Saturday, October 28, 2017

Side By Side: THE RAVEN (1963) vs. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)

Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. This week, we're comparing two film adaptations of well known works by Edgar Allan Poe, both starring Vincent Price, and both directed by the King of the B-Movies, Mr. Roger Corman: 1963's THE RAVEN and 1964's THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.

I'm not sure if this is still true today, Occasional Reader, but there was a time not so long ago when it wasn't all that difficult to find an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven", a poem about the horror of being trapped in inescapable grief. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals an impressive list of such references. Today the version you're likely most familiar with (if you haven't read the actual poem), is the surprisingly good, if truncated, treatment that capped The Simpsons' first "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween special.

The thing that unites many of these references is that, while The Raven has not always been played straight, it has at least usually been referenced faithfully. By which I mean, it's likely that a given reference or adaptation will carry those telltale signs that it was produced by someone who has appreciated, or at least understood, the original work.

This, sadly, brings me to Roger Corman's film adaptation of The Raven, from a screenplay written by "I Am Legend" author Richard Matheson. If this movie is the product of individuals familiar with the original work, then a depressing amount of effort has been taken to trick us into believing otherwise. The film even ends with a misquote of the poem's most famous line, "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore'", which this version bastardizes to mean "And the Raven never spoke again." And that's just the final insult.

The 1963 film The Raven is based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe in much the same way that the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man is based on a short story by Stephen King. A few of the most basic elements remain, but the similarity stops early, and with prejudice. In this case, there is a man (Vincent Price), there was a Lenore -- this version has decided that she was the narrator's wife -- and there is a bird. To this basic framework Corman adds a daughter, a mind-controlled manservant, plenty of black magic, a reanimated corpse, and a storyline about two rival sorcerers. And to cap it all off, he turned the story into a comedy.

Points for honesty: you can clearly spot the moment when the film abandons the original work, and at least Corman doesn't try to trick his audience into believing the story will ever get back on track. But after that point, anything goes. The narrator, Dr Erasmus Craven (Price), promptly forgets his grief entirely, and only remembers it when the story needs to shove him in a certain direction. The Raven is not a raven, but a transmogrified magician, one Dr Adolphus Bedlo, who was turned into the bird by another, greater sorcerer, Dr Scarabus. For indefensibly contrived reasons, Dr Craven is pulled into the feud between Bedlo and Scarabus. A convoluted showdown ensues which packs in so many plot twists that the story becomes nearly impossible to follow. This character is good, but now he's evil! But now he's good again! Characters live, die, and get mulligan'd back to life so often you'll think you're watching an episode of Gotham. And at the end, Dr Craven, who previously was so inexperienced with magic he couldn't brew a simple potion, will be revealed to be the mightiest magic master that ever magicked. If the intent of The Raven was to turn the classic poem into a campy, goofy family film, then Roger Corman has once again triumphed on a scale that only he could reach.

The amazing thing about this otherwise disappointing effort is its casting, because The Raven inexplicably unites three legends of classic horror cinema. In addition to Vincent Price, trans-avian Dr Bedlo is played by Peter Lorre, and the great Boris Karloff plays Dr Scarabous. I cannot get my head around this level of stars taking themselves so un-seriously. It's like if Disney made a Marvel movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yeah, I heard DiCaprio wants to play Stan Lee in a biopic, but you get my point. Every once in a while a casting happens that simply shouldn't be in a rational universe, and you just have to wonder why even as you marvel at it's happening.

It's Lorre who carries the day. Best known for playing shifty weasels, or the quiet little man who'll go screaming off the deep end by the end of the film, Lorre plays Dr Bedlo as a third-rate trickster and clown too wrapped up in himself to realize how badly outclassed he is by Scarabous. He is the comic relief in a film meant for laughs, and he doesn't shy away. Karloff and Price, meanwhile, lay on the old-world elegance with an indelicately handled shovel, calling each other "Sir" and "My Dear Doctor" nearly every time they speak, and spouting cliched "But of course" dialogue as though they got a bonus for each tired phrase spoken. It's during the final duel between these two when the film's ambition clearly outstrips its budget, relying heavily on the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps left by effects the film just couldn't provide.

Compared to such as that, The Masque of the Red Death is easily the better of the two projects. Once again liberties are taken with the story, but at least in this case those liberties serve to flesh out a plot faithful to its source material. A terrible disease is ravaging the land, and while the peasantry die in numbers, Prince Prospero (Price, again) feasts and revels with the other nobility within the walls of his castle, as they believe themselves to be safe there.

Spoilers: they ain't.

Repenting from his previous malfeasance of classic literature, Roger Corman keeps the core story intact, even going so far as to recreate the multi-colored series of chambers which Poe describes, leading from the halls of merriment to the black room at the heart of Prospero's keep. All embellishments Corman adds to this story are secondary padding to stretch the story to feature length. These include a trio of villagers which Prospero kidnaps for his amusement, a lecherous swine of a lord who maybe enjoys the entertainment Prospero provides a little too much, and the (ahem) "reasons" Prospero believes he and his guests will be safe from an airborne plague within his unsanitary and exceedingly well ventilated castle. And the reason is: Satan.

That's right; not content to stick with Poe's original characterization of Prospero as either another "Foolish Rich Man" allegory who believes his wealth and position can save him from death, or a man struggling to avoid facing his own mortality through wild bacchanalia, Corman instead turns Prospero into a Satanist. But not just any Satanist! Prospero is a Satanist in the tradition of the corniest Sunday School caricature. He doesn't do much, apart from sneering about "the power of the Dark Lord", spouting "There Is No God" declamations worthy of a social media atheist, and occasionally speaking Latin. It's his sister Juliana (Hazel Court) who actually carries the unholy workload, though even she never gets up to more than what Excalibur's Merlin would call "petty evil." After Prospero has her dress kidnapped village girl Francesca (Jane Asher) in court finery, the movie runs out of things for Juliana to do and so she spends most of her remaining screen time in Prospero's "Satanic Temple", enacting black rites as imagined by Ned Flanders. It's never explained why Juliana is so eager to give her soul over to the Lord of Flies; we can only assume she's found no other outlet for her raging evilness.

When he isn't acting like Pat Robertson's idea of a "Dungeons and Dragons" player, Prospero is at least somewhat interesting. If Vincent Price had any real skill as an actor, I have yet to see it, but in his defense he invests the character of Prospero with at least the good kind of cartoonish villainy. There's no hand-rubbing or hammy overacting. But the film is at its best when the Red Man (John Westbrook), a crimson cloaked figure who is the personification of the titular plague, is on the screen. In the original work, this character appears only briefly, passing among the revelers at Prospero's shindig just before everyone starts dying; here, he puts in a few more appearances, and actually speaks, besides. But he has lost none of the air of sinister portent that should surround this character.

Corny though this movie gets in places, at least it isn't trying to be something it was never meant to be. It may not measure up to the standards of modern horror, but at least here we get a glimpse of why Vincent Price is so well remembered. The Raven, meanwhile, is one for the so-bad-it's-good pile, or at least a reminder that unfaithful adaptations are nothing new.

Both The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death are Unrated.

Robert's Scores:
The Raven: 3 / 10
The Masque of the Red Death: 6 / 10

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