Monday, May 23, 2011

Surcease of Sorrow

We trundled ourselves up to St. Louis on Sunday to attend the Vincentennial showing of The Raven and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. In truth, this would not have been my choice (the Laura/Dragonwyck double tonight would be more to my liking), but it's what fit our schedule and, well, it's an event that we wanted to support. Plus, I had never seen any of the Corman Poe films on the big screen, and feel poorer for it.

The Raven came after the initial flurry of films when Corman was beginning to burn out on Poe. The director used the film as a kind of rearguard action to maintain his interest by taking the elements of the Poe films and turning them into a comedy. The story here wanders pretty far from the text of The Raven, but that's not surprising. There actually IS a raven in the movie, and they read the poem at the outset, so it's truer to Poe than, say, The Haunted Palace (which wasn't intended as a Poe film). Most of the virtues of the Poe films are on screen here, from Price's neurasthenic aesthete to Daniel Haller's eye-deceiving sets to Corman's penchant for weird light shows. It's fun watching the director navigate a film that cries out for elaborate special effects without spending any money on them. Corman's main special effect is the jump cut.

The story here finds gentle wizard Erasmus Craven pouring over a quaint and curious tome of forgotten lore, all the while mooning for his lost wife, Lenore. Soon, a raven comes a-tapping, and the raven turns out to be one Dr. Adolfus Bedlo, who has been turned into a raven by the head of the Society of Wizards, the sinister Dr. Scarabus. Bedlo, on being transformed back into a human, notes that he saw Craven's dead wife at Scarabus's castle and soon, Craven, Bedlo, and their entourage are off to confront Scarabus. Lenore, it turns out, is very much alive, having faked her death and taken up with Scarabus. Scarabus, for his part, is after the secrets of Craven's gestural magic and has set the whole thing up as a trap, with the participation of Bedlo, it turns out. The movie climaxes with a wizard's duel in which Craven and Scarabus test each other to the death.

Frankly, The Raven plays a bit like a kiddie movie. It's mildly amusing, and mainly of interest for its actors. Price is Craven, of course, while Boris Karloff is the wicked Dr. Scarabus. The movie is stolen by Peter Lorre's Bedlo. Hazel Court's treacherous Lenore and her plunging decolletage is what keeps the movie from actually being a kid's movie, I guess. On the whole, it plays better on the big screen than it does on home video. There's something to be said for being bigger than life. That burning barn footage from House of Usher gets re-used again at the end of The Raven and it's surprisingly effective, in spite of its over-familiarity. Corman's Poe films had a paucity of imagination when it came to endings, which has to be chalked up to the director himself. Screenwriter Richard Matheson has never had problems with endings on his own.

I've written about Phibes before, but this time through, I was struck by the weird way it seems to exist out of time. I'm presuming that it's set in the 1920s, based on the automobiles, and that's of a piece with the roots of the character in French serials like Les Vampires. The art-deco design sensibility really pops on the big screen (this is the first time I've ever seen Phibes on a big screen), and its emphasis on deformity and design makes it very much of a piece with horror movies made between the World Wars, with their emphasis on design and deformity.

Both of these films poke some gentle fun at Price himself. They both feature scenes of the actor cooking, sending up his fame as a gourmet. Phibes goes it one further and needles the actor's fame as an art collector, too, when Phibes lingers on a painting in the house of one of his victims just long enough to sniff at it. It's a good moment. Otherwise, whenever I watch Phibes , I come away from it with my usual desire to change my usernames all across the internets to "Vulnavia."

(credit where credit is due: stills swiped from here)

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