An Unkindness Of Ravens – Never Say Nevermore Again

A Special Feature by Dan Bean.

Whether you know much about Edgar Allan Poe’s work or not, there’s a decent chance you’re familiar with his poem The Raven – it was adapted in one of The Simpsons’ earliest Treehouse Of Horror episodes, and I reckon if anyone asked you to finish the line “Quoth the raven…”, you’d respond “Nevermore”… right?

But how do you adapt a poem about a man being distracted from his reading and mourning of his dead wife by a crow into a feature film? The answer is – you don’t.

Instead, you take the title and maybe a passing nod to elements of the text, and build your own star vehicle around them, bolting the title on to draw in the Poe fans and give the finished product an air of literary relevance it might not otherwise have.

Here, then, is a quick look at three Ravens – the collective noun for which is ‘an unkindness’, brilliantly – all very different from each other, and all well worth seeking out in their own rights.

The 1935 Pre-Code Nasty

The opening credits to this film boast appearances by Karloff and Lugosi, but don’t feel the need to use their first names, because hell – who was going to see a horror film in 1935 and didn’t know who these guys were?

Listed as “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal classic”, this Raven centres on Lugosi’s Dr Vollin – a Poe-obsessed surgeon who claims the raven is his talisman, and keeps a bunch of torture devices from Poe’s stories in a hidden basement.

As you do.

Vollin uses his unique surgical skills to save the life of Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), after she crashes a car, and becomes infatuated with her as she pays thanks to him with a Poe-themed expressive dance before a theatre filled with people.

Karloff, meanwhile, enters the film as on-the-run and oddly-sympathetic criminal Bateman, who seriously injured a man while escaping, and pleads with Vollin to change his face and disguise him.

This works out in a Monkey’s Paw kind of way, as Vollin deliberately severs nerves in his face, leaving his right side drooping, baggy and dead with one eye open lazily (well, painted badly over his closed eyelid, but it’s not a bad job for 1935).

He promises to fix Bateman if he’ll help him murder Jean’s dad in his Pit & The Pendulum-themed cellar, and Karloff agrees, despite his misgivings, before turning to the side of good in the final minutes.

In terms of Pre-Code catnip, you’ve got a doctor who is referred to as an extraordinary man, “almost a god”, Vollin’s predatory advances on his recovering patient, and some scantily-clad interpretive dance, before we even get to the graphic descriptions of a face being burned off and Poe’s torture devices.

Lugosi gives good ‘mad scientist’ here, and there’s also a nice role for Karloff as a mentally tortured criminal, while the actual torture leads to ‘classic’ lines like this…

JUDGE THATCHER: “What’s that thing?”

VOLLIN: “A knife!”

JUDGE THATCHER: “What’s it doing?”

VOLLIN: “Descending!”

The film has a tonne of classic horror tropes – mad scientist, disfigured criminal (shame that Hollywood still hasn’t moved on from this one, to be honest, but that’s a discussion for another day), secret passages in a spooky mansion, dark, stormy nights, a couple in love and in danger overcoming the odds, and some huge, broad monologues in place of subtle performances.

It’s a hugely enjoyable 60-odd minutes, even if it has bugger all to do with the original poem, and is well worth checking out.

The 1963 Corman Comedy

Well now, this one is a completely different kettle of fish (or whatever the ornithological equivalent of that metaphor might be).

This Raven is a daft, enjoyable period comedy based around a bunch of sorcerers comparing their magical skills because they’ve all been honeytrapped by the same woman. Or something like that – it’s a very silly film.

Opening with shots of psychedelic oils, waves, a coffin and a dark old house cut together under the incomparable tones of Vincent Price narrating the Poe poem, it sort of feels like this one is going to do its best to adapt the original work… for a couple of minutes, anyway.

Like the poem’s narrator, Dr Erasmus Craven (Price), is sitting in his study one midnight dreary, only instead of reading volumes of forgotten lore, he’s doing some Doctor Strange hand movements and creating a sort of purple neon raven at the other side of the room to humour himself. Then there’s a bit of comic business as he goes to check the door, then the window and he goes a bit Frank Spencer with a telescope when there’s a tapping, as of someone gently rapping at his chamber door… and in bursts a raven, with the voice of Peter Lorre!

It turns out the raven is actually Dr Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), is a fellow sorcerer who got drunk and abusive then got turned into a bird by the head magician round these parts, so he’s come to Price to change him back into a human. There’s a lot more comic business and hammy face-pulling by Price as he checks his cellar for gruesome ‘witches brew’ingredients (deadpanning “we don’t keep those things in this house, we’re vegetarian”), before Lorre is transformed back.

As they’re chatting, Lorre spots a portrait of Price’s late wife – whom the angels named Lenore, and who Hammer fans might recognise as Hazel Court – and is adamant she’s not dead, but living with head sorcerer Dr Scarabus (Karloff), in a castle a few miles away. So off they go – after yet more comic business trying on hats and cloaks – with Price’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess), and Lorre’s son Rexford (played by a young but, frankly, bloody awful Jack Nicholson), to face Karloff in a seated display of magical powers that has to be seen to be believed.

Remember the Gandalf/Saruman battle in Fellowship Of The Ring? This isn’t that.

It’s basically a long, smirking, wordless sequence which sees an elderly man and a middle-aged man seated in thrones throwing finger shapes, light shows and fake animals at each other and floating gently around among daft musical cues – it’s Doctor Strange by way of Looney Tunes, and I’m totally here for it.

The battle ends, as most Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films do, with the castle burning down (or at least with stock footage of a castle burning down – I think it’s from his Fall Of The House Of Usher, and it’s essentially a visual Wilhelm Scream), but despite it apparently being a battle to the death, everyone survives. The good guys go home, the bad guys roll their eyes, and we even get a “quoth the raven, nevermore” right down the barrel of the lens to round out the film.

Is it a faithful adaptation of the Poe work? Is it bollocks.

Is it fun? Yeah, in a goofy kind of way. If you’re into the Corman/Price team-ups, want to see a young Jack Nicholson before he got good at his craft, or just see Boris Karloff blow up Peter Lorre using magic, you’re not going to see that anywhere else, and I’ll admit Price’s style is an acquired taste, but I really enjoy it.

Is it a good film? Truth be told, for all the money spent on costumes (this was the most expensive of Corman’s Poe films), this looks and feels like it was a pretty fast turnaround – not cheap, exactly, but certainly economical. In fact, the film actually wrapped two days ahead of schedule, so Corman kept the sets, Karloff and Nicholson around and made The Terror with the time left over.

The 2012 Murder Mystery

This is another interesting take on the poem, insofar as it’s also not actually about the poem at all – rather, it’s a murder-mystery set during the final days of Poe’s life.

Y’see, Poe was found delirious and quite unwell wearing someone else’s clothes in a Baltimore bar on October 3 1849. He died in hospital on October 7, and while there have been a few suggestions as to the cause of his death, the records have been lost, leading to all kinds of speculation.

So what the 2012 film does is to conjure up a thrilling, Saw and Se7en-like detective thriller based around Poe’s final days, which ends (and starts), with his death. And loads of big crows.

John Cusack (making his second appearance on Late Reviewer), plays Poe as an arrogant, permanently hungover, slightly washed-up but ultimately decent writer, who falls under the suspicion of Baltimore’s finest (led by Luke Evans), for a series of grisly murders which are based upon character deaths from his stories (including The Pit And The Pendulum, Murders In The Rue Morgue and many more).

The film begins with a speedy retelling of Poe’s Murders In The Rue Morgue, albeit in Baltimore and with more implied than actual violence, to quicken the pulse (if you’ve never read it, it’s well worth your time), and while it is the second film in this list to include a lethal descending pendulum, it felt to me like the tension was spent too quickly this time around.

Alright, it’s early in the film and we need to establish how serious and violent the killer is, but the murder by pendulum felt a bit rushed to me. That being said, when the pendulum actually made contact, it felt visceral and ugly, so while it was quick, I guess it was effective.

In fairness, it’s a decent pitch for a film, and James McTeigue – who did decent work with V For Vendetta, a future Late Review – does his best to gloss over the narrative cracks. For all his blowhard pride in the early scenes, Cusack makes for a great watch as he dries out to support the police investigation and becomes all the more horrified by the interpretations of the stories he wrote for money and fame. The crimes begin to hit closer to home as the woman he loves (Alice Eve), is kidnapped and buried alive, with Poe and the cops forced into a race against time to save her and unmask the killer.

That unmasking, when it comes, was – for me, at least – a little underwhelming, to the point where I barely remembered seeing the guy earlier in the film. Of course, there are plenty of red herrings throw about too, and that could have been the point, but it felt like there might have been a few scenes cut which might’ve made it more of a significant reveal.

Overall though, it’s a good-looking, if murky film – huge swathes of it are set in darkness or mist, but the period details in the newspaper offices Poe writes for, a cool set piece at a masked ball, Brendan Gleeson’s marvellous moustache, and a poetry reading at a society meeting featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Pam Ferris really show where the money’s been spent, with detailed sets and lavish costumes aplenty.

Is it Poe? Sort of, yeah. And also, no, not really. You don’t need to know his work inside out to appreciate the references, as the script spell them out for you with crime scene exposition dumps.

Is it worth a watch? Yeah, I think it is – it’s certainly never going to trouble anyone’s ‘top five of all time’ list, but it’s a neat idea, explored well, and Cusack is always watchable. If nothing else, it’s a decent Friday night whodunnit with a few big names and an intriguing central premise.

Never Say Nevermore Again

So there you have it – three films which are ostensibly based on the same source material, each completely different from the next, and none of them really bearing any resemblance to Poe’s poem.

They’re all pretty easily available too, so if you’re looking for a Halloween film out of left field this year, you could do worse than the 1935 or 2012 versions. If you were looking for something involving wizards you could watch with the kids (that doesn’t include a lightning-bolt forehead scar), then the 1963 version is for you.

It’s a bit of a Late Reviewer tradition to try and find positive things to say about the films being written about, and I’ll admit to indulging a little in that here too. But the truth is, I’ve enjoyed elements of each of them and was happy to sit through them all.

Admittedly, I’d probably revisit the 1935 one before the others, but that’s just me and if I found either of the others while channel surfing (unlikely, but you never know), I’d happily tune in for a bit and know I’d soon be hooked.

Oh, and if you just want to hear Poe’s source material in its purest form, then who better to read The Raven but Christopher Lee?

Happy Halloween!

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