‘The Raven’ movie review: John Cusack is Edgar Allan Poe in horror thriller

James McTeigue’s The Raven begins with a title scrawl informing us that the last days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life are unaccounted for. That’s true, and fascinating: Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore raving and delirious, wearing clothes that weren’t his own, in early October, 1849, after he had been missing for about a week; he died four days later, the exact cause of death still a mystery.

This true-story premise has a lot of potential, but unfortunately The Raven just uses it as an excuse to pretend that its absurd alternate-reality serial killer thriller could have happened. It proposes that, in those few accounted days, a serial killer terrorizes Baltimore, enacting murders from Poe’s fiction. Poe, naturally, teams up with a savvy detective to track the killer down.

This may sound familiar. It’s a hodgepodge of ideas from other films, from the general atmosphere of a Sleepy Hollow or From Hell (one can imagine this Poe as a role intended for Johnny Depp), to plot devices taken from David Fincher’s Seven or Zodiac (or even more conventional thrillers), and stylistic cues reminiscent of the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films. Most notably, the premise of a serial killer taunting an author by recreating murders from his writing is lifted directly from Dario Argento’s Tenebre (not Argento’s best, though there are some stunning sequences).

Still, I think I enjoyed The Raven just about as much as possible, no thanks to the by-the-numbers screenplay, credited to actor-turned-writer Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (no relation?).

But director McTeigue (V for Vendetta) has a strong visual sense that absorbingly recreates the time and place, and the cast is game for the material – especially Luke Evans, donning an effective Northeastern US accent as the underspoken but intense Detective Fields, and John Cusack, who makes for an amusingly articulate Poe (even if we’re still waiting for Nicolas Cage to step into the role for the definitive Poe).

Call it a guilty pleasure, even if it’s more guilt than pleasure; genre fans should be satisfied, though at 110 minutes, with few surprises in store, the film begins to test our patience and peters out towards the conclusion.

The Raven begins with a double murder inside a room locked from the inside, windows nailed shut. Detective Fields discovers a spring-loaded nail revealing a hidden escape, and recalls reading something similar in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (specifically, The Murders in the Rue Morgue). Poe is called in for questioning.

The murders continue, beginning a checklist of scenes from Poe fiction: there’s The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado. There are no such murders in Poe’s most famous work, The Raven, but you can be sure the filmmakers throw in the titular bird, or ten of them. 

Poe, naturally, sticks around as a consultant. The stakes are upped when the killer begins taunting the detectives, and Poe’s love interest, Emily (Alice Eve), may be targeted as the next victim.

The Raven has a couple gruesome torture scenes that might feel more at home in the Saw franchise, but it exists firmly in the realm of the serial killer thriller. While the period setting explains, to some length, how the killer is able to elude capture (through the lack of modern forensic methods), the film falls prey to a lot of the genre’s failings. 

Most dubious is the killer’s intricate plan, which depends entirely on coincidence and contrivance and actions the killer cannot possibly foresee, and the Talking Killer scene, in which the murderer disregards common sense in order to explain his motives to the audience.

The Raven might have been fascinating had it painted a more believable portrait of Poe’s last days, and it could have been fun if it had gone comically revisionist a la Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. As it is, this middling thriller isn’t exactly bad, but it, disappointingly, offers little we haven’t seen before.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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