(I’m A) King “B”: RIP Dick Miller

Dick Miller in ‘Rock All Night’

If you’re a Roger Corman fan, you know Dick Miller . If you enjoy the films of Joe Dante, you know Dick Miller. Hell, if you’ve watched movies for the past sixty years, you know Dick Miller, maybe not by name, but certainly by sight. Dick Miller, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, was one of those character actors who elevated everything he did, even the schlockiest of schlock. He’s in some of my favorite films, never a big star but always a welcome presence, and the ultimate Familiar Face.

Miller was born in the Bronx on Christmas Day 1928 and caught the show biz bug early. By age 8 he was working as a “boy singer” in the Catskills, and as a teen he worked in various stock companies, doing everything from acting to painting scenery. After a hitch in the Navy, the young man continued to work on the stage, also going to college and (are you ready for this?) earning his PhD in psychology!

Miller made his screen debut in Roger Corman’s ‘Apache Woman’

Heading out to Hollywood to write screenplays, he met an ambitious young director by the name of Roger Corman, who told Miller he was looking for actors, not writers. Miller responded, “So I’m an actor”, and Corman cast him in APACHE WOMAN, along with his friend, struggling actor Jonathan Haze. Miller was cast as an Indian, but was called back to also play a cowboy shooting at the Indians, and can be seen as both in the film! This is the movie where Miller once jested he ended up shooting himself!

Walter Paisley and one of his kooky creations in ‘A Bucket of Blood’

Dick Miller didn’t appear in all of Roger Corman’s low-budget epics; it only seems like it! Miller appeared for Corman twenty times, and starred in 1957’s ROCK ALL NIGHT and WAR OF THE SATTELITES. But his biggest (and best) role for Rapid Roger was in 1959’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD , a hip comedy-horror about sad sack wanna-be sculptor Walter Paisley, who discovers an ingenious way to break into the art world. A BUCKET OF BLOOD is Miller’s tour de force, and Miller was so fond of the nebbish Walter he used the name in five other film and TV appearances.

As Murray Futterman in Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’

Director Joe Dante was also a Dick Miller fan, and cast the actor in sixteen films, beginning with his first, the loopy satire HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD. Miller plays Candice Rialson’s agent, named… Walter Paisley! Miller’s most famous part for Dante was as Zach Galligan’s neighbor Murray Futterman in GREMLINS and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. He also made nine movies with Jonathan Kaplan, including NIGHT CALL NURSES, THE STUDENT TEACHERS, TRUCK TURNER, HEART LIKE A WHEEL, PROJECT X, and UNLAWFUL ENTRY. A list of his total credits would take all night, so I’ll just mention a few notables: DEATH RACE 2000, ROCK’N’ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, SWING SHIFT, THE TERMINATOR, and CHOPPING MALL.

Miller toasting a friend in ‘Hollywood Boulevard’

Miller was no stranger to TV either, appearing in everything from M SQUAD to THE UNTOUCHABLES, BONANZA to GUNSMOKE, DRAGNET to POLICE SQUAD!, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE to FREDDIE’S NIGHTMARES. He had a semi-regular role as bartender Lou Mackie on FAME from 1984-87. In 2014, a documentary on his life and work called (appropriately) THAT GUY DICK MILLER was released. Dick Miller was loved and respected by his peers, and even though he mainly appeared in ‘B’ movies, he always gave an ‘A’ performance, giving us our money’s worth. That’s why Corman, Dante, and so many others constantly hired Dick Miller to play in their films. He always delivered the goods, and he’ll be missed by film fans everywhere.

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A Few Words About Gary Kurtz


The name Gary Kurtz isn’t well known except among STAR WARS fans. Along with his partner George Lucas, Kurtz produced the first two films in the original trilogy, and had a lot to do with the franchise’s early success. Gary Kurtz passed away yesterday at age 78 of cancer, and as I looked back on his filmography, I found he was much more than just the “Star Wars” guy.

Monte Hellman’s “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1965)

Gary Kurtz, like many young tyros back in the 1960’s, was a graduate of what’s known as the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. Getting his start as an assistant director on Monte Hellman’s 1965 Western RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, cowritten by and co-starring another Corman alum, Jack Nicholson , Kurtz worked in various capacities on such Corman-related films as VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (production manager), BEACH BALL (camera operator, assistant director, 2nd unit director), QUEEN OF BLOOD (production manager), and THE SHOOTING (assistant cameraman). You just don’t get an education like that in film school!

Richard Dreyfuss, Charlie Martin Smith, and Ron Howard in “American Graffiti” (1973)

After working as an editor, assistant director, and production manager on the Crown-International epic THE HOSTAGE, Kurtz joined Hellman again as associate producer for 1971’s existential road movie TWO LANE BLACKTOP, starring singer James Taylor and Warren Oates. He also got an associate producer gig that same year on Oates’s ode to film noir, CHANDLER . Hooking up with young producer/director George Lucas, Kurtz was co-producer on the hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI , a nostalgic look at teenage life that spawned a 50’s music revival and led to the TV show HAPPY DAYS.

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in “Star Wars” (1977)

Lucas and Kurtz fought to get their next project made. No one was interested in a sci-fi film that harkened back to the days of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, but the pair persisted, and in 1977 20th Century-Fox released STAR WARS, a mega-hit that’s become a cultural touchstone for millions. Three years later, the sequel THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK became another solid success. Kurtz left the series after a falling out with Lucas, who he claimed was more interested in merchandising than advancing the story. He teamed with Muppet masters Jim Henson and Frank Oz to produce THE DARK CRYSTAL, which became a hit and has a large cult following today.

Gary Kurtz & George Lucas

Kurtz’s later projects included the flops RETURN TO OZ and SLIPSTREAM (with STAR WARS’ Mark Hamill), the rarely seen animated THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, and the animated Christian children’s TV series FRIENDS AND HEROES. He may not have been the most famous name in the “Star Wars Universe”, but Gary Kurtz certainly made his mark in American movies. Rest in peace, young Jedi.

 

Creature Double Feature 5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (AIP 1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (AIP 1965)

Boston’s WLVI-TV 56 ran it’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ series from 1972 to 1983. Though fans remember it mostly for those fabulous giant monster movies starring Godzilla and friends, CDF occasionally featured some monsters of a different kind… 

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had teamed to make five successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, beginning with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER (there was a sixth, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, that starred Ray Milland rather than Price). Studio execs James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, joined forces with Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (makers of the CARRY ON comedies) and shipped Corman and company to jolly ol’ England for the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Both turned out to be high points in the Corman/Price/Poe series.

1964’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is a sadistic, psychedelic nightmare of a film, with Corman ably assisted by ace cinematographer and future director Nicholas Roeg. Price plays Italian nobleman Prince Prospero, a Satan worshipper and dabbler in the black arts, who locks the lords and ladies of his decadent court in his castle while the plague of the Red Death ravages the villagers. He’s kidnapped local beauty Francesca, her lover Gino, and her father to amuse himself and his guests, trying to force the two men to battle to the death while also attempting to seduce the innocent Francesca. Prospero’s lady Julianna is scheming to make herself the bride of Satan, while guest Alfredo humiliates the diminutive paramour of dwarf Hop-Toad.

Julianna, jealous of Prospero’s fondness for Francesca, gives her the key to the dungeon to free Gino and her dad, only to be stopped by Prospero. This ends badly, as the men are made to slice their arms with daggers, one of which is poisoned, then Father is killed by Prospero’s hand, sending Gino out to face the Red Death. Julianna pays for her treachery against Prospero (following a weird sequence of her in a dreamlike state, surrounded by dancing demons and giving herself to Satan) by being pecked to death by a raven. Hop-Toad gets revenge of his own by giving Alfredo an ape costume to wear to the Masquerade, then tying him to a chandelier, hoisting him up, and burning him alive! The Masquerade itself is a bacchanalian orgy of decadence, interrupted by an uninvited guest… the Red Death personified!

Price is a malevolent force of evil, a sadist who degrades the members of his court and delights in his devilish cruelty. He also gives a powerful soliloquy  on the nature of terror: “Terror? What do you know of Terror, Alfredo?… (a clock ticks in the background) Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few”. Jane Asher (then-girlfriend of Beatle Paul McCartney ) is good as the peasant Francesca, as are horror vets Hazel Court as Julianna and Patrick Magee as Alfredo. The wildly vivid color scheme, shocking debauchery, and pervasive aura of death and decay make THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH a horror classic, and a fan favorite.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last in the Corman/Price/Poe cycle, and in my opinion the best in the series. It’s a melancholy mood piece with supernatural and psychological overtones, and an overwhelmingly gloomy sense of dread. Beautiful Rowena Trevanian (Elizabeth Shepherd), out on a fox hunt, is thrown off her horse, landing at the gravesite of Ligeia Fell. She’s startled by Ligeia’s widowed husband Verden (Price), a sinister sort decked out in dark glasses (“I live at night, my vision is painfully acute”). He takes her to his neglected, cobwebbed abbey home to nurse her wounds, where his only companion is ancient servant Kendrick (Oliver Johnston) and a mysterious black cat.

Rowena’s boyfriend Christopher (John Westbrook) and father Lord Trevanian (Derek Francis) come calling to retrieve her, but Rowena feels strangely attracted to the sorrowful Fell. The attraction is mutual… Rowena is a dead ringer for the deceased Ligeia. Soon the two are married, the abbey is spruced up, and the happy (?) couple give a dinner party, at which Fell gives a demonstration in hypnotism. The results are terrifying, as Ligeia’s spirit temporarily possesses the body of Rowena. The wedded bliss is short-lived, as Rowena is locked away in her room, and Verden is prone to taking long midnight walks. Rowena confides to Christopher she believes Ligeia is still alive, and he unearths her body, only to discover a wax effigy….

Price is appropriately moody, and his slow descent into madness is glorious to behold.  The ending features a battle between Price and that darn black cat ending in one of Corman’s patented frightening, flaming finales. The Vaseline-lensed, slow-motion nightmare sequence with Rowena chased through the abbey by her feline foe is Roger at his trippiest! The whole production looks more expensive than it was, and takes Poe’s story outdoors for the first time in the series. The screenplay by (all in one breath) future-Oscar-winner-for-CHINATOWN-Robert-Towne is dead on point (no pun intended!), and the movie’s score by Kenneth V. Jones is what I consider the best in the series. After THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, Corman grew tired of the horror genre in general, and the Poe pictures in particular, and moved on to more contemporary films. AIP wasn’t quite ready to give up on their cash cow however, and produced a handful of other, lesser Price/Poe outings. With the exception of THE CONQUEROR WORM (which really has nothing to do with Poe), none of them matched the dark, disturbing tales of terror concocted by Roger Corman from 1960 to 1965. Edgar Allan Poe may not have recognized some of them, but I’m sure America’s original Master of the Macabre would approve.

More “Creature Double Feature” posts –

THE BLACK SCORPION and THE KILLER SHREWS

IT CAME FROM BENEATHE THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD and THE GIANT CLAW

RODAN and MOTHRA

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post of 2018!

We begin with BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (American-International, 1972), a Philippine-made “Women in Prison” entry by director Eddie Romero, the Roger Corman of the Philippines. Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier stars as a feisty American hooker who escapes from your typical brutal jungle prison chained to rich white revolutionary Margaret Markov. If you’re expecting something along the lines of 1957’s THE DEFIANT ONES, forget it! Instead, strap yourselves in for lots of nudity (including the obligatory shower scene!), violence, torture, and a tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, Pam and Margaret jump a pair of nuns and steal their habits in order to make their getaway!

Sid Haig, a CRV favorite!

Besides WIP veterans Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, etc) and Markov (THE HOT BOX), the film features the immortal Sid Haig , who’s a riot as a redneck cowboy bounty hunter hired by the local gendarmes to hunt the girls down, dead or alive! I always enjoy Sid in roles large or small, and here he plays this crazy cracker to the hilt! Also in the cast is Vic Diaz, a mainstay of these Filipino exploitation classics, as the ruthless drug lord ripped off by Pam, who’s also hunting our heroines. Lynn Borden is the horny prison matron who peeps on the girls, and wants a piece of Pam pie! BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is a must for genre fans, who’ll love the violent’n’bloody climax!

From the Philippines, we travel to Spain for the Eurowestern THE TEXICAN (Columbia 1966), a strange hybrid of traditional and Spaghetti styles directed by sagebrush veteran Lesley Selander. This was Audie Murphy’s first and only foray into the Spaghetti genre, and his next-to-last film. and though he’s a little more clean-cut than most Spaghetti protagonists, he fits in with the material just fine (as a side note, Murphy was one of many Western stars who turned down Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , for which Clint Eastwood is eternally grateful!).

Audie’s still very youthful looking at age 41; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for costar Broderick Crawford, playing the villain who kills Murphy’s brother and triggers this revenge tale. Crawford, at age 55, looks mighty dissipated due to his years of heavy drinking, though it’s still fun to watch him snarl and growl his way through the role of mean town boss Luke Starr. Spaghetti regular Aldo Sambrell appears as Crawford’s right-hand gunman, adding his own brand of ‘foreign’ menace. Nico Fidenco’s score aids in setting the film’s mood, and the showdown in the swirling sandstorm street, followed by final retribution in Crawford’s saloon, is well staged by Selander. If you’re not an Audie Murphy and/or Spaghetti Western fan, you’ll probably want to pass, but those of you who are (and include me in that  number) will enjoy this minor entry in the genre’s canon.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (Entertainment Pyramid 1972) was a surprisingly effective low-budget chiller I’d never heard of before. It starts in 1940, as two college kids are making out in a cemetery, when a crypt opens and vampire Caleb Croft attacks, killing the boy and raping the girl. This macabre opening sets the stage as the girl later gives birth to a strange little baby who prefers blood over milk! From there, we flash-forward to the 70’s, as the child (now a grown-up William Smith ) seeks to destroy his unholy father, working at the local university under the name Prof. Adam Lockwood. In reality, Croft/Lockwood is Charles Croyden, an 1800’s nobleman whose wife Sarah was burned at the stake in Salem. Lynn Peters plays student Anne, and of course she’s a dead (no pun intended) ringer for Sarah. Michael Pataki makes a pretty fierce vampire, Smith is always fun to watch, and the film even manages to sneak in a Bela Lugosi reference! Creepy and atmospheric, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE should be on any horror buff’s must-watch list.

Another surprise was RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (AIP 1967), one of many Hippiesploitation flicks the studio made during those fabulous 60’s. Aldo Ray stars as Lt. Walt Lorimer, trying to keep the peace between the establishment forces and the kids on the Strip. Walt’s the voice of reason… until his daughter Andy (Mimsy Farmer) is given an LSD-spiked soda at a party and gang-raped by five punks. Mimsy’s interpretive “freak-out” dance is a sight to behold! The movie also features an overacting Anna Mizrahi as Andy’s pink-haired lush of a mom… perhaps she should’ve picked up some acting pointers from husband Lee Strasberg.

Mimsy Farmer freaking out!

The surprise part came for me when some of the great garage bands of the era performed. The Standells (of “Dirty Water” fame) do the title tune, featuring lead singer/drummer/ex-Mouseketeer Dickie Dodd and Russ Tamblyn’s younger brother Larry. There’s The Chocolate Watch Band, who sound like a punk Rolling Stones, and The Enemies, fronted by future Three Dog Night vocalist Cory Wells. The movie has some footage from the actual ’66 riot spliced in, and on the whole is pretty well done for this sort of thing. A psychedelic artifact definitely worth a look.

Last but not least, Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA (AIP 1970) is one of the  onslaught of gangster epics churned out after the success of 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE. This one’s a cut above thanks to Corman and star Shelley Winters , giving a bravura performance as the infamous Kate “Ma” Barker without going over the top… well, not too far, anyway! Ma and her cretinous brood (Don Stroud, Robert DeNiro, Robert Wolders, Clint Kimbrough) rob, murder, rape, and kidnap their way to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list before the carnage-filled finale, with Bruce Dern , Diane Varsi , and Pat Hingle joining them along the way.

Little Bobby DeNiro and “Mama” Shelley Winters

Young Mr. DeNiro plays dope fiend son Lloyd in one of his earliest pictures. In fact, this may very well be his first gangster role! It also marks the feature debut of cinematographer John A. Alonso, who went on to lens VANISHING POINT , LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, SCARFACE, and many other films of note. BLOODY MAMA’s got a lot going for it, and Corman has said it’s his favorite among the many films he’s made.

There are a lot more movies I watched while sidelined, and more Cleaning Out the DVR to come! Next time, we’ll return to the dark world of film noir!

 

 

Get Your Motor Runnin’ with THE WILD ANGELS (AIP 1966)

Roger Corman  kicked off the outlaw biker film genre with THE WILD ANGELS, setting the template for all biker flicks to come. Sure, there had been motorcycle movies before: Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and the low-budget MOTORCYCLE GANG spring to mind. But THE WILD ANGELS busted open box offices on the Grindhouse and Drive-In circuits, and soon an army of outlaw bikers roared into a theater near you! There was BORN LOSERS , DEVIL’S ANGELS, THE GLORY STOMPERS , REBEL ROUSERS, ANGELS FROM HELL, and dozens more straight into the mid-70’s, when the cycle cycle revved its last rev. But Corman’s saga of the freewheeling Angels  was there first; as always, Rapid Roger was the leader of the pack.

Our movie begins with the classic fuzz-tone guitar sound of Davie Allen, as Angels president Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda ) rolls down the road to pick up club member Loser (Bruce Dern ). The two then gather up the club and ride to the desert town of Mecca, where a Mexican gang have Loser’s stolen chopper. A fight breaks out, the ‘man’ comes, and the Angels take off, with Loser stealing a cop’s bike to join them. He’s shot in the back while riding away, and the cops take him to the hospital under armed guard. Loser’s ‘old lady’ Gaysh (Diane Ladd ) is worried, but Blues has a plan to “bust him out”, using his girl Mike (Nancy Sinatra) as a decoy. The club brings Loser home, but he soon dies, right after toking his last jay. The club then takes his body to his hometown for an Angles style send-off, a wild Bacchanalia of desecration, degradation, destruction, and decadence….

That’s about all the plot there is, a loose frame to hang some scenes of sex, drugs, violence, and the Angels cruising down the highways. Biker flicks were never meant to be plot-heavy; they serve to show the nihilistic viewpoint of an alienated part of our culture, who reject (and are rejected by) conventional society and form their own “family” units. It’s a theme as old as mankind itself, and Fonda sums it up best:

Right up there with his dad’s speech in THE GRAPES OF WRATH! Notice none of the actors are wearing any “official” Hell’s Angels colors, patches, or rockers. That’s because the real club (some of whose Venice chapter appear in the film) don’t allow it… Bruce Dern alleges he copped a beating for doing so, despite the fact his character was already dead!

 

Besides those mentioned, the cast features Buck Taylor , Norman Alden, Michael J. Pollard, Lou Procopio, and Marc Cavell as club members, along with Familiar Faces Art Baker , Kim Hamilton, Gayle Hunnicut, Frank Maxwell (as the preacher), Dick Miller (naturally!) , Barboura Morris, and veteran tough chick Joan Shawlee as Momma Monahan. Charles B. Griffith wrote the script, which Corman hated, so he gave it to his assistant Peter Bogdanovich for a complete rewrite! Bogdanovich did so without credit, also working on some second unit directing, cinematography, editing, and even playing a bit part in the final fight scene at Loser’s gravesite! THE WILD ANGLES is as much Bogdanovich’s film as it is Corman’s, and the work he did for Roger helped launch his own career as a filmmaker. Those of you who dig biker exploitation will surely dig THE WILD ANGELS. Those who don’t… well, you’re just too square, man.

Halloween Havoc!: CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (Filmgroup 1961)

Roger Corman  satirizes himself in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to create one of the most wacked-out goofy drive-in flicks ever filmed, that gets even goofier as it goes along. We’ve got goony gangsters, a lovesick spy, beautiful babes, and the silliest looking monster you’ll ever see.

Rapid Roger had just wrapped up shooting THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in sunny Puerto Rico, and since the weather was so beautiful, decided to quickly churn out another picture. He got screenwriter Charles B. Griffith to whip up a monster movie spoof (having had success with Griffith’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and retained the previously shot film’s stars. Actor Beach Dickerson designed the sea creature out of a wet suit, with ping-pong ball eyes and covered in an oil cloth to give it that straight from the depths look. Hokey looking yes, but I’ll give the guy credit for ingenuity!

After some crazy cartoon credits, we dive right in to the plot, such as it is. The Cuban revolution is on, and casino owner/gangster Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone ) helps the former regime smuggle gold from the national treasury off the island. With him are his hot moll Mary-Belle Monahan (Betsy Jones-Moreland ), her dimwit brother Happy Jack (Robert Bean), and weirdo Pete Peterson Jr. (Dickerson), who communicates in animal calls! Also on board the getaway yacht is Sparks Moran, in reality Agent XK150 of the CIA. He’s played by Edward Wain, in reality Oscar winning screenwriter (CHINATOWN) and director Robert Towne at the beginning of his film career.

Capetto gets the great idea to make the Cuban exiles think a sea monster is on the loose, in order to steal the gold for himself and his criminal crew. What he and the others don’t know is there’s a real sea monster on the loose offing the Cubans left and right! Renzo intentionally scuttles the ship and tosses the gold overboard. They get stranded on a definitely not desert island, where they meet up with some oversexed island girls. XK150 falls in love with Mary-Belle, who wants nothing to do with the nebbish.

It’s hard to describe all the shenanigans going on in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. The movie’s so good-naturedly goofy it’s hard to dislike it either, even though this is definitely not Corman’s finest hour. Basically it’s a throwaway film, made for the bottom of a double bill and loaded with in-jokes and gags. But the cast looks like they’re having a good time, the underwater footage is kinda cool, and in a rarity in these films the monster actually wins! If you’re a Corman fan (and count me among you), you’ll want to take a peek at CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. Just don’t expect too much; switch off your brain for an hour and fifteen minutes and enjoy.

Halloween Havoc!: THE RAVEN (AIP 1963)

Let’s kick off the third annual “Halloween Havoc” with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, young Jack Nicholson , director Roger Corman , screenwriter Richard Matheson , and an “idea” by Edgar Allan Poe. How’s that for an all-star horror crew? The film is THE RAVEN, Corman’s spoof of all those Price/Poe movies he was famous for, a go-for-the-throat comedy guaranteed to make you spill your guts with laughter!

Sorcerer Erasmus Craven (Price ), still pining for his late, lost Lenore, hears someone gently rapping on his chamber door… er, window. It’s a raven, a talking raven, in reality Adolpho Bedlo (Lorre ), who’s been put under a spell by the Grand Master of magicians, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff ), who like Craven is adept at “magic by gesture”. After Craven mixes up a potion to reverse the spell, Bedlo tells him he’s seen Lenore alive at Scarabus’s castle.

The two wizards decided to make the trek to Castle Scarabus so Craven can learn the truth. Daughter Estelle Craven (Olive Sturgess) insists on accompanying them, as does Bedlo’s inept son Rexford (Nicholson). The Grand Master, a former rival of Craven’s father, greets them warmly at the door, a seemingly kindly old gent who clears up the matter by introducing his servant, who’s pretty but not Lenore. Scarabus invites the entourage to a convivial dinner, where Bedlo drunkenly challenges him to a duel of magic. The soused mage’s magic backfires, and he’s turned into a pool of raspberry jam!

A storm is brewing outside (because of course it is!), and Scarabus invites them to spend the night. Rexford suspects foul play, telling Estelle he saw Scarabus use his hand gestures during the duel to put the kibosh on his dad. During the storm, Craven sees what he thinks is Lenore looking in his window. He’s right… Lenore (Court )is alive and well, deviously plotting with Scarabus to learn the secrets of Craven’s powerful magic! Soon we discover Bedlo’s alive too; the treacherous wizard has been in on it all along!

All four (including the duplicitous Bedlo) are captured by the evil Scarabus, and Bedllo, begging to be freed for his loyalty, is turned back into a raven. Grand Master Scarabus threatens Estelle, forcing Craven to engage in a magical “duel to the death”, a comical, special effects-gimmicked battle of prestidigitation. The younger sorcerer is ultimately victorious, and they escape as Castle Scarabus is consumed by flames.

Price gets to show off his slapstick skills, continually walking headlong into his large telescope, and his acting opposite the bird is, well, Priceless! Lorre is just naturally funny, whether taking a pratfall, going off-script with some ad-libbing, or exclaiming as the raven in his accented voice, “Ooo, these feathers itch!” Karloff, as the villain of the piece, doesn’t get much in the comedy department, but manages to get off some good one-liners, calling Lenore “my little viper”, for example. Young Jack isn’t as bad here as some critics have pointed out, and he and Lorre are a funny father/son act. Les Baxter’s score, complete with whimsical music cues, adds to the fun, as does Pat Dinga’s special effects bag of tricks.

There are plenty of film references and in-jokes crammed in by Corman and Matheson. The name on Craven’s dad’s coffin is Roderick, Price’s character name in FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER . That film’s ending is also referenced in the final destruction of Castle Scarabus. And when Craven defeats Scarabus, it’s the symbolic passing of the terror torch from Grand Master Karloff to the new King Price. The raven itself was trained by Mo Disesso, who later provided the trained rats for both WILLARD and BEN. THE RAVEN is more fun than a barrel of spiders, a creepy and kooky Gothic send-up with the Three Titans of Terror in rare form, and will delight genre fans of all ages. Except for maybe poor Poe, who’s probably still spinning in his grave!!