Given that THE RAVEN (directed by James McTeigue from a script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare) purports to fill in the mysterious last five days of Poe’s life—a period for which he became known as much for his fondness for drink and absinthe as for his writings—what would be the least surprising way to fully introduce his character in this film? If you said that he walks into a bar where he can’t pay his tab, rants about his work being unappreciated and generally acts belligerent until he finally gets thrown out, you’d be absolutely right. (You might also have seen Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Jeffrey Combs’ THE BLACK CAT episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, which got to this idea first and did it a whole lot better.)
Poe is undergoing a creative as well as a spiritual crisis at this point, desiring to compose poetry while his editor (Kevin McNally) at the Baltimore Patriot wants him to come up with more blood-and-guts fiction that’ll help sell papers. At least he has the love of his fiancée Emily (Alice Eve), the daughter of—naturally—a rich and disapproving local businessman. She wants to marry Poe despite his excesses, and since Poe helped invent this kind of fiction, Emily can be forgiven for being unaware of the true function of heroes’ girlfriends in stories like this.
Before she has her date with the inevitable, a murder spree begins with a mother and daughter discovered dead in a room from which the perpetrator inexplicably escaped despite all the doors and windows being locked. Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) manages to explicate his method and realizes it bears a striking resemblance to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He calls on the author first as a suspect and then as a collaborator, as another corpse (that of a critic, no less) is discovered, bisected by a huge pendulum blade. It seems someone insane is obsessed with Poe’s work, modeling an ongoing series of crimes after his tales of mystery and imagination and intentionally leaving behind clues to goad his investigation.
As it proceeds from here, THE RAVEN falls into the trap inherent in this particular approach. In the great detective fiction, like that involving Sherlock Holmes (another Victorian figure whose own recent reinterpretation as an action hero surely helped inspire this one), the fun and suspense derive from the sleuth tracking and deducing the identity of his or her quarry despite the villain’s best attempts to cover his or her tracks, as the audience plays along. There’s less tension or engagement when the baddie willfully leaves evidence behind, and the mystery element of THE RAVEN becomes reduced to Poe and Fields arriving at the next successive crime scene, Poe recognizing which of his works is being referenced and the two moving on. And it all becomes more convoluted and contrived as the movie goes on—how convenient for the killer that a ship bearing a Poe-centric name just happens to dock in Baltimore in the midst of his rampage.
A stronger figure at the center might have made this deficiency moot, but the characterization of Poe never gets past the surface level. Cusack goes all out to suggest the author’s dissipation and obsessions, making a valiant effort to bestow meaning and depth to the man that just aren’t there in the script. One of the most complex personages in the history of genre literature has not been reimagined here, just reduced, and the people around him are stock types as well. As they move through a scenario indistinguishable from countless contemporarily set serial-killer thrillers, THE RAVEN doesn’t offer much in the way of diverting action sequences either; even a seemingly surefire setpiece in which Poe pursues the murderer over walkways above a stage play in progress doesn’t pay off as it should. THE RAVEN does generally look good in terms of atmosphere and period detail, though the Serbian/Hungarian locations sometimes appear a bit too Euro to suggest 1849 Baltimore, and a string of anachronisms—from the use of computer-generated blood and bullet FX to dialogue like “This fire’s not going to put itself out” and references to a “serial killer” more than a century before the term came into use—are annoying distractions.
It all ends, of course, with the figurative unmasking of the guilty party, a revelation that carries little satisfaction because there’s no way to truly make a guess at his identity based on the evidence the movie provides. He’s just another out-of-nowhere bad guy, though it is possible to identify with him on a certain level. Once he has confronted Poe and discloses his motivation, he chides the author for his disinterest in analyzing his actions or his character, a disappointment many a viewer may well have about the film containing him.