Everybody knows Edgar Allen Poe. Or at the very least, they are familiar with the name, the poems, or the face seen on those old daguerreotype photographs. But if by chance I have a few readers who failed to pay attention in their middle school English classes, Poe was an American writer during the Romantic era. A strange and perhaps mentally disturbed gentleman, Poe is best known for writing poems and short stories that fell under the genre of Gothic fiction, though he also dipped his toes into the literary criticism pool. Many people love his creepy fictional stories, which were generally macabre tales of mystery, horror, and suspense. Have you seen the movie “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds? Deeply disturbing stuff, it is. You have Poe’s “The Premature Burial” to thank for that idea.
I admit I am not the all-knowing Poe historian (and I’ll probably get in trouble with people reading this who are more knowledgeable than I), but lots of unsolved questions surround the author’s last few days on Earth, as well as the cause of his death in Baltimore at the age of 40. Was his demise caused by alcohol, heart disease, drug overdose, etc.? Was it a suicide attempt? James McTeigue’s “The Raven” throws its hat in the ring and presents a fictionalized account of the writer’s final days, which he spends following the trail of a crafty serial killer in Maryland.
But why Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack)? Well, the thing about the criminal’s murder scenes is that they draw inspiration straight from the reservoir of Poe’s stories, including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) catches the similarities between the murder cases and the literature, so naturally he recruits the direct source of inspiration for these crimes to assist in solving this state of gruesome affairs.
Oh, and did I mention that Poe’s love, an aristocratic girl named Emily (Alice Eve), is also kidnapped and made a victim of the killer’s sadistic schemes? Yup, Emily gets to suffer the same claustrophobic distress that befell Ryan Reynolds in the above-mentioned “Buried.”
So “The Raven” often feels like a discordant genre mashup akin to 2010’s “The Wolfman”: a theatrical period mystery drama, punctuated by brief moment of extreme ultra-violence. In fact, one of the bloodier money-shot deaths looks like something borrowed straight from the “Saw” series. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, I think I liked “The Wolfman” more than I gave it credit for in my initial review. You can say that it has grown on me over the last two years.
Where I found shortcomings with “The Raven” was with the casting of John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe. Cusack is a gifted actor when given the proper material to showcase his talent, but something about this portrayal seems off. Sure, Poe is a peculiar man, a social pariah, an opium user and a financially unstable wreck, but he’s also quite exaggerated and a little too witty for my tastes. It doesn’t require the skills of Cusack, but rather beckons for the eccentric energy of an actor like Nicolas Cage.
And though the film is briskly paced and looks the part of a dark period thriller, the mystery isn’t quite as compelling as it should be. The bits at the masked ball and in the underground tunnels of Baltimore do not seem to the benefit the advancement of a gripping mystery in as much as they act as placeholders to tie together the slaughter scenes. By the time a big reveal is disclosed at the end, it isn’t much a surprise. More like just a hasty wrap-up. Quoth the raven, a resounding “not quite.”