castle, they head to the chapel when she has lain in state. A minute is spent watching them carefully fold the velvet draping the casket, which Bedlo proceeds to throw over his shoulder when Craven isn't looking. As one can glean, a good part of the comedy comes from Peter Lorre, who improvised many of his lines.
"I beg your pardon."
"Bat's blood! dried or evaporated bat's blood."
"How about some chain links from a gallow's burg? Jellied spiders, rabbit's blood, dead man's hair?"
"No we don't keep those things in this house we're vegetarians"
"And that man calls himself a magician, honestly this is too much!"
The film culminates in Craven, newly inspired to confront the evil of Scarabus (Craven: "Instead of facing life I turned my back on it. I know now why my father resisted Dr. 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, unapposed." Bedlo: "You sure have!"), engaging in a wizard's duel. Given the limitations on special effects technology and the budget Corman was given, the duel is rather remarkably done.
The Raven was a success and set off another quasi-series before Corman would settle back down into more straightforward horror films. In fact, the next three films in the series technically had nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe at all. Later in 1963, he would adapt the H.P. Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward under the Poe title The Haunted Castle. Leftover sets from that were used in an original story starring Boris Karloff called The Terror. Finally, right at the start of 1964, director Jacques Tourneur would reassemble Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone to make one of the best films of the entire series and the climax of horror-comedies, the black Comedy of Terrors.