When it comes to horror and suspense, it doesn’t get much better than the original trailblazer, Edgar Allen Poe. Yet, Poe’s world has gotten a rather horrid treatment when it comes to film. Perhaps it’s because Poe’s creations were more about the dark recesses of the mind – something about his prose just can’t make the leap to the big screen. Maybe it’s because we’re so enamored of the writer that we can’t come to acknowledge any vision of his creations that exists outside of our head. Whatever the reason, Poe and film have been a rough combination. That alone was a reason for an English major like myself to get excited about The Raven, an interesting piece of historical fiction that puts Poe in a Sherlock Holmes style role, set against a killer who gets his motivation from the dark Romantic’s writings.
Playing with the real ambiguity surrounding Poe’s last days, the historical fiction film paints Poe as the eccentric we’d all like to imagine he is, albeit slightly less haunted than we might expect. He looks down upon the common man and fellow literati with a sense of self-importance but is just slightly askew enough that he doesn’t quite fit in with the world around him. Mentions are given to his dead mother and wife, but he seems to have come to terms with those losses at this point in his life (in fact, he claims to be devoid of any more inspiration for writing). John Cusack not only manages a memorable performance as the historical author, but finally manages to lose a bit of his own domineering personality. This might mark the biggest departure for the actor from the type of role he’s played before and the result is a notable transformation.
Poe is brought in as a consultant by Detective Fields (Luke Evans), who has read enough of Poe’s work to recognize when a serial killer appears to be using the writer’s ideas for inspiration and feels using the writer might help them get ahead of the killer. Unfortunately, the killer is more than pleased to play a game with Mr. Poe, and abducts the young lady who has drawn Poe’s fancy (Alice Eve). What was originally a consulting task suddenly becomes personal, with Poe locked in a game of wits against someone using his own creations for vile purposes. Both Evans and Eve are solid in their performances, with Eve in particular handling both the stunning beauty and the damsel in distress equally well. Throw in Brendan Gleeson as the young lady’s father and Kevin McNally as Poe’s publisher and you’ve got an interesting supporting cast.
Unfortunately, the film’s biggest gimmick winds up being one of its biggest problems: the idea of crimes based on Poe’s work. As the story writers no doubt quickly discovered, there are only a few key stories of Poe’s in the bank of cultural knowledge, and the story rips through those all too quickly. Instead it has to resort to using some of Poe’s lesser known stories, which detracts from the gimmick, and toss in a few of the titular raven here and there to keep the feeling of inspiration present. Aside from the obvious “Pit and the Pendulum” reference and a nice twist on “The Tell-Tale Heart” (which perceptive viewers should notice is actually a “Fall of the House of Usher” riff) most of the killer’s inspirations fall flat. Considering they were the selling point of the movie, these crime scenes needed to be more impressive. Instead of Saw meets Poe, we get a few obvious ideas and little more.
Instead of inspired killings, The Raven winds up being a rather formulaic “whodunit” mystery with a resolution that isn’t quite satisfying. Like most mysteries we get a few crime scenes, some antagonizing letters, and the killer is ultimately unmasked, but there aren’t really clues put in front of the audience that they can use to reach a solution any faster than Poe and Fields do. In fact, the story feels so archetypal when it comes to mysteries that the period setting of the piece starts to feel out of place. When you’re used to seeing Mark Wahlberg or Morgan Freeman going through a similar plot structure in contemporary times, watching a Romantic Era John Cusack going through it just feels awkward.
I really like the idea of The Raven, which could have been an intriguing piece of historical fiction, but this film doesn’t wind up living up to Poe’s reputation. Don’t get me wrong – it’s better than a lot of the adaptations of Poe’s work, but it isn’t the piece of genius it could have been. When you incorporate one of the masters of suspense and terror into your project, you have to bring your “A game”. John Cusack brings it to his performance, breathing a fascinating life into Poe. It’s just unfortunate that the story doesn’t hold up the same level of suspense and fascination.