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Quoth movie versions of The Raven evermore?

The RavenThe end of July sees the release on DVD of the latest movie to bear the title The Raven. It stars John Cusack, is directed by James McTeague (V for Vendetta) and isn’t bad. I know that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise and in a way I am. More on this a little bit later on.

McTeague’s film is the latest in a series of movies that have used the title of Poe’s famous poem to go off at tangents, be a bit mental, and in fact do anything but adapt the literary work in question. In the world of filmmaking this of course makes perfect sense: it’s a great title, the poem is in the public domain, and adapting it faithfully would result in a picture that no self-respecting popcorn-munching member of the mass audience that really exists only in marketing professionals heads would want to see.

This is not a new phenomenon.

Probably the earliest version of note (and certainly the earliest worth a look) is the 1935 Universal picture of that name. It bears no relation to the poem at all, but it does star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a mash-up of the lurid conte cruele and an old dark house mystery. Lugosi is brilliant surgeon Dr Richard Vollin, who has forsaken his practice to live in a big house with an organ, rooms that can move about and a dungeon filled with torture devices from Poe’s stories. He’s a Poe obsessive, you see, which means he gets to recite a bit of the poem itself at the beginning while explaining to the nervous chap who has dared to suggest he might like to sell his Poe collection that the large stuffed bird on his desk that’s casting the most splendid shadow on the wall is his good luck charm. This chatty little introduction is interrupted by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S Hinds). It turns out his daughter Jean (Irene Ware) has been involved in a car accident and Vollin is the only man who can save her brain-damaged dancer’s life. Vollin agrees, saves Jean, and then gets a bit obsessed about her being his ‘Lenore’. In true mad doctor fashion he decides that the only way he can make her his is by inviting her and her friends including fiance Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) to a dinner party where afterwards he’s going to torture and kill them. His plan is helped along by the arrival at his house of Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a convicted murderer who wants his face changed so the police won’t recognise but also in the hope that if he’s made less ugly he may not ‘do ugly things anymore’. Vollin agrees but instead does something naughty to Bateman’s right facial nerve, turning that side of his face into a wrinkled monstrosity that’s revealed in the cruellest and most dramatic way possible before a wall of mirrors. Karloff shoots at the glass while Lugosi does a lot of silent film-style mugging from his observation window well away from the enraged criminal. Vollin promises to restore Karloff’s face if he will serve him.

The dinner party ensues, Karloff kidnaps the judge and Lugosi traps him beneath a swinging pendulum blade. The film is only an hour long and in the last ten minutes Jean and Jerry get trapped in a room with crushing walls, Bateman rebels, gets shot for his efforts, Jean and Jerry and the Judge are saved, Lugosi gets to say ‘Poe – you are avenged!’ before laughing maniacally and then being dragged into the crusher by Karloff who then drops dead form the bullet wounds inflicted on him by the mad doctor.

Universal’s The Raven is barking mad and absolutely worth watching, if only for the performances by the two leads – Karloff the consummate professional actor and Lugosi the unique presence that even in this film seems to be out of touch with modern cinema. Louis Friedlander (later Lew Landers) directs the proceedings pretty well, with the previously mentioned mirror scene a standout. What prevents it from being considered one of the best Universal horrors is its descent into cliched old dark house shenanigans near the end, but it’s still pretty good.

Roger Corman’s 1963 version of The Raven is a bird of an entirely different feather. Starting off with Vincent Price reading the poem over scenes from previous AIP Poe pictures he’s shortly being paid a visit by the bird of the title who, it turns out, is actually Peter Lorre after having had a spell cast on him by evil magician Dr Scarabus (Boris Karloff in his second Raven movie). Price is something of a magician himself and when he learns that Karloff may be harbouring Price’s lost love Lenore (Hazel Court) he sets off to Karloff’s castle with his daughter, Lorre, and Lorre’s son (played by an almost impossibly young Jack Nicholson) in tow. What then follows is almost akin to a British bedroom farce. In fact the entire movie is played for comedy and whether or not it will be to your taste depends on how serious you like your Poe pictures. For me the highlights are the quite wonderful production design by Daniel Haller, with the interior of Karloff’s castle being quite breathtaking, especially when one appreciates the budget involved. The interplay between the three leads is quite fun as well, but nowadays it almost feels as if the film was made for the children of the time and is a decidedly minor entry in the Corman-AIP Poe cycle.

And so we come to the most recent film of note to bear that title. James McTeague’s The Raven has a fantastic premise: at the end of his life Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) becomes involved in a murder-mystery in which a madman is killing people in the style of Poe’s stories. The trailer is marvellous, suggesting giallo-style intrigue amongst appropriately gloomy gothic trappings. Cusack is very good, as are some of the other members of the supporting cast, and the look of the film is appropriately bleak and monochromatic. The murder devices recall Dr Phibes in their complexity and ingenuity, and the climax is quite a bit of fun. But there’s something missing from The Raven that I just can’t put my finger on. I should have loved it but I didn’t. It’s missing that magic something that turns all the elements that should make a good horror film into an actual good one. The only serious problem I can identify is the miscasting of Alice Eve as the heroine. She’s pretty enough but she seems to have walked out of a time machine, sent back from whatever US daytime TV soap opera she seems to be better suited for. But even that shouldn’t stop The Raven from being a rollicking good time. Sadly it isn’t, and if anyone can tell me why I’d be delighted to hear from you.

JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

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