With its rather ominous opening, the viewer would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Roger Corman’s adaptation of Poe’s The Raven would be in similar ilk to his other dark Poe films. What at first seems like yet another gothic retelling of a Poe classic turns out to be a swiftly delivered curve ball that has, at its core, a desire for fun and mischief rather than for scares and dark forebodings.
Vincent Price plays Dr Erasmus Craven, one of many sorcerers to appear in the film. He may be on the side of good but this implies that the villains are genuinely bad. Boris Karloff plays the closest to what the film has to a villain in the form of Dr Scarabus but this is a film about having a laugh at the absurdity of the fantasy genre rather than genuine battles of good vs. evil. To add to an already impressive cast is Peter Lorre as the hilarious Dr. Bedlo who appears first in the form of a raven and then proceeds to be one of the most hilariously inept sorcerers in fantasy.
Bedlo was turned into a raven by Scarabus but the action taken by the sorcerers seems more in line with playground antics than fantasy action. Jack Nicholson also makes an early film appearance as the dashing hero of the piece though is sidelined in the film in place wizardry and joyfully silly battles. Though very clearly aiming at a younger market, Corman still manages to add a few spine tingling elements to the film. These are mainly to be found in the film’s opening twenty minutes and revolve around Craven trying to find the rather gruesome ingredients to cure Bedlo from of his raven form. It must be stated that though the connection to the original adaptation of The Raven (1935) through Boris Karloff is its only link. The original was a tense, gothic tale of murder far more in line with Poe’s original prose. This is the polar opposite in almost every conceivable way.
Corman’s Raven is far more laxed about its source material to the point where it’s all but abandoned after the film’s introduction. Though this may perhaps not do it any favours among the horror purists, criticisms of the film based around its lack of seriousness misses the point entirely. Perhaps also with Corman’s excellent track record for Poe adaptations, it comes as a shock to find him playing so freely with the material but it’s something he would come back to again and again (also remembering his previous horror comedy Little Shop of Horrors (1960)).
Though more in line with the TV series Bewitched than with the likes of Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven is a perfect film for the winter. Its silly nature gives it the feel of a Christmas film, however, boasting an extremely strong cast of horror royalty and providing some genuine laughs along with its witty wizardry, The Raven is a film that can be forgiven for straying array from the purely horrific and should instead be enjoyed for what it is; fun.