THE RAVEN: Watch It At Home – Not Much Tell-Tale Heart (Or Brain)
Sometimes less-than-great minds think alike, too. The idea of Edgar Allen Poe as a detective investigating strange phenomena was at the center of ABC’s busted pilot Poe last year (see our pilot report here), but it seems the failure of that project didn’t discourage the new film THE RAVEN. In its second incarnation, the concept continues to seem a lot less clever than the filmmakers seem to think it is.
This time, Poe (John Cusack) is introduced in the Baltimore of 1849, near the end of his life. He’s hopelessly dissipated, a drunk and opium user, dead broke and despite some fame, desperately scrambling for commissions from the local newspaper. Despite all this, he’s won the heart of the richest, loveliest girl in town, Emily (Alice Eve), daughter of the disapproving Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). The two have decided to marry, but before they can announce the engagement, Poe finds himself embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer whose crimes duplicate the murders in Poe’s own work (a grisly pit and pendulum, someone walled up a la “The Cask of Amontillado,” etc). After briefly considering Poe as a suspect, Inspector Fields (Luke Evans) pulls Poe in as an advisor and unofficial detective on the case–he’s basically Castle with substance dependency. Of course it’s only a matter of time until the beauteous Emily is in the clutches of the mysterious killer, and then the race is on to track her down before the worst can happen.
The conceit of the storyline allows director James McTeigue to recreate some of the most notable scenes from Poe’s classics (with R-rated bloodshed), and along the way establish the kind of B-movie tone of the Hammer and Roger Corman horror movies of the 1960s, including Corman’s loose adaptations of Poe’s work. (McTeigue also gets to explore his apparent fascination with masks, following V For Vendetta with a “Masque of the Red Death” sequence here.) But the reboot of cheesy old-movie horror style isn’t done with any Tarantinoesque wit or inspiration, and there’s not much else here. The script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare has only the most rudimentary characterizations, and little apparent interest in Poe as more than an excuse for bloody crime scenes. (Midnight In Paris had more insights about the literary figures around its edges than The Raven does about its protagonist.) The script’s clues, all dogged references to Poe’s work, lack genuine ingeniousness, and the ultimate revelations of the killer’s identity and Emily’s whereabouts aren’t very interesting or plausible.
As though to make up for the script’s shortcomings, John Cusack does a lot of busy emoting, none of which is able to turn the movie’s Poe into more than a cardboard presence on screen. Everyone else seems hamstrung by the limitations of the dialogue: Alice Eve looks lovely for the first half of the movie and frightened for the second, while even Brendan Gleeson, with all his charisma, can only bluster as pompous Dad. Luke Evans is stalwart as the lead cop, but he isn’t given anything more interesting to play.
The Raven is certainly of a higher class than the slasher and found-footage thrillers we mostly get these days, for what that’s worth, and it’s watchable, in a low-level way. But while the ABC Poe pilot at least had a semi-original notion (borrowed from the recent Sherlock Holmes movies) of Poe as a proto-, pre-X Files Mulder, The Raven is little more than a violent Cliff’s Notes of Poe’s own murder scenes. Everything about it is purloined.