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!!

Familiar Faces #5: The Law and Mr. Hinds

I first became aware of actor Samuel S. Hinds watching those old Universal pictures that played frequently on my local channels. What I didn’t know about the stately, distinguished thespian is he had a secret past: Hinds was a successful, practicing attorney for over 30 years before the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out, and he decided at age 54 to pursue his second love, acting. Hinds, born in Brooklyn in 1875, was a Harvard educated lawyer who had a long interest in amateur acting. When he made the decision to turn pro, he wrangled film parts large and small, credited and uncredited. His first talking picture was 1932’s all-star comedy drama IF I HAD A MILLION, in which he played…. you guessed it, a lawyer! (Hinds previously had a small role in the silent 1926 THE AMATEUR GENTLEMAN starring Richard Barthelmess).

Hinds had a small role as a dinner guest in 1933’s MURDERS IN THE ZOO, a Pre-Code horror starring Lionel Atwill , but it wasn’t until 1935 he came into his own in scary movies. THE RAVEN cast him as Judge Thatcher, father of beautiful Jean (Irene Ware), with Bela Lugosi’s mad, Poe obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin determined to posses her – or else! Vollin, driven insane by Jean’s rejection, straps the Judge to a slab and lowers a PIT AND THE PENDULUM-inspired blade designed to slice the jurist in two! Boris Karloff lends strong support as Bela’s reluctant henchman Bateman in one of the Demonic Duo’s best efforts, and Hinds adds a touch of sanity to the demented proceedings.

Sam returned to horror with 1941’s MAN MADE MONSTER, which introduced Lon Chaney Jr. to genre fans. Hinds is well cast as kindly Dr. Lawrence, whose attempt to help Chaney’s ‘Dynamo’ Dan McCormick is thwarted by his evil assistant Dr. Rigas (Atwill again). THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942)  typecast him as a lawyer in a spooky murder mystery with Atwill a red herring. Hinds and Chaney reteamed for Robert Siodmak’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), with Lon as the undead Count and Sam in the small role as yet another judge. Hinds closed out his Universal Monster career with a bit as a coroner in 1944’s JUNGLE WOMAN, the second entry in the Paula Dupree/Ape Woman series.

Hinds was also kept busy on the Universal lot supporting the studio’s comedy kings Abbott & Costello. The team scored big with 1941’s BUCK PRIVATES , and Sam was right in the thick of things as the base commander. RIDE EM COWBOY (1942), one of my favorite A&C flicks, has him as the owner of a dude ranch, and father of lovely Anne Gwynne. PARDON MY SARONG (1942) has the dignified actor as a native chieftain on a South Seas island, once again encountering Lionel Atwill. 1943’s IT AIN’T HAY, his last with the comedians, finds him as owner of champion race horse Tea Biscuit.

The actor appeared in his share of classics, as well. The screwball YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) saw Sam as Jean Arthur’s dad. 1939’s DESTRY RIDES AGAIN cast him as the crooked mayor of wild west town Bottleneck. Both films starred James Stewart, who figured prominently in what’s perhaps Hinds’ best known role: Pa Bailey in the 1947 Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Hinds is also known for playing Lew Ayres’ dad in six of the Doctor Kildare films.

From film noir ( SCARLET STREET, CALL NORTHSIDE 777) to Westerns (SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, BADLANDS OF DAKOTA) to comedies (HELLZAPOPPIN’, THE EGG AND I), Samuel S. Hinds lent his easy-going, dignified presence to over 200 movies of the 30’s and 40’s. His last, 1949’s THE BRIBE , was released posthumously; the actor passed away October 13, 1948 at age 73. He worked right up to the end, a real trouper, and I for one am glad he gave up the dramatics of the courtroom for the dramatics of the screen. Hollywood was all the better for it!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN (Universal 1935)

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Universal’s “Twin Titans of Terror” teamed up for the second time in THE RAVEN. Their 1934 pairing in THE BLACK CAT was the studio’s top grossing film that year, so it was only logical to reteam the two stars in another Poe based outing. But while in THE BLACK CAT they were evenly matched, here Boris plays second fiddle to Bela’s mad Dr Vollin. Lugosi takes center stage and creates one of his nastiest villains, a sociopath out to avenge his unrequited love.

Young Jean Thatcher loses control of her car and crashes off a cliff. The doctors, including her boyfriend Jerry Holden, agree only Dr. Richard Vollin can save her. Vollin refuses over the phone, stating he’s retired from practice, so Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher, travels to Vollin’s estate and, appealing to his vanity, convinces the doctor to do the surgery. He does so, and falls in love with his young patient in the process.

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When we first meet Vollin, he’s in his study with a representative from the local museum, reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (as only Bela can!), while a staute of the bird casts an ominous shadow on the wall behind him. “The raven is my talisman”, he says. “Death is my talisman”. Vollin isn’t interested in donating any of his large Poe memorabilia to the museum; in fact, he tells the gentleman he’s building the torture devices made famous in Poe’s tales. When told that’s an interesting hobby, Vollin replies (again as only Bela can), “It is mooore…than just a hobby”. The thin veneer of sanity is already beginning to give way to Vollin’s madness.

Jean has recuperated well enough to give a dance recital in Vollin’s honor. Her interpretive dance “The Spirit of Poe” is accompanied by an actor reciting the poem, music swirling while she performs her ‘danse macabre’ for the audience. Vollin is enraptured, but the Judge is worried about where this is all heading. Confronting Vollin at his home, he realizes the doctor is more than just infatuated. Warning him away from Jean adds fuel to the madness burning within Vollin. Fugitive criminal Edmund Bateman shows up unexpectedly at Vollin’s door. Bateman’s been told the doctor can “change my face” to avoid the police, but Vollin has other plans. He operates on the criminal’s “nerve ends” causing Bateman to become a grotesque looking monstrosity. When his face is revealed to him before a wall of mirror, Bateman angrily shoots them out (Welles’ inspiration for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, perhaps?) Vollin tells Bateman he’ll turn him back if Bateman’s willing to “torture and kill” for him. Reluctantly, Bateman agrees to assist in Vollin’s demented scheme.

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Karloff’s Edmund Bateman, though a killer, is played for  sympathy. Born with an ugly mug, Bateman felt driven to “do ugly things”. Like the Frankenstein Monster, Bateman’s been battered and beaten by a world he never made, lashing out at the injustice of his lot in life. Boris always gave his best characters a touch of humanity (the monster, Grey in THE BODY SNATCHERS, Elman in THE WALKING DEAD), and makes us feeling sorry for the brutish Bateman.

Vollin invites Jean, her father, Jerry, and two other couples to spend the weekend at his estate. A storm is brewing outside, but inside Vollin it’s already raging. Bateman abducts Thatcher and hauls him down to Vollin’s basement, where his torture devices are set up. Strapping Thatcher to a slab, Vollin gazes up at the blade hanging above the judge’s prone body. He flips a switch and, like in Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”, the blade slowly descends, swinging to and fro aimed at Thatcher’s midsection. “Try to be sane, Vollin”, Thatcher pleads, but it’s far too late for that. Laughing manically (as only Bela can!), he replies with glee, “Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!”

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Another switch is flipped, and Jean’s entire room drops to basement level. Jerry and one of the couples (the other is fast asleep) hear Jean’s screams and find a panel leading to the basement. Vollin orders Bateman to throw Jean and Jerry in a steel-walled room, and locking them in, the walls begin to close in on them. Now completely insane, Vollin rails the two “will never be separated, never!…What a torture! What a delicious torture!” Bateman, realizing Jean’s about to be crushed to death (she was kind to him earlier despite his hideous kisser), shuts the switch off, but not before Vollin gut-shoots him. Struggling to his feet, Bateman overpowers the doctor and, in a last heroic feat, drags him in the room and pulls the lever, causing Vollin to be crushed by his own devious torture chamber.

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Lugosi’s descent into madness is one of the great accomplishments in horror. Building slowly, by the end he’s completely over-the-top deranged. I don’t think anyone could pull off the role of Richard Vollin the way Beal Lugosi does, and it’s one of his top acting jobs. Karloff gets the most out of his subservient role, and milks it for all the sympathy he can. Irene Ware (Jean) makes a fine damsel in distress (she worked with Bela before in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN), while stalwart Lester Matthews (Jerry) plays the romantic lead (Matthews also was in the bizarre Savage Intruder with Miriam Hopkins). Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Thatcher) is no stranger to horror movie buffs, appearing in MAN MADE MONSTER and SON OF DRACULA, while Ian Wolfe (Snuffy, one of the guests) made over 300 appearences in a career that stretched from 1934 to 1990.

Director Louis Friedlander moves the film briskly along from a top-notch script by David Boehm. Friedlander would change his name to Lew Landers, a workhorse of a director who did everything from Gene Autry Westerns to Boston Blackie mysteries. Landers worked again with Karloff on THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) and Lugosi on RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Grinding em out quickly was Landers’ forte, and though he worked strictly in the B-realm, his films were generally well received. Television called in the 50s, and Landers made a home there, most notably on KIT CARSON, HIGHWAY PATROL, and RIN TIN TIN.

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Karloff and Lugosi made eight films together (including their cameo in 1934’s GIFT OF GAB), and while most genre fans rate THE BLACK CAT as their best pairing, I’m kind of partial to THE RAVEN. Neither film is literally based on Poe (“suggested by” the title cards say), but this one is more close to the “Spirit of Poe”. It’s a showcase for the talents of Bela Lugosi at the peak of his acting powers, with Boris Karloff lending good solid support. If you can only see one Karloff/Lugosi team-up this Halloween, I highly recommend you make it THE RAVEN.