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The Comedy of Terrors / The Raven

Producer/director Roger Corman's biggest critical and commercial successes were his moody adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe classics for American International Pictures. Starting with 1960's The Fall of the House of Usher and 1961's The Pit and the Pendulum, the series elevated Corman's status as a filmmaker of skill and economy, and permanently engraved Vincent Price's face on horror cinema's Mt. Rushmore. After a handful of these, everyone agreed that it was time to lighten up and have some fun. Corman had directed comedy already, a low-low-budget mock-horror film with Jack Nicholson, 1960's Little Shop of Horrors. In '62 he teamed up Price with Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone in a Poe anthology film, Tales of Terror, where he again revealed a light touch. For The Raven in '63, he went for outright whimsy in a giddy spoof that brought together Price, Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Nicholson. The following year saw Corman casting Price, Lorre, Karloff, and Rathbone in Comedy of Terrors. Both The Raven and Comedy of Terrors took advantage of the gothic look of the "AIPoes" courtesy of Corman's in-house designer Daniel Haller and photographer Floyd Crosby. Also carried over was screenwriter Richard Matheson. These once-over-slightly comedies are the very definition of "lightweight" and feel aimed more at kids than grownups, but they show off a screwball side of their heavyweight castmembers, who were all naturally gifted at comic shenanigans. As Matheson says on a new supplement filmed for this disc, "no one realizes how these so-called 'scary actors', how funny they could be." The two comedies preserved here (in reverse chronological order) are no pathbreaking additions to either horror or comedy cinema, but they do serve as pair of mints before we dig into the best of Corman's richer fare, The Masque of the Red Death ('64) and The Tomb of Ligeia ('65).

In Comedy of Terrors, unscrupulous undertaker Price realizes that business needs a pick-up. Aided by his put-upon assistant Lorre, he connives to boost demand by sneaking into the bedrooms of wealthy old men and smothering them in their sleep, then being on hand to manage funeral arrangements (which includes re-using coffins) when the relatives arrive. Price is at his best when verbally abusing his wife, Barbara Nichols, and her dotty old codger father, Karloff. Basil Rathbone takes an appropriately hammy spin as the Macbeth-spouting landlord. After he comes to Price demanding the past year's rent, the film occupies itself with Price trying time and again to do in Rathbone, who won't stay dead even when laid out at his own burial service. Everyone here is great fun to watch playing against type. Karloff is a snoozy old duffer who burbles on about historical funereal rites, Price's villainy is spiky and booze-soaked rather than his usual silky and genteel, and 60-year-old Lorre, of all people, gets to be the love interest. Joe E. Brown appears in a cameo as a crypt keeper.

There's some terrific comic interplay, and director Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon) keeps it all looking good and moving forward. Nonetheless, this is an 84-minute film spun from 42 minutes worth of material. If you've seen Neil Simon's Murder by Death you're already familiar with the tone here, and before long the experience alternates between enjoying some funny bits and checking the Time Remaining clock.

Entertaining and endearing fluff, The Raven takes Poe's most famous poem and doesn't so much adapt it as dress it up in a clown nose and silly hat. As the first screen team-up of Price, Karloff, and Lorre, it's a spoof of Corman's melodramatic Grand Guignol Poe movies and a sendup of its stars' status as the "Triumvirate of Terror." Price is Dr. Erasmus Craven, a retired sorcerer mooning over the death of his wife Lenore two years earlier. As he gloomily recites Poe's lines of lamentation, a raven flies into the room. The raven is talky and obnoxious — "Will I ever see my lost Lenore?" the wizard entreats, "How the hell should I know?" quoth the bird — and some hocus-pocus turns it into pudgy Dr. Bedlo (Lorre). A low-rent conjurer, Bedlo reports that he'd been turned into a raven by rival sorcerer Dr. Scarabus (Karloff), and that at Scarabus' castle he saw a woman who looks like Lenore. Craven and Bedlo ride to Scarabus' castle to investigate. They're accompanied by Craven's daughter (Olive Sturgess) and her boyfriend, played with gee-whiz sincerity by Jack Nicholson, who was all of 26 but looked 18. (Even when he's under the thrall of Scarabus' "diabolical mind control," it's hard to shake the cognitive dissonance of Jack Nicholson posing like Burt Ward in a castoff Robin Hood costume.) It turns out that Lenore (Hazel Court, of cleavage fame) faked her death to take up with wealthy and powerful Scarabus. Craven's confrontation with his rival escalates to a battle of wizardly magic that's wrought with colorful and precisely cheesy special effects.

The Raven is pleasurable in a Saturday-morning-with-a-bowl-of-Fruit-Loops sort of way, and while watching it there's no question that the cast is having a relaxed, high old time. Karloff has more presence here than in Comedy of Terrors, and proves why he was the one true voice of the Grinch. Corman was always a master of the bottom line. Because he brought the film in ahead of schedule, under budget, and with three days left on Karloff's contract, he shot another quickie on the same sets, The Terror, a precursor of Peter Bogdanovich's first film, Targets.

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MGM's "Midnite Movies" double-feature disc delivers both films in their original 2.35:1 (anamorphic). They look marvelous. Each shows off rich color and exquisite, nearly flawless prints. Audio comes in DD 2.0 monaural that's perfectly strong and clear. The Raven has some moments when the audio suddenly becomes a bit noisier and less robust, as if it's from a different source print, but it's nothing serious.

Once again MGM adorns its Corman Poe releases with first-rate extras. Two short movie-specific featurettes, made in 2003 and each titled Richard Matheson: Storyteller, point the camera at the prolific and self-described "offbeat" screenwriter/novelist, who fondly praises the cast, Corman, and Tourneur, and waxes philosophical about writing and the nature of Being. Another new mini-docu, illustrated with behind-the-scenes shots, is Corman's Comedy of Poe. The genial producer/director himself discusses The Raven's conception and development, as well as working with Nicholson, and notes that it's one of his personal favorite films. Further extras are the original theatrical trailers for each film, plus (a particularly nifty bonus) the five-minute audio from an AIP promotional 45 RPM record made for The Raven, presumably for radio play. It's narrated by voice talent Paul Frees and Boris Karloff, and illustrated here by a stills gallery of the record itself and PR shots of the cast. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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