The D&D Wizard Class and Roger Corman’s Movie The Raven

The D&D Wizard Class and Roger Corman’s Movie The Raven

by Joshua LH Burnett

While the books of Appendix N are inarguably a huge influence on the early days of fantasy role-playing adventure games, it is also important to consider the popular films of the day. Roger Corman’s 1963 movie The Raven tells the story of three rival wizards. This comedy-horror picture features tropes and themes that are familiar to any fan of fantasy RPGs, from classic magic-user spells, to flashy and unpredictable wizard duels.

Roger Corman (born 1926) has been called the “Pope of Pop Cinema” and the “King of the B-Movies.” Since 1954 he has directed 56 movies and produced over 500 more. Corman is famous for shooting films in a short time-frame on a tight budget, repurposing props and sets, and mentoring younger artists. His films launched the careers of numerous legendary actors and directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Jack Nicholson. Over his 60-plus year career, Corman has delved into almost every genre imaginable—exploitation, crime, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Between 1960 and 1964 he filmed what would become known as his “Poe Cycle”—eight films for American International Pictures (AIP) loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, most of them starring horror legend Vincent Price. The Raven, based on the poem of the same name, was the fifth of these films. 

Corman’s 1960 film adaptation of Poe’s short-story “The Fall of the House of Usher” had proven both critically and financially successful. House of Usher starred Vincent Price and was scripted by veteran novelist and screen-writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, and many Twilight Zone episodes). Corman, Matheson, and Price would come together again a year later for The Pit and the Pendulum. This film also proved profitable, and AIP wanted more Poe films. Pit was followed by The Premature Burial and the anthology film Tales of Terror. In 1962, production began on The Raven. This film was different from the previous Poe films, in that it was a comedy instead of gothic horror. Richard Matheson said, “After I heard they wanted to make a movie out of a poem, I felt that was an utter joke, so comedy was really the only way to go with it.”

The cast of The Raven included three bona fide film icons and a young actor who would become a legend himself. Vincent Price played Dr. Erasmus Craven, a good-hearted wizard lamenting the death of his wife Lenore some two years earlier. Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy) played his sinister sorcerous foil Dr. Scarabas. Peter Lorre (M, The Maltese Falcon) played the self-serving drunkard wizard Dr. Bedlo. Bedlo’s son, Rexford, was played by a young unknown actor named Jack Nicholson, who had previously worked with Corman on The Cry Baby Killer and Little Shop of Horrors.

The Raven opens with Price reciting the Poe poem over psychedelic oil-on-water projections. The film switches to Price’s Dr. Craven longing for his dead wife, only to be interrupted by a Raven tapping at his window. That is where any similarity to the poem ends. The raven is actually the wizard Dr. Bedlo who has been transformed into a bird after a duel with Dr. Scarabas, the hated enemy and rival of Craven’s long-dead father. After Craven removes the enchantment from Bedlo, the shabby wizard reveals that he has seen Craven’s dead wife in the castle of Scarabas. Craven and Scarabas, along with Rexford and Craven’s daughter Estelle,  travel to Scarabas’s home to confront the magician. Once there, they discover Dr. Scarabas to be a congenial host who claims he only transmogrified Bedlo into a raven when the other wizard attempted to kill him. The seemingly magnamious magician is willing to forget the incident, even after Bedlo challenges him to yet another duel. Scarabus easily defeats the drunken Bedlo, and with a storm raging outside, he invites the visitors to spend the night in his castle.

Eventually it is revealed that everything has been a scheme orchestrated by Scarabus. Lenore faked her own death to become his mistress. Scarabus struck a deal with Bedlo to lead Craven to the castle so the evil wizard could steal his magical power. In exchange, Sacarabas would teach the less-than-competent Bedlo greater magic. The heroes are captured and placed in Scarabas’s dungeons but manage to escape. The climax of the movie features a magical wizard’s duel between Scarabas and Craven which results in the destruction of the castle.

The film was shot over 15 days on a budget of $350,000. Corman’s art director Dan Haller had kept sets and props from each of the previous Poe films, which meant that each subsequent film looked better than the last. Corman explains in his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime:

If we had the same art department budget for the second picture, we had, say, $20,000 of sets stored from the first, so it became a $40,000 design. For the third set, we had, say, S40,000 in stock and spent another $20,000 on design… It explains how the Poe Films look increasingly more elaborate without stretching the production budgets or shooting schedules.”

Filming with three master actors was contentious, for Karloff, Lorre, and Price each had very different acting styles. Boris Karloff was reaching the end of his career, and his performances involved extensive preparation and precision, sticking to the script word-for-word. Lorre was much more improvisational, ad-libbing and changing many lines. Lorre’s improvisations vexed and confused Karloff. Price, a method actor, was a balancing presence between the two. He tended to stick to script but was deft enough to appreciate and adapt to Lorre’s more naturalistic style. Several scenes in the film—Bedlo trying on several different hats and cloaks as Craven attempts to find him something warm to wear for their trip, for instance—display this loose scripting to great comedic effect.

Jack Nicholson enjoyed his scenes with Lorre. His character Rexford craved his father’s approval, while his father thought he was an idiot. Nicholson—another method actor—leaned into this by pestering Lorre while on set, playing up to the older actor until he would push him away. Nicholson says in Corman’s autobiography:

Roger gave me one direction on the picture—‘Try to be as funny as Lorre, Karloff, and Price.’ I loved those guys. I sat around with Peter all the time. I was mad about him… It was a comedy and Roger gave us a little more time to improvise on the set.”

Despite mixed reviews at the time, the film proved to be yet another financial win for Corman. The Raven earned $1.5 million on a budget of $300,000. After a few non-Poe films Corman would continue his Poe Cycle with 1963’s The Haunted Palace (which while named for a Poe poem is actually an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”). This was followed by The Masque of the Red Death before Corman closed out his Poe movies with Tomb of Ligeia in 1965.

The Raven includes several tropes that would influence fantasy adventure games. There are secret doors and hidden passages. There are wizard’s sanctums with magical laboratories and smoking cauldrons. The three main characters all belong to the same mage’s guild—The Brotherhood of Magicians and Sorcerers. Many spells require verbal, somatic, and material components. Indeed wizards like Scarabus who need only hand gestures are said to be very rare and powerful. Craven explains to Bedlo “He only used his hands?… Then his skill is far greater than I ever dreamed of… Magic by gesture of the hands is the most advanced sorcery.” It is said that Gary Gygax was a fan of the film, and the archetypes for many classic spells are present—polymorph, magic missile, shield, flesh to stone, entangle, and many others.

Of special importance to Dungeon Crawl Classics fans is the wizards’ duel to the death at the climax of the film. It is a formal affair. Scarabus and Craven sit across from each other in the castle’s great hall. They take turns, one wizard silently casting a spell at the other while his opponent counters it with a different spell. Scarabus flings a blade conjured from blood at Craven, only to be deflected by a glowing shield of force. Craven levitates his chair and impishly flings eggs at his rival. More than once, Scarabus thinks he has killed Craven, only to find that the wizard replaced himself with a mannequin or dummy. Eventually, an enraged Scarabus launches a volley of fireballs at Craven who deflects them with a wave of his hand. This magical fallout sets the castle on fire. Craven, Bedlo (who has been turned back to a raven), Estelle, and Rexford flee the castle as it collapses around Scarabus and the treacherous Lenore. The interior scenes of the burning castle included repurposed sequences from House of Usher, which were in fact footage Corman shot of a condemned barn he paid a farmer $50 to burn down.

The Raven, along with several other horror and fantasy films directed or produced by Roger Corman, rightfully belongs with the books of Appendix N as inspiration for classic role-playing games, and should continue to inspire players, judges, and creators today. As of this writing, Roger Corman is alive and well. At 95 he is still producing movies (mostly for the SyFy cable channel) and still mentoring and inspiring young filmmakers. Most of his movies are readily available to rewatch or discover for the first time. 

Be sure to check out other articles on cinema’s influence on our favorite games with Films of High Adventure!

Author: billward

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