At the beginning of “The Raven” we are informed that the famed horror writer Edgar Allan Poe was found on October 3,, 1849, on the streets of Baltimore in “great distress and in need of assistance” and died four days later at a hospital. And that the last days of his life “remain a mystery.” Well, according to James McTeigue’s latest movie those last days of Poe’s life were very eventful to say the least.
Of course “The Raven” (aptly titled after one of Poe’s most famous poems) is fiction. The script by actor Ben Livingston and television writer Hannah Shakespeare is an original screenplay. It’s a gothic thriller stylishly directed by McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) and is essentially an Edgar Allan Poe themed mystery story with the late author himself as the central hero.
McTeigue, along with cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann and production designer Roger Ford, create a gloomy, eerie looking Baltimore. Mostly shown at night with CGI fog and glowing moonlight. And shot within dark rooms, with little candlelight. It’s an ideal atmosphere for a mysterious killer to work in. A young girl is found strangled in her home (which is seemingly sealed off), along with her mother who’s head is nearly decapitated. A man is found tied to a table, and sliced open due to a giant pendulum hanging above. These murders are both from stories written by Edgar Allen Poe. And the unknown killer--a die-hard fan, no pun intended-- is going to do it again. So the detective on the case, Fields (Luke Evans) has no choice but to find Poe to help catch the killer.
However, Poe (John Cusack)—who was 40 when he died—is in a downward spiral at this point. Like many great authors he’s become an alcoholic, who spends his nights at pubs spouting eloquently worded insults (“gun toting philistine”) to local ruffians who don’t know who he is and also writes criticism for the daily paper. This murder case is just the thing to get him back in to shape. As more murders happen, Poe is told in taunting notes to write detailed accounts of them that combine both fact and fiction to get clues and when his love interest Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped it gives him drive.
I give “The Raven” some credit; it isn’t based on any source material. It’s hard to find a rather well-written original script that producers actually want to produce. It’s well paced, stylish but not over the top. The movie can be fairly dark and serious when it wants to be. It doesn’t shy away from showing gore or terror. At the same time it can be nutty and poke fun, especially in the verbal sparring between characters.
Also at the beginning there’s a funny continuing joke about criticism writing. The fact that Poe, a bitter washed up author, has gone into writing reviews. Or, the pendulum victim for example was an editor for a local paper who mostly wrote criticism (“you know the easy stuff”).
And yet, when I walked out of the press screening I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is that all there is? The Edgar Allan Poe aspect of the movie is appealing but it’s simply just a device and only people who know his work can appreciate the references. Most of the movie consists of Poe and Fields running around from place to place like action heroes, finding clues and reciting lines from Poe poems (mostly to announce plot points for the audience’s sake). When Emily gets captured it turns into a dull “find the hostage before it’s too late” movie.
After a while the gimmick becomes a little stale and you wish there was more substance to story. Stuff like the criticism joke or the fact that someone is using Poe’s work for a sick game. The movie doesn’t have much depth and its visual style is too generic looking to make up for it.
Cusack brings witty, intellectual sass to his role and you can tell he has some fun with it. Although it’s not in his zone of acting, that’s for sure. The verbal sparring between him and the other actors doesn’t come as natural compared to someone like Robert Downey Jr. who brought a similar sense of smart aleck to the part of Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes Cusack looks uneasy (like he’s trying with all his might), in reciting some of the lines. Though at least he’s trying something new. The other acting is fine for the most part, Evans is intense and serious the entire time and Eve does what she can with the bland damsel in distress role.
Over all “The Raven” works as slight entertainment. It’s dark, and exciting on a scene-by-scene basis, and given what we know about Poe when he was found on the streets on that October day, the movie presents an intriguing fantasy. But there’s not enough to it. Fans of Poe would be better off just reading his stories and people curious about him would also be better off just reading his stories.