The Raven [1963] – [thoughts + spoilers]


Film: The Raven [1963]

Setting: Medieval California

Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, a young Jack Nicholson, not John Cusack

Director: Roger Corman

Plot: A magician, Craven, sits in his castle and sketches out ravens looking through telescopes using hand gestures to pass the time. Awkward sentence. I mean, Craven uses hand gestures, not the raven. There is no raven, just a magical, purple outline of one. Craven then hears a noise, gets up, goes to the coffin containing his dead wife, Lenore, which has been lying matter-of-factly in the hallway for the last two years, and says, ‘come back to me, Lenore.’ His daughter interrupts and tells him to stop hanging around the coffin so much, to which he replies, ‘you are young, you don’t understand grief…and neither do I, apparently, as I seem strangely joyful for most of this movie.’

Then Craven goes back to his study alone and hears more noises. A real raven turns up, follows the text of the Poe story for a few minutes then starts speaking in the voice of Peter Lorre. He asks the magician to return him to human form so he can get revenge on Scarabus, the magician who cast the raven spell on him. Craven does as he asks, but tells him not to go back to Scarabus’ castle as his dad told him Scarabus was a dick. Lorre asks him to come along, to protect him, but Craven says no, he’s too busy fondling the corpse of his wife magically sketching purple ravens in his study. Lorre says, wait, I saw your wife in Scarabus’ castle, she’s alive. Craven relents for the sake of plot and the two of them set off for the castle, taking the daughter and Jack Nicholson with them.

Luckily the castle is about five minutes away by horse and carriage, so it’s a quick transition. They arrive, Scarabus greets them, acts nice during dinner then checks his watch and turns into the kind of Boris Karloff we can relate to i.e. menacing, sleazy, fierce.

Subplot: Craven’s dead wife fakes her death, because life with a magician is tedious, and moves in with another magician, Scarabus, a psychopath who wants to have sex with her, but is somehow put off for two years without becoming violent. Scarabus also seems to sit around his castle all day doing not very much, but Lenore doesn’t seem to notice the hypocrisy of her actions.

Theme: Don’t trust smiling Boris Karloffs. Don’t spend all day in your castle without pleasuring your sociopathic wife. Don’t look directly at Peter Lorre.


This is a Poe story?

The first minute or so of The Raven has Vincent Price reading from the Poe short story, and the next ten minutes make it seem like the film’s going to be following it through to the bitter end, which would have been truly bitter if they had as it was looking stretched even at the seven minute mark. Luckily, the raven starts talking and the whole thing is saved by the double bill of Peter Lorre and Vinny Price.

The lines between them aren’t truly great…in fact, they’re sometimes awful, but there’s enough to make it entertaining. This isn’t literary horror like Poe, this is more like farce…it actually comes pretty close to the Hong Kong style of silliness of A Chinese Odyssey, especially when Peter Lorre still has the arms of a bird and tries to flap them.

Why’s it based on Poe?

I have no idea. Corman also did The House of Usher a few years before this, and that was quite popular so maybe he thought he’d give it another crack.

Actually, I just checked…Corman produced eight Poe films in total…which can either be interpreted as an obsession or an attempt to replicate the success of The House of Usher. But it’s weird, this film doesn’t even try to take itself seriously. Or if it did, I didn’t notice it.

You can’t make a whole movie out of a short story, especially one that is basically just a man sitting in a room with a raven, so it’s understandable that they created the good magician vs evil magician plot to go with it.

Is there any depth to it?

I’m trying to think. There’s a scene near the end, before the magnificent final duel, where Craven is chained up in Scarabus’ dungeon and he says out loud that evil triumphs when good people like him sit in their castles and do nothing. This is probably the true theme of the film as it fits the rest of the plot. Craven has sat in his castle for the last two years, he refused to become Grand Master of all magicians like his father, which allowed Scarabus to sneak in and take the job…but we never get the impression that Scarabus has been doing terrible things for the last twenty years. We can see he’s not a nice guy from what we see of him…he threatens to torture Craven’s daughter, he tries to kill people, he sleazes over Lenore…but if he’s so bad, surely even Craven would’ve heard about it.

Or maybe that’s the point. We start the film with Craven, so we’re in his worldview…we don’t hear about the outside world because he doesn’t either…maybe that’s the best way to show a character who’s been shut off from the world for two years. Or twenty years. The film’s not really specific about any of it.

There’s a final duel?

Yup. Prepare for extremely cheap special effects though…if you can’t handle the purple outline of the raven at the beginning of the film then you should probably skip the last fifteen minutes…but if you’re someone who has any intelligence or taste then you’ll see it as just adding to the charm of the film.

Vincent Price’s facial expressions are priceless…he really does come across as a guy who loves floating around a fake castle in a chair…and Boris Karloff sells all his frowns and smirks too. The guy actually thinks he’s won about seven different times, but you never doubt the outcome because Price simply cannot be killed when he’s having such a good time.

Doesn’t it kill the horror?

Yeah, but that doesn’t really matter. This isn’t the kind of horror that scares you or creeps you out, it’s the kind where you just sit back and soak up the scenery and the fakeness of everything and enjoy the fact that you’re watching actors and actresses who are all dead [except Jack Nic] and won’t be found on shit like twitter or the Golden Globes.

Is it scary at any point?

Not at all.

Scarabus is both human without a mask and beatable, though you’re not sure during the first half of the film as Price keeps his magic close to his chest [he even goes so far as to seem impressed by Karloff’s tricks when they first meet].

Is it creepy?

There are creepy parts…the idea of the film’s hero, Craven, keeping both his dead wife and his very dead father in his castle with easily-liftable lids is unnerving…but he does it with such calmness that it almost becomes normal.

Why do the magicians live so close to each other?

Not sure. I guess Malibu, 1963, was a close-knit community.

Does it go back to the Poe story at the end?

Yeah, it does. Price quotes the ‘nevermore’ line after he’s told Lorre to shut his beak [he’s been turned back into a raven], which comes across as a sly way of saying, I’m not gonna be tormented by you anymore, but I am gonna go back to sitting in my study sketching purple outlines of ravens looking through telescopes.

Maybe the whole film was a dream…

Now that I think of it, it might be. The raven first appears after Price has just magically sketched his own purple raven. And the raven, as Peter Lorre, does torment him throughout the film, first by telling him his wife is still alive, and secondly, by forcing him into a confrontation with the man who stole his wife, Scarabus…

Does this work…let me think…

The Poe story is just one man in his study, arguing with his own thoughts and memories…he torments himself, though we never find out how or why Lenore died, and that’s how it ends [far as I can remember].

In this film, he starts in his study, alone, his wife is dead, and then suddenly the raven leads him on this adventure to fight a magician who hasn’t tried to attack him for twenty years, yet now decides to provoke him into battle, and at the same time stealing his wife who turns out to be quite the bitch…finally, Scarabus is beaten [but not killed] and his wife is revealed to be a scheming sociopath which liberates him from mourning her…more than liberates, it excuses him from feeling any kind of guilt from her death, which we never learn the details of…because if this is all Craven’s fantasy then her death was real and maybe he had something to do with it…

I don’t know…it half makes sense…the only thing that brings it down is the participation of his daughter and Jack Nicholson…if he’s dreaming this, you could accept that he might bring his daughter into the plot, but how would he know about Jack Nicholson?

But then, if it is true, if the whole film is taking place inside his head then it makes the film a near masterpiece, and very faithful to the source text…and if the film is called ‘The Raven’ and starts off with references to that text but then abandons them for a silly trip to an evil magician’s castle…what’s the point of basing it on Poe in the first place?

Also, this thing was written by Richard Matheson. Would he really turn in a piece of shit with no depth whatsoever? Or not exactly a piece of shit, it’s still entertaining even if everything is taken literally, but a fluff film with nothing under the surface…

The more I think about it the more I think I’m right. Price makes the whole thing up in his subconscious…because:

i] He draws a raven at the start and a raven then appears outside his window.

ii] The raven is someone he’s met before [Peter Lorre] and looks untrustworthy.

iii] Scarabus was his father’s mortal enemy, so is a logical, physical manifestation of Craven’s own guilt or previous bad behaviour in general. Or a devil for him to defeat, one that is shown to be responsible for all the bad things in his life.

iv] He can’t overcome the grief of losing his wife, so his subconscious brings her back from the dead and turns her into a cheating bitch who never loved him in the first place, therefore making it easy for him to move on/forgive himself.

v] Jack Nicholson seems problematic for the theory, but could be reasoned as a bland, heroic figure that Price can accept giving his daughter away to.

vi] Price is like a gentle uncle throughout the whole film, never gets angry, just sorrowful, and smiles almost all the time. This kind of civility must have an opposite side that lurks beneath, especially within a magician who keeps dead relatives in his castle instead of putting them in the ground.

vii] The film ends back in the study with Lorre as a raven again, and sitting on the same statue head he was on when he started speaking earlier. It’s almost as if nothing happened.

viii] Price’s dead father comes back from the dead and warns him not to go to the castle. Price doesn’t seem to dwell on it at all.

There. I think eight points are enough to prove it.

I just searched ‘Richard Matheson The Raven 1963’ and got this:

‘The idea of making a movie from a short poem was idiotic, so the only thing to do was turn it into a comedy.’

Looks like I over-estimated Matheson a little. Never mind. The film still works well as a farce.

Next up: The House of Usher

Man, I’ve just downloaded ‘The House of Usher’ in Italian with no visuals and no subs. Only word I can understand is ‘Usher’.


Next up: The Town that Dreaded Sundown [both versions]

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