The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

hp1One thing can be said of Vincent Price -and its a trait shared by the great Peter Cushing, too- is that he acted in his horror b-movies as if he was performing in a classic Shakespeare play. Its one of the reasons I love his movies so much- no matter how cheesy and dated they might seem now, at their beating, bloody heart is Price, a huge presence on the screen exuding the aura of a mighty thespian reciting Hamlet. Horror fans just love their sneered at, b-movie genre treated seriously by anyone, especially back prior to when The Exorcist made horror movies respectable. Price, like Cushing in his many Hammer pictures on the other side of the pond, makes the films worthwhile all by himself, made a pleasure just by his presence- Price had such charm and wit and conviction in what he was doing. One of the greats.

So The Haunted Palace. This one’s a strange one, as its not Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace at all- its really H P Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Roger Corman was well into his cycle of Poe films at the time for AIP and here tried to branch out a little, but it was ultimately felt that the film masquerading as a Poe film would make it an easier sell, so the film is bookended by Price reciting lines from a Poe poem entitled The Haunted Palace and… well, there you go, another Poe movie.

hp3In some ways this is no bad thing. Much of Lovecrafts original story (one of my personal favourites of HPL, even though the author himself thought little of it) is lost in the adaptation, the film-makers clearly leaning towards the safety-net of their earlier stylistic Poe adaptations, so calling it The Haunted Palace seems fair enough. There is, however, just enough Lovecraft to make the whole thing worthwhile with quite a bit of the original stories unnerving horror proving effective. I have always thought The Case of Charles Dexter Ward would make a fantastic horror film if treated with the reverence it really demands and Palace rather proves it. Some of the references and hints towards the girls of the village being bred with whatever creature crawls up out of the subterranean pit are quite disturbing. Its also nice, frankly, to see a serious Lovecraft adaptation, after being assaulted by all those horror-comedies like Reanimator and The Beyond, which threw in humour and shovels of gore replacing the psychological horror of the original stories. At least in Palace, diluted by the censorship of the time as it is, the real horror of Lovecraft yet lingers and is given serious attention. This is a horror film without the laughs or OTT gore, and on the whole it works very well indeed. I also got a kick out of the characters having names from the original Lovecraft story- I know it might seem dumb, but hearing names like Joseph Curwen and Charles Ward and Dr Willet bandied about was a genuine thrill.

hp2The sets and general production values look far more impressive than the films actual basement-level cost, and really holds up very well- even when the sets at times reveal their true nature by looking somewhat ‘fake’ it gives the film a strangely dreamlike quality that only increases its effectiveness. The dungeon with its wooden staircase and its pyramid-like pit, however, is a triumph and is really effective.

The films prologue details a village uprising in Arkham, that results in the burning of evil Warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), who has been taking village girls into his lair and subjecting them to blasphemous ordeals. Just before Curwen perishes in the flames, he curses Arkham and promises them that their descendants will yet suffer his wrath. 110 years later, Curwen’s great-great grandson Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in Arkham, oblivious to his ancestors dark deeds, and takes up residence in the mansion that overlooks the town. Ward and his wife (an excellent Debra Paget in her last film prior to her retirement) are shunned by the town folk, except for the town’s physician, Dr Willet, who tells them that the horribly disfigured people that they have seen amongst the townsfolk are considered part of Curwen’s curse on Arkham.

The mansion seems to hold a particular hold over Ward- particularly the fireside portrait of Joseph Curwen that reveals an uncanny likeness to Ward. It soon becomes evident that the evil spirit of Curwen yet lingers in the mansion, slowly but surely taking hold of Ward’s psyche until the innocent Ward is utterly overcome. Wards wife is horrified but powerless as Ward begins to resume his ancestors evil work, including resurrecting Curwen’s own long-dead wife and offering Ward’s wife to the demonic creature of the pit. Price is of course marvellous in the dual role, at times shifting from innocent to pure evil in the blink of an eye. He seems to be relishing the part- well, of course he is. He’s treating it like one of the greatest roles ever written, as he always seemed to.

The Haunted Palace is a very effective and enjoyable old-style horror film. Fans of Lovecraft will particularly enjoy picking out the Lovecraftian elements from the original story, but on the whole it works simply as a very good horror film, certainly on a par with much of Hammer’s output. This is clearly a contender for my choice of this years Halloween viewing come October…