The first and funnier of the two early-60s teamings of the so-called triumvirate of terror (Vincent Prince, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff), Roger Corman’s The Raven (screening tomorrow and Sunday at Anthology Film Archives as part of an extensive Corman series beginning tonight) represents the comedic center of the director’s 8-film Poe cycle. While other entries in the series veer toward the humorous, with this 1963 offering, Corman places the horror setting at the strict service of the comic. Starting out in an atmosphere of dense gothic brooding, with Price intoning the opening stanzas of the eponymous poem in the study of a gloom-sealed castle, the opening’s moody self-seriousness (and by extension that of the earlier films in the cycle) is quickly subjected to a rude deflationary poke. When the raven appears gently rapping at Price’s chamber door (or, in this case, window), he asks the bird if he shall ever see his lost Lenore. “How the hell should I know,” replies the creature, sounding suspiciously like Peter Lorre. “What am I, a fortune teller?”
As in several of the films in the series, Corman treats the source material as little more than a starting point and, in The Raven, he gets Poe out of the way quickly, converting the bird back to human form (Lorre, of course) and explaining the initial transformation as the work of the evil sorcerer Dr. Scarabus (Karloff). As Price and Lorre wend their way across town to pay the wizard a visit, they engage in antics both mildly humorous (a battle between Lorre and an axe-wielding madman that Corman shoots like a bullfight) and very humorous (mostly centered around Lorre’s transparent blustering and tossed-off asides). Price plays it largely straight here, but when they arrive at the castle, his wry, slightly cynical affect is more than matched by Karloff’s precise, ultra-dry delivery. There are a few slow moments along the way, but it all leads up to the can’t-miss final showdown, in which Price and Karloff’s wizards engage in a duel to the death. Seated in facing chairs, they take turns attacking each other with magical apparitions (snakes, bats, gargoyles) which are quickly rendered into harmless objects (scarves, fans, puppies) by their opponent. Hokey special effects and humorously allusive musical cues add to the fun. And if all that weren’t enough, there’s a young Jack Nicholson getting a chance to try out the maniacal grin that would quickly becomes his trademark.