We’ll likely never know much about American poet Edgar Allan Poe’s final days. Found by a friend in 1849 on a Baltimore public park bench in a state of delirium, the creator of the detective genre and the godfather of gothic horror was ranting in a fever dream about someone named “Reynolds.” This becomes the jumping off point for Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare's story that concocts a mildly interesting look at what might have happened to the author on those final mysterious days.
As The Raven opens, we meet Poe (John Cusack) on the verge of becoming destitute, the creativity that brought the writer some renown now having run dry. With no where else to turn for money to support his upcoming marriage to Emily (Alice Eve), the daughter of shipping magnate Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson), Poe finds himself peddling his own style of literary criticism to newspapers and literary magazines, an endeavor certain to raise the hackles of any number of rivals.
Meanwhile, a gruesome darkness is enshrouding Baltimore (actually Belgrade and Budapest standing in) as a woman and her daughter are discovered brutally murdered in their room locked from the inside, and a man is discovered severed in two by a swinging pendulum.
Recognizing a connection to Poe’s works, Detective Fields (Luke Evans) quickly dismisses the author as the culprit (too drunk, too obvious) and brings in the surly author to help solve the murders that appear to be exact copies of killings in some of Poe’s writings. And not a moment too soon, as the murderer appears ready to strike next at a birthday ball being hosted by Captain Hamilton for his daughter, Emily.
Despite a well-prepared police posse fanned out across the dance hall, Emily is snatched right out from under their noses. The only way to find her is to follow the cryptic clues left on (or in) the victims’ bodies by the killer who challenges Poe to a grisly game of wits. At this point The Raven becomes a fast-moving whodunit that combines period literary drama with modern gory horror. It hopes to carry the same emotional heft and visual significance as Fincher’s Se7en, but with an inherent lack of suspense and a flat lead character, The Raven comes off on the smaller side of what director James McTeigue had intended. Mystery lovers - as well as followers of TV’s CSI series - will likely find enough good forensic trappings in there to be mildly entertained, but gore hounds will remain hungry despite the film’s R rating.
Visually, Cusack works as the VanDyke-ed Edgar Allen Poe. And as the brooding, melancholic poet desperately clinging to the end of his rope, he has that nailed as well. While we know of literary rival Rufus Griswold’s largely successful real-life attempts at sullying Poe’s reputation by tagging the author with posthumous lies and half-truths about alcohol and heroin addiction, that doesn’t mean the character can’t be written as a more real, likeable person, rather than a disgraced, egotistical, blustering nut-job hated by all – including the audience.
Although McTeigue and company often fall victim to style over substance making it all a dimly lit blur of swooping capes, masked faces, CGI crows, and shallowly-accessed characters, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had by lovers of Poe’s original short stories and tales of mystery and the macabre. Livingston and Shakespeare cleverly pepper their story with intriguing bits and pieces from the author’s works. I found myself continually accessing the High School Lit memory banks, hoping to decipher my own clues and references hidden in plain sight. But cleverly disguised literary reference too often becomes the victim of moving the plot forward. Even at just 111 minutes it feels long. Perhaps fewer forced shots of ravens flapping around for no reason and more attention to the works of Poe and the character himself might have added the intrigue, mystery, history, and spectacle the filmmakers were going for.
MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence and grisly images.
Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Ben Livingston, Hannah Shakespeare
Cast: John Cusack; Luke Evans; Alice Eve; Brendan Gleeson
Genre: Mystery | Thriller
Tagline: The only one who can stop a serial killer is the man who inspired him.
Memorable Movie Quote: "You are referring to one of my stories. A work of fiction! "
Distributor: Rogue Pictures
Official Site: www.theravenmovies.com
Release Date: April 27, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: In this gritty thriller, Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) joins forces with a young Baltimore detective (Luke Evans) to hunt down a mad serial killer who's using Poe's own works as the basis in a string of brutal murders. Directed by James McTeigue, the film also stars Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Jackson-Cohen. When a mother and daughter are found brutally murdered in 19th century Baltimore, Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) makes a startling discovery: the crime resembles a fictional murder described in gory detail in the local newspaper--part of a collection of stories penned by struggling writer and social pariah Edgar Allan Poe. But even as Poe is questioned by police, another grisly murder occurs, also inspired by a popular Poe story. Realizing a serial killer is on the loose using Poe's writings as the backdrop for his bloody rampage, Fields enlists the author's help in stopping the attacks. But when it appears someone close to Poe may become the murderer's next victim, the stakes become even higher and the inventor of the detective story calls on his own powers of deduction to try to solve the case before it's too late.