Edgar Allan Poe introduced his 1840s readership to a new kind of fiction: detective novels. In his dark, twisted and often macabre books, criminals committed crimes and were typically identified and brought to justice by an officer of the law. But while his stories, including great horrors like 'The Cask of Amontillado', 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', 'The Pit and the Pendulum' and 'The Raven' enjoyed some level of popular and critical success, Poe died a pauper, never seeing the riches he expected from his writing, poems and other works.
A troubled soul and alcoholic, Poe no doubt instilled both admiration and dread in his Baltimore neighbors and that's where The Raven -- with John Cusack as Poe -- starts up, except one of Poe's fans has taken an overly literal literary license and is murdering people with setups based on Poe stories, while challenging the great writer to figure out the puzzle and identify the killer.
Enter brusque Inspector Fields (Luke Evans), who initially suspects Poe himself of the crimes, but quickly realizes that the killer is someone else and reluctantly brings Poe into the investigation, even as the killer abducts Poe's lovely fiancée Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve). Can Poe solve the mystery quickly enough to save her life?
It's a well-worn narrative device, the crime author who finds a fan who takes their work far too seriously, but the addition of the film's setting, 1850's Baltimore, Maryland, and some rather grisly set pieces where we see alarmingly graphic murders occur should have produced an enjoyable film. Unfortunately, it doesn't, and The Raven suffers from too many plot holes, narrative hiccups and a notably poor performance by Evans as a completely wooden inspector, and ends up a film that'll be a good rental, but not worth the price of a theater ticket.
It's extremely hard in a period film to get the dialog, slang and mannerisms right. Sets are easy, wardrobe is easy, and with modern computer graphics filling in the matte behind key scenes, even long shots can be effectively created. Director James McTeigue did a good job, but there was one scene between Emily and Edgar where she makes a rather slang sexual remark that really should have been edited out of the film or reshot. It stood out as that inappropriate. Unfortunately, one bad scene can mar a film, and coupled with the obvious acting that Evans is doing in the film, rather than him inhabiting a character in the story, it's just another hiccup.
A series of murders based on Poe stories with the killer challenging the author to solve the mystery of his identity before it's too late and Emily meets her demise should be a great foundation for a fast-paced Victorian-era film, but the narrative just doesn't hold together and the improbabilities stack up way too fast. In one scene we'll see a dozen police assisting in the investigation, then moments later Poe is mano-a-mano with the mysterious killer and the officers don't follow or move to assist. Earlier Inspector Fields experiences the same odd vanished policemen phenomenon while running through the sewer lines.
Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) and Inspector Fields (Luke Evans) from "The Raven"
Then there's the question of why McTeigue decided to have such explicit and grisly murder scenes. The murder inspired by Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum is particularly noteworthy as something that I'd more expect to see in the sort of torture-porn of Hostel or Saw. It was unnecessary, though I kept thinking of the classic 60s' and 70's Vincent Price horror films wherein he enacted many of Poe's more dark tales.
Still, I do enjoy a period drama and was smug that I'd figured out who the killer was, just to be surprised that it was someone else when all was revealed. Neat. The ending? Well, as with many films, it would have been far better had they finished the film about four minutes before the titles come up and left a bit of ambiguity about what happened to the killer. There's a whole question of the mechanics behind the last scene that are undoubtedly best chalked up to morality.
And speaking of the ending, I found the titles oddly inappropriate for a film set in the mid 1850s: They would have fit much better closing out a modern action thriller like Battleship or GI Joe. It's rare that titles intrude upon your consciousness, but when you do catch The Raven, I'm sure you'll see what I mean in an instant.
So should you go see The Raven? If you're a Cusack fan or want to see what it would look like to incorporate core elements from both Anonymous and Hostel into a script, perhaps. Otherwise I suggest you save your money: this will be a good DVD rental in a few months.