THE RAVEN (1963) August 21st 1977 00.05-01.30
‘Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!” ‘
Dr Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price)
Okay, let’s get this straight. As those of you who have been happily guffawing your way through my previous posts will readily attest, I am a funny guy. A very funny guy. In fact – if you’ll permit me – I am a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. I am wont to set the pub table on a roar at any available opportunity. I am the sultan of the sarcastic retort. The wizard of the witty riposte. The aristocrat of the acerbic aphorism. The duke of the devilish double entendre and the clown prince of punning parody. Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen purloin my polished one-liners. My mots could not be more bon. My sense of humour, in other words, is finely honed.
Even so, there is a kind of broad, overly assertive comedy which leaves me completely cold. Jim Carrey, for instance, is an actor whose work I can admire very much in more restrained, dramatic vehicles like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The moment he begins to try and make me laugh, however, he has something like the effect on me of nails being scraped along a blackboard. It’s not just Carrey. There are whole genres of humour that feel to me like being grabbed by the throat, banged over the head, kicked in the nadgers and told to think it’s funny. Gurning and screeching comics straining for impact set my comedic teeth on edge. To offer a double-act example of what I mean, for those of a certain age and nationality: Morecambe and Wise were simply funny, while Cannon and Ball were being funny (American readers may need to mentally substitute ‘Laurel and Hardy’ and ‘The Three Stooges’ respectively to reach the same conclusion). The being shows, and just ends up feeling uncomfortable. It’s why I hate pantomimes.
It isn’t just professional funny folk. Enforced jollity in all its forms is equally painful to me. There’s a particular breed of joyless personality, who is always somehow nerve-shreddingly in search of ‘fun’. People who regard the novelty tie as a perfectly acceptable substitute for a personality. Overly keen Secret Santa organisers. Fiercely devoted fancy dress fans. Anyone who describes themselves as ‘wacky’. They tend to find men dressed as women hilariously funny in and of itself and hurl themselves into comedic charity events with an utterly humourless enthusiasm that borders on the maniacal. My usual approach if faced by one – or worse, several – of these irritatingly frolicsome fuckers is to explain through gritted teeth that, as a long term and committed proponent of the Miserabilist faith, my religion demands that I am surrounded at all times by a five hundred yard fun-free exclusion zone.
Bringing it closer to this site’s home territory, this is the reason I can never really enjoy, for instance, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Many later critics have been generous to Universal’s final monster mash-up, this time played completely for laughs, seeing in it an affectionate farewell to the Golden Age. For me however, good though both Lugosi and Chaney are while reprising their best known roles, the film is an unpleasant watch due to the laboured, grating gag-fest Bud and Lou bring to the material. Having said that, in its defence the film has the comedic elegance of P.G. Wodehouse if measured against the ghastliness of the post-millennial comedy-horror farrago that is the Scary Movie series.
Of course I recognise this says more about me than it does about anyone else. Humour is, by definition, subjective. If someone finds something funny, then it is funny, whether or not I happen to agree with them. It doesn’t make them ‘wrong’, and me objectively ‘right’. Even though I am. But all of this would seem to make it likely that Roger Corman’s 1963 The Raven is simply not for me.
Any film that features Jack Nicholson dressed as a pantomime Robin Hood, complete with feathery hat, scores dangerously high on the jollity scale in my book.
You see, by this point Corman had begun to feel almost as trapped and frustrated by the conventions of his Poe cycle as he had previously been by the endless round of low budget black and white AIP quickies which he had created the Poe films in order to escape from. Desperate to find something new in the formula, Corman remembered the humorous ‘Black Cat’ segment he had added to his 1962 portmanteau film Tales of Terror, as well as the pairing of that segment’s stars, the ubiquitous Vincent Price and, for the first time, Peter Lorre. For his adaptation of The Raven, Corman had screenwriter Richard Matheson heighten and extend the tongue in cheek tone to feature length. Perhaps he was emboldened in the approach by the fact that, even more than the narratively slight short stories the previous Poe pictures had used as inspiration, Poe’s famous poem had almost no narrative at all, so there was no plot to depart from.
Of course, the connection to Poe in Corman’s tale of battling mediaeval magicians is no more tenuous than that in Universal’s 1935 vehicle for Karloff and Lugosi, but the mood of the two films could not be more different. Where Universal had responded to Poe’s verse with a dark, morbid take on tormented genius and obsession, Corman’s film works as broad, knockabout farce. As such, with my hard earned ‘Mr Picky’ persona when it comes to comedy, I could be expected to find AIP’s The Raven a gratingly unpleasant experience.
In fact, I love it. I loved it then, and I love it still.
Here is why.
Back in 1977, viewing it for the first time, Corman’s film had more than enough brooding gothic trappings to delight my morbid adolescent heart. Of course even as a twelve year old, I could see the tongue in cheek, almost Scooby Doo tone of the film, but there were still a series of beautifully realised crypts and coffins and decaying corpses. It still had gothic castles and haunted palaces aplenty. It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t played straight; the production design was absolutely straight, and the trappings were more than enough for me. In fact, viewed later, and with greater knowledge of the film’s production history, The Raven has even more of these things than the earlier, more Poe-faced (see what I did there?) movies, since a typically canny and cash-conscious Corman had stumbled on the strategy of re-using sets from the previous Poe pictures alongside a new build for each subsequent production, thus delivering incrementally richer environments with each successive film.
It was more than just the sets though. The film had Price and Lorre and Karloff, a piece of dream casting so good it was repeated, with Basil Rathbone thrown in for good measure, for another AIP knockabout horror comedy, the even more enjoyable Jacques Tourneur directed Comedy of Terrors. And the dream casting begins to meld into another reason I continue to love the film, despite its slightly forced and over-eager attempts to amuse: Saturday night nostalgia.
Corman’s film, with its big guest stars and its juvenile lead (who was a huge celebrity by 1977) all hamming it up in silly costumes, slotted beautifully into the wider landscape of the seventies Saturday night British television on which I grew up. The BBC’s iron domination of the Golden Age of Saturday TV was all built around the cult of personality. That was the common factor running through all of the programming now so fondly remembered: big, bold personalities that burst off the screen. From Basil Brush and Tom Baker in the early evening, through Brucie or Larry on The Generation Game, to the Two Ronnies, to Gemma Jones’s fantastic embodiment of the larger than life Louisa Trotter in The Duchess of Duke Street, to Parkinson and his superstar guests.
These were actors that seemed almost too big for the small screen, presenters that were bigger than the shows they presented. It wasn’t, for instance, anything particularly witty in the scripts or anything exceptionally skilled in the technique of puppeteering that made The Basil Brush Show such a fixture of Saturday night children’s entertainment, but the manic ebullience of Basil’s own misguided conviction in the unrivalled hilarity of his material. ‘BOOM BOOM’ he cried repeatedly, collapsing sideways in sheer joy at the magnificence of whatever cringeworthy punchline he had just delivered, and a nation felt his joy, and shared it.
Similarly it was not, in the end, the fantastic, dark, engrossing script work of Terrance Dicks or Robert Holmes that will have hard-edged grown men in their 50s – and I count myself a proud member of their number – grow misty-eyed when recalling how much Doctor Who meant to them as children, but the ferociously daring intensity of Tom Baker’s goggle-eyed commitment to the role. Or, if you prefer, Jon Pertwee’s earlier, effortlessly commanding ability to reassure for England, were reassuring an Olympic Sport.
It was into this context that Corman’s The Raven dropped as the second feature of a BBC2 horror double bill in the early hours of August the 21st. The heightened, knowingly hammy performances of Price and Lorre and Karloff were far more about personality than about ‘acting’ – just of a piece, in other words, with the rest of the BBC’s Saturday night schedule. No-one could argue that the actors are carefully subsumed and effaced by their characters here; in fact it’s just the opposite. The effect of the whole piece is precisely because it is Price, and Lorre, and Karloff, just as though the old ghouls were guesting in a creepy comedy sketch on Dave Allen at Large or The Two Ronnies. It’s possible to watch the entire film as though it were ‘a play what Ernie wrote’ while mentally picturing Eric Morecambe in Jack Nicholson’s role using the props to badly ventriloquise the opinion that the whole thing is ‘Ruggish’.
The beautiful dovetailing of the personalities on screen was not entirely reflected off-screen, however, if Corman’s recollections of the set are at all accurate. The problems ran a little deeper than Nicholson’s understandable dislike of being crapped on by the production’s trained raven – although he evidently became a little less fastidious later in his career. He didn’t seem to mind being crapped on by the screenwriter of Man Trouble, or the director of Wolf, for example. It wasn’t even the difficulties surrounding the ageing Boris Karloff’s increasing physical discomfort and incapacity – by this point the actor could barely walk in real life.
No, the main issue came in the shape of Peter Lorre’s free and easy approach to minor matters like the dialogue. Improvising furiously, he irritated the normally affable Karloff by failing to offer up any of the lines which the by-the-book Englishman was waiting for. Karloff, ever the consummate professional and the epitome of the old-school ‘trained act-or’ felt wrong-footed and uncomfortable with never knowing where the next cue was coming from. According to his own account, Vincent Price was forced to act as a kind of emollient in soothing the troubles between his two antagonistic co-stars.
In the end, sadly, the last laugh is on poor Boris, since Lorre ends up comprehensively upstaging everyone and walks away with the film. His Dr Bedloe, by turns pompous, cowardly and wonderfully self-aggrandizing, is a joy to watch, even in the moments when he is physically represented on screen by the raven (when it wasn’t busy whitewashing the set), and Lorre’s performance is by some distance the most enjoyable and entertaining thing in a massively enjoyable and entertaining film.
Perhaps this might also be the most opportune place to consider Lorre’s place in the horror stars’ pantheon, since it was his only appearance in this 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills. For one thing, unlike say Lugosi or Karloff or Chaney or Price or Lee or Cushing, Lorre was never predominantly a horror film actor. Yes, it’s true that you could point to non-genre roles for all of the others (even Lugosi had Ninotchka opposite Greta Garbo), but I think it’s fair to say that these always feel like interesting side-roads or footnotes to what was basically a horror film career. In Lorre’s case, however, his position is probably more indelibly associated with eye-catching supporting roles opposite Bogart in both Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, or with the series of subsequent, Bogartless, noirish thrillers he made with his other co-star from those classics, Sydney Greenstreet – wonderful films like The Mask of Dimitrios in which Lorre played against type as the film’s writer hero. Starting in Germany with an unforgettable performance as the eponymous child killer in Fritz Lang’s M, Lorre’s screen image is also strongly associated with his wonderful line in psychopathology, with key roles in early Hitchcock pieces like the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, or the Hollywood adaptation of Crime and Punishment for instance, but these were still clearly not operating within anything that could meaningfully be considered part of the horror genre.
In fact Lorre’s status as a major horror star is based on only a handful of performances, notably as Dr Gogol in 1935’s Mad Love, and in Robert Florey’s wonderfully atmospheric The Beast with Five Fingers in 1946, before parodying this image in horror-comedies like Tales of Terror, The Raven and Comedy of Terrors, a tendency that began with his magnificent comedic turn as Raymond Massey’s cringing co-conspirator in the 1940s screen adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Nonetheless, so powerful was the impression Lorre generated in a relatively minor number of excursions into the genre that it seemed natural for RKO to throw him alongside Karloff and Lugosi as an equal part of the ‘spooky’ element of a largely forgotten 1940 comedy called You’ll Find Out, or that he looms large alongside both Chaneys, Karloff, Lugosi and Price, never feeling out of place in their company, in Heroes of the Horrors, Calvin Thomas Beck’s biographical approach to the genre, a book beloved of all monster kids everywhere.
There’s much to enjoy in Corman’s The Raven, but Lorre is right at the heart of most of it, justifying the director’s feeling that the actor had not only all the horror credentials required to sit so beautifully alongside Karloff, Price and Poe, but also the quality of knowingness to judge exactly the degree of campery and ham to lend a performance which would most perfectly enhance a hybrid piece like this.
There’s one final, more personal reason I love The Raven though.
It was the only film over the entire course of five consecutive year’s worth of summer seasons of BBC2 horror double bills which my mum enjoyed as much as I did. More often than not, I would be watching at least the second feature alone, but sometimes mum would sit up and watch with me as she did on this occasion, and this was the single time I can remember her expressing a wholeheartedly positive response to the film in question. In fact, for years afterwards if one of us was talking too much, or expressing an opinion mum didn’t much care for, she would press her thumb and first finger together in a passable impression of Vincent Price’s final gesture in the film and pronounce – in a rather less passable impression of Price’s silky tones – “Quoth the raven nevermore.”
Mum wasn’t keen on ‘dark’, or ‘troubling’ or ‘gloomy’. Certainly not ‘scary’. She viewed the world with an essential optimism, and didn’t like to acknowledge the dark behind the curtain. When it finally came at her, in the shape of the death of my dad, she chose to grow a tumour and die of a broken heart rather than deal with a new and darker world. So although, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, both mum and dad were extraordinarily tolerant of my obsessions, I think there’s no doubt that mum in particular would have preferred me to enjoy a somewhat sunnier mental and emotional landscape than I did. Whenever I chose to share whatever dark fixation was preoccupying me at any given moment, she would give an affectionate but slightly baffled shake of the head, and mutter the word ‘Morbid’ while wistfully imagining a more clean-cut, athletic, square-jawed path through adolescence for me.
So The Raven, its light-hearted silliness counterbalancing its tombs and terrors, pleased her, and for once found us on the same page when it came to the pleasures of the monster movie double bill.
Humour suited mum better than horror. When I try to picture her now, peering back through the fog that so cruelly intervenes when we try to hold the face of a dead loved one in our mind’s eye, I can only ever see her laughing.
Which, of course, is just what she would have wanted.