Countdown: The Raven & Comedy of Terrors

I’ve been waiting to see these two for a long, long time. I picked up pretty much all the other Price/Corman collaborations on double-sided DVDs some time ago, but these two escaped my clutches until just now, when they finally appeared on Netflix watch instantly.

Both The Raven and Comedy of Terrors differ from the rest of the Price/Corman Poe films in that they’re both pure comedies. Both were released in 1963 (the same year as The Haunted Palace and Twice-Told Tales), on the heels of Tales of Terror, which they can sort of be seen as a follow-up to (more on that in a minute). Both of them star Price and Peter Lorre, and The Raven features Boris Karloff and a Jack Nicholson so young that I didn’t even recognize him, while Comedy of Terrors features Karloff and Basil Rathbone, as well as fellow Tales of Terror alum Joyce Jameson.

While the first and third segments of Tales of Terror are fairly straightforward horror pieces, the middle segment (“The Black Cat,” which stars Lorre, Price, and Jameson) is more comedic. It would require someone with a better knowledge of film history to tell whether or not there’s any actual relationship between the “Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror and these two gems, but the apparent connection is, well, apparent, not only in the cast but in some similar (and playfully reversed) gags.

The Raven
The Raven coasts more-or-less completely on the charms of its lead actors. But when your lead actors are people like Price, Lorre, and Karloff, you can get away with that. Fortunately The Raven knows they’re its real strength, so it gives them plenty of time to stand around and play off one another.

Price gets to play one of his rare good guy roles, and Lorre essentially reprises his role from “The Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror, if that character were a smart-alecky magician who spent about half his time transformed into a bird. Karloff plays opposite them, doing the grandfatherly sort of evil that he does so well, but switching to bumbling just enough and at just the right times to hit some good notes.

Basically, The Raven is a parody of the its predecessors. It opens with Price reciting a part of the titular poem over shots from other Price/Corman Poe films, so you know right away what territory you’re in. Lorre shows up in Price’s study as a raven and the movie proceeds through a variety of comic mishaps and riffs on Poe staples to a wizard duel between Price and Karloff that (not to sound too much like an old fogey) is better than most wizard duels that we get in films with multimillion dollar budgets nowadays. (Lord of the Rings, I am looking meaningfully in your direction.) Along the way Vincent Price shoots lasers from his fingers, there are lightning bolts that turn people into raspberry jam, and Lorre spends some time with wings for arms. It’s all very cute and charming, and the principles all bring some much-needed class that keeps it from ever collapsing under its own weight.

Comedy of Terrors
Every note of a Price/Corman Poe parody that The Raven doesn’t manage to hit, Comedy of Terrors takes care of. Price gets to play the bad guy this time, hurling abuse at his beleagured wife (Jameson) and bumbling assistant (Lorre), attempting to poison his daft father-in-law (Karloff), and committing the occasional murder. He runs a funeral home, you see, and when money gets tight, he’s not above going out to ensure that there are new clients to be had. We exchange big creepy castles for fog-shrouded cemeteries and houses full of weird clutter, but we also manage to work in abusive drunks and premature burials. Price and Lorre get to basically exchange roles from Tales of Terror, and it’s nice to see Lorre play a comparatively decent guy.

There’s a little more going on in Comedy of Terrors than there was in The Raven, and we get more gags and less coasting on the strengths of our cast, but the strengths of our cast are still the best part. Price is delightfully acerbic, Lorre charmingly mumbly, and Karloff makes the most of his seemingly minor part as a senile old man, turning in a great comic performance that’s another reminder of Karloff’s all-too-easily-overlooked range as an actor. Even Basil Rathbone manages to steal the show for awhile in a role that I’ll not give out the details of, because they’re probably better when they just show up. Hell, even the cat got a few laughs (especially when it covered its ears).

It’s directed by Jacques Tourneur, he of such Val Lewton classics as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (among others), and as such it’s more stylish than you’d expect from a slapstick farce of its type. Both movies were really great, but I think this was my favorite of the two.

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