Besides being a celebrated author, Edgar Allan Poe was also one of the most vicious, merciless literary critics of the mid-nineteenth century. So one wonders exactly what a modern-day version of Poe would think of this darkly funny, gleefully grisly take on the last few days before his mysterious death in 1849. Would he have applauded the film’s acerbic take on the reality of the downward spiral of a fading literary celebrity or would he have skewered the film’s odd attempts at becoming a gothic mix of Se7en and TV’s CSI?
My guess is that he probably would have done a little bit of both, because while The Raven is preposterous on every level, it’s also an intriguingly knotty (if pretty standard) mystery populated by some first-class actors doing their best to take it all very seriously.
As the film opens, we’re told that Poe’s final days were shrouded in mystery: he was found wandering around Baltimore in a delusional state and then died soon after. No one has ever been able to ascertain exactly why or how he ended up that way and since all of his medical records have since been lost, speculation about his death has become a popular pastime amongst Poe fans.
In the minds of first-time screenwriter Ben Livingstone and TV writer Hannah Shakespeare, Poe wasn’t off drinking himself to death or declining due to some boring, old common disease, rather he’s the central figure in a grippingly gory murder mystery that ironically, reignites Poe’s zest for life just before he’s about to shuffle off this mortal coil.
John Cusack stars as a belligerent Poe whose work prospects are disappearing as he stomps around Baltimore insulting everyone he comes in contact with. He’s penniless and he’s angry and he only lives to scam himself a few drinks at the local pub. He’s also in love with a pretty young society girl named Emily (Alice Eve) whose Father (Brendan Gleeson) hates him.
One night, the police are called to break down the door of an apartment where a young woman is heard screaming. Once they get inside, they find two dead women inside an otherwise seemingly sealed room, and the killer nowhere to be found.
It seems that this scenario is eerily similar to one in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and young police Detective Fields (Luke Evans) quickly recruits Poe in order to help the police to get inside the killer’s mind. As more murdered people turn up in grotesque recreations of Poe’s stories, it becomes clear that the murderer is keen on drawing Poe into his cat and mouse game. When Emily is snatched at her Father’s masked ball, Poe realizes that his own fate is entwined with the fiendishly clever killer, whoever he may be.
Director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) creates a genuinely suspenseful atmosphere as well as a couple of suitably gory death scenes (the exceedingly bloody recreation of “The Pit and the Pendulum” is straight out of a SAW movie), even if the mystery doesn’t really resolve in a satisfying way. He also smartly leaves room for the actors to add their own brand of sardonic wit (at which Cusack is king) to their line readings, which gives the film some personality beyond the dopey chase scenes and laughable anachronisms (yeah, I believe that “I went a little nuts” was in common usage in 1849, not to mention the liberal use of the term “serial killer” which was still a century away from being coined).
Nonetheless, having a famous (and mysterious) real-life figure at the film’s centre makes for a refreshingly different take on what is essentially an old-fashioned police procedural, even if the lack of creativity beyond the initial conceit ensures that I will be watching The Raven again, nevermore.