Once upon a movie dreary
By John DeFore
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012
See the right promotional photo of John Cusack playing Edgar Allan Poe in "The Raven," and it briefly looks like a good idea: The high forehead, the shadowed eyes - even with Poe's moustache transformed into a more 2012-fashionable goatee, there's enough of a resemblance to tantalize. If Hollywood's going to turn the author who invented detective fiction into a crime fighter himself, perhaps this is our guy.
But then Edgar Allan Poe walks into a bar and starts talking, and we immediately understand why Cusack is not known for playing men who lived before 1984.
Nothing in the actor's cadence or attitude suggests he has changed much to blend in with the story's 1849 setting. But it isn't as if the movie's screenplay, by scribes Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, gives him any help: Its unconvincing dialogue makes little attempt to capture Poe's idiom, something that would seem obligatory given Poe's Gothic legacy. Like the recent Sherlock Holmes films, "The Raven" seems content to steal a famous figure's name and leave any stabs at authenticity to the set and costume designers.
The movie's conceit takes a tidbit of biographical fact - Poe died under mysterious conditions, having been found on the streets in a state of delirium - and spins an action-film fantasy to fit it. Here, the booze-weakened author helps hunt a serial killer he himself has inspired.
After some grisly killings whose details come straight from Poe's fiction, Baltimore detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) goes to the author for help. Soon the killer is taunting Poe directly, leaving clues for him at crime scenes and kidnapping the wealthy woman (Alice Eve) he hopes to marry. Although the trappings of each crime refer to Poe's literature - a surprisingly graphic disembowelment-via-pendulum, for instance - "The Raven" owes far more to such contemporary serial-killer films as "Seven." Viewers might find some novelty in trying to predict how "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Premature Burial" will work their way into the proceedings, but imaginative ties to those classics are scarce here.
Director James McTeigue was much more successful capturing graphic novelist Alan Moore's mood in "V for Vendetta" than he is conjuring the bone-chilling suspense of Poe. But viewed as simply another Hollywood thriller, "The Raven" builds up a decent head of steam as time runs out for our hero's imperiled fiancee.
All the while, the bleary-eyed Poe is forced to write an ongoing chronicle of the investigation by the killer, a fan who threatens more bloodshed if the stories don't live up to the author's inimitable classics. Here's hoping, for the filmmakers' sake, that none of Poe's contemporary fans are as murderously discriminating.
Contains violence and surprisingly graphic gore.