I don't like Roger Corman. This is clearly my loss, since he's an important figure in the history of genre cinema and made lots of films that I'm sure have a following, but in my defence I'd point out that the man's work is rubbish.
The original Roger Corman Little Shop of Horrors was filmed in two days and looks it. I've had the experience of trying to watch his films in the past and being incapable of making it past the first twenty minutes. He either doesn't know one end of a camera from the other or he's simply not interested in the information. To watch a Roger Corman film is not to watch a movie, but merely to watch things happening in the presence of movie-making equipment.
That said, I seem to react slightly better to his comedies. The Raven would clearly like to be a horror-comedy, although it's slightly pathetic to watch it floundering in that direction. It's the actors who save it. Vincent Price in particular made me laugh, but even with him tearing down the walls, the idea that I was meant to regard this as comedy would often be bewildering. Nevertheless even though I wasn't chortling as I was presumably being expected to, I did enjoy the film. The cast is astonishing, the tone is light-hearted and you're clearly not meant to be taking it seriously.
Did I just say that the cast was wonderful? No, I changed it to "astonishing". There's a reason for that. We have Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, but on the downside we also have a young Jack Nicholson. I realise he did several Roger Corman movies back then, but even so I can't believe he didn't get the gig by being related to executive producer James H. Nicholson. They don't appear to be father and son, but I'll keep digging. My word, he's terrible.
The three stars are a joy, though. Vincent Price is the lead and he's giving exactly the performance that the picture needs. He's hamming it up, but in a witty self-mocking way that's perpetually teetering on the edge of seriousness. I adored him. He's brimming with personality and a joy to watch. Look out for his goofy expression on being knocked out by a door, or else his delivery of "diabolic mind control". An earlier example would be: "But to me, she was" (drinks milk) "my life". He gives my favourite performance of the film, which is saying a lot. He's charming, funny, slightly camp and very occasionally sinister. Price takes the film by the scruff of the neck and makes it his own, although it has to be said that his co-stars make him fight for it.
Peter Lorre has the biggest eyeballs in Hollywood. Sorry, but it had to be said. He's a slimy little creep and not as powerful a presence as Price and Karloff, but that's the role he's playing. I was startled by his accent when we first saw him as a raven (don't ask), but I suppose that's what he really sounded like after all those decades in America.
Boris Karloff is the star with the longest track record and he's playing the baddie. For the first half-hour we hear nothing but terrible things about him, then on turning up at his castle we find he's oozing charm. Karloff's plot function was similar in The Raven (1935)
, but the two films are completely unrelated in plot, tone and setting. Their only point in common is that they're pretending to be based on the same poem by Edgar Allen Poe. This Karloff is jovial, almost jolly, although like his predecessor there's a hint that he's a bit of a roue. Naturally this grand old theatrical dame has no trouble at all playing at the level of his co-stars, just as he did opposite Lugosi, and he's every bit as scene-stealing as they are.
It's worth mentioning the ladies. Each star has a sidekick. Lorre's is his son (Jack Nicholson), but the other two have Hazel Court and Olive Sturgess. To my surprise I was quite impressed by them, especially Hazel Court. Even in this company, they hold their own. Court had previously played Elizabeth in Hammer's 1957 The Horror of Frankenstein
with Cushing and Lee, then later would appear as Juliana in The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Nice cleavage, by the way.
To my astonishment, it's written by Richard Matheson! Apparently this is one of several Edgar Allen Poe movies Roger Corman made for American International Pictures, mostly in collaboration with Matheson. To think that at one point I'd been ready to dismiss this script as the work of schoolchildren. Thinking about it, the structure is actually solid and those clumsy dialogue moments are probably down to ad-libbing. Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson in particular annoyed Boris Karloff by doing too much of that, since he'd be sticking to the script.
Our heroes are playing three magicians in the year 1506, which we can date by inference since Vincent Price's father died twenty years ago and his coffin is marked 1423-1486. This surprised me at the time since nothing about the accents or performances had led me to expect a historical setting, but in fact the sets and costumes turn out to be rather splendid. Two days after this film wrapped, Corman used the castle set designed by Daniel Haller on another film, The Terror. More importantly, the plot's magical element explained away a special effect in Vincent Price's opening scene.
The magic looks rather good, incidentally. The special effects aren't realistic, but they have the same kind of earnest charm you'll get with Harryhausen. The film contains two magical duels, both of which are very different and the second one in particular being a lot of fun. It's Price and Karloff who sell it, like a pair of smirking grandmasters pulling all kinds of faces as their latest murderous attack gets turned into a handkerchief or a litter of puppies.
I don't know why that box of eyeballs looks so pristine after twenty years, but maybe they'd been pickled in octarine or something.
There's a lot to love about this film and it seems that there are plenty of people who do. I love the opening voiceover of Vincent Price reading Poe's poem. I like the duel of the three wizards. As with Little Shop of Horrors in fact, I think this is basically a strong, entertaining film that could have been a knockout if it hadn't been directed by Roger Corman. There's something wrong with the tone. There's something amateurish about it, as if there's no quality filter behind the lens and it just so happens that we're watching three masters.
However that said, I almost feel bad about being so hard on Corman. This film at least is watchable and the man undoubtedly has his fans. It's like getting used to a style. I'm sure it's possible to get into Roger Corman's films, just as some people need to make an effort to sit down in front of fifties television or Hammer horror. Somehow I seem to have talked myself almost into saying it was great after all, but I know that wasn't what I thought while I was watching it. I think I'm allergic to Corman's style. Its ingredients are awesome, though. [Note to self: buy The Comedy of Terrors