[It is with great pleasure that I welcome back the Journey’s first Fellow Traveler, Rose Benton, who was gone on an unfortunate hiatus caused by Mundac, destroyer of All That Which is Pleasurable. As you will see, she has not lost one whit of her touch…]
by Rosemary Benton
To come back to the science fiction genre after taking such a long break is not unlike a science fiction story itself.
Returning to her home world, the protagonist finds herself displaced as a citizen in a country she only vaguely recognizes. Undeterred, she resolves to integrate with this bizarre, new adaptation of her homeland. To begin assimilation she must start with something familiar which she can grasp onto.
For me that familiar reentry into science fiction comes via horror movies.
I would go so far as to argue that much of what has shaped the genre of science fiction in film stems from the cinematic roots science fiction and horror share. It has not been uncommon over the last decade to see directors, producers and actors of horror dabble in science fiction, or vice versa. As such, upon realizing that director Roger Corman had released another film last month I put it on my short-list of entertainment priorities.
The Raven hit theaters last month not so much to terrify audiences, but to reel them in with a star studded cast and a light, Edgar Allan Poe-flavored, fantasy comedy story. Starring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Hazel Court, the film is very loosely based around the narrative Edgar Allan Poe poem by the same name. By this I mean that Hazel Court is, of course, the sassy and longed-for Lenore, and Vincent Price quotes segments of the poem. There the similarities end.
The plot itself is a hilarious melodrama featuring magicians, “diabolical mind control,” and betrayal. Doctor Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price), the overly polite son of the late Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, is interrupted one evening by a raven tapping at his window. The raven, it turns out, is actually another magician named Doctor Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who was put under a spell by the current Grand Master, Doctor Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Initially Dr. Craven is hesitant to accompany the vengeful Dr. Bedlo back to Dr. Scarabus’ castle, but after Dr. Bedlo tells Dr. Craven that his dearly departed wife, Lenore (Hazel Court), may be stuck at the Grand Master’s castle as an enslaved spirit, both magicians set out to confront him. They are accompanied by Dr. Craven’s daughter, Estelle (Olive Dora Sturgess), and Dr. Bedlo’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson).
Greeted by a surprisingly hospitable Dr. Scarabus, Dr. Craven, Rexford and Estelle are lulled into a false sense of security before being imprisoned in Dr. Scarabus’ dungeon. The treacherous Dr. Bedlo, who was promised power in exchange for luring Dr. Craven to him, is likewise thrown in the dungeon. The very much alive Lenore then appears to taunt Dr. Craven, confessing to having killed someone else and placing their body in the casket. After nearly escaping, Dr. Craven and Dr. Scarabus decide to resolve their conflict with a duel of magic. The winner absorbs the other’s power, causing the loser’s control of magic to be unreliable for the rest of their lives. A lengthy, whimsical battle replete with fun special effects ensues, but ultimately our heroes are victorious. Lenore futilely implores Dr. Craven to take her back, claiming ineffectively that she was under Dr. Scarabus’ mind control. As the castle burns in the background they return home, Dr. Craven now all the more powerful, Estelle and Rexford are besotted with one another, and Dr. Bedlo is stuck as a raven indefinitely. The immoral Dr. Scarabus and Lenore survive as well, but are now without a home or magic.
While still best known for his role as the monster in the Universal Pictures Frankenstein movies (or rather, his pre-Hayes Code work in general), Karloff gave a very solid performance that was both charming with a sinister undercurrent. I was very much convinced that his character, Dr. Scarabus, was a charismatic master manipulator who could realistically have backstabbed and coerced his way up the ranks of the Brotherhood of Magic. Where as Vincent Price does most of his acting through facial expressions and Peter Lorre’s strengths lie in applying various degrees of bluster, slight effeminateness, and weaselly demeanor to his roles, Boris Karloff performs his lines with smooth rehearsed precision.
Although the draw for The Raven is obviously its cast and its versatile director, the real reason I would encourage anyone to pay the $0.86 for admission is the odd combination of The Raven’s quirky setting and comical deadpan dialogue. Not since he was in Frankenstein has Boris Karloff acted in such an strangely pieced-together beast. It was billed as a horror movie with the tag line, “The Macabre Masterpiece of Terror,” it thanks to what was undoubtedly ad libbing by Price and Lorre, it unquestionably took on an awkward but funny tone.
No one is going to fault The Raven for being a boring movie, but will it be remembered as a well developed story? Probably not. Will it be remembered for its odd fantasy/comedy/horror angle? Definitely. A spontaneous and fun fantasy/drama in the guise of a horror movie, The Raven was well worth the ticket price even if it was a rather silly way to begin the process of reacquainting myself with my long lost science fiction.
[P.S. If you registered for WorldCon this year, please consider nominating Galactic Journey for the “Best Fanzine” Hugo. Your ballot should have arrived by now…]