Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, feeling melancholy and leery as I trashed this quite bleary mashup of the works of Poe (in theory) and 19th century folderol that hath been done much better before. I wish I spent the night napping, seeking the filmmakers and violently slapping, instead of viewing this crapping, crapping on an author that I adore. But now I’m pissed for evermore. I fell in love with the writing of Poe when many creepy kids did — in third or fourth grade. His macabre scribblings can set the beetle of horror burrowing to the brainstem at a young age without too much of the graphic gore. It’s the kind of stuff librarians wearing witch hats read to kids sitting around a punch bowl in an elementary school. James McTeigue’s The Raven feels like it was hatched by 13 year olds who were home-schooled on a diet of nothing but Edgar Allan Poe, maybe some high school Shakespeare, and “Law and Order.” It’s overwrought melodrama (you can practically feel Cloris Leachman sawing away on a violin as she seethes down a staircase), speckled with misinterpreted Gilded Age speak coupled with an abrupt profanity — like listening to Stewie talk on “Family Guy”: “Cease your incessant prattling, you errant poltroon! Why you gotta be a dick, man?” Cusack as Poe is like watching Nicolas Cage get coked up and ruin a middle school version of A Christmas Carol — his character is occasionally fascinating, but mostly he’s just erratic and foaming at the mouth and knocking people in top hats over. In the hands of McTeigue, The Raven should have been splashy wry fun — gobbets of digitalized blood spouting as frequently as Cusack spouts sarcastic wit. Instead, we’re stuck with this really terrible detective film that tries desperately to Se7en the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s like someone pitched the idea off-hand, and then went, “Oh, shit. We actually have to DO this?” I went in wanting Sleepy Hollow, but now that’s just how I feel.
Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is a drunk failure, a fussy literary critic who can’t find work and who gets turned away by creditors and barkeeps alike. Penniless and disgraced, he woos the comely Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) to the mustache-bristling fury of her father Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). He rages at his editor, Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally), who refuses to run his criticism of Longfellow’s poetry opting instead to run the poems themselves. Meanwhile, Detective Fields (Luke Evans) is called in to investigate a grisly double murder where a woman in a locked room is found with her throat nearly slashed in half with a straight-razor while her daughter’s corpse is found stuffed halfway up a chimney having been strangled. The details sound familiar, and soon he discovers the details are similar to a story written by none other than Edgar Allan Poe! (ominous thunder, cello thrum, me choking on rage and Milk Duds) Soonerer, several more murders are committed, ala the events of various Poe short stories, and so Poe is brought in first as a suspect, and then as a consultant.
Screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston wrote the entire script as if trying to create material for the trailer. It’s like they were both sitting in the Starbucks together, back-to-back at their MacBooks, and whoever got their scene finished first got to include it in the script. Sometimes the murders involve people in Poe’s life, and sometimes they are direct representations of scenes from his work, and sometimes they just involve the barest concepts from Poe’s stories. The anticipatory horror of “The Pit and the Pendulum” is foregone for the sheer joy of eviscerating a fat critic with a guillotine blade. Most of the murders involving discovering the corpses in pseudo tableau — when the two screenwriters stop aping Se7en and start going all Da Vinci Code on our asses. The film keeps undercutting its own dramatic tension. We see a shadowy figure galloping towards the costume ball, and then the next shows the detective pursuing a man in a red mask. Who we know isn’t the killer, because WE JUST SAW THEM. When in a later scene, we spy fragments of the killer’s facial features through a narrow opening, it quickly eliminates most of the cast as if we were playing the Victorian Edition of “Guess Who”? I say, dear boy, does your person have muttonchops and and a monocle, what what, eh? The only true Poe story they managed to effectively capture, although not intentionally, is “The Fall of The House of Usher.” In that, there’s a lot of screaming, and then the entire fucking thing collapses on itself.
Poe’s such a fascinating bastard, and yet they opt to take away all the grungy oddities about him that make him so intriguing. Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia, who then died of consumption, and the ghost of that love haunted his writing for the rest of his life. But instead, he’s given a fictional hot young ingénue in Alice Eve, who while fetching in a heaving corset, is clearly a studio note. But I guess writing shitty female love interests was their attempt to make this more akin to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Poe’s still an alcoholic — at least for the first quarter and last ten minutes of the film — and while accused of being an opium addict, he never really partakes. Oh, but he does have a pet raccoon. Named Carl. Because Poe might have died of rabies and also, animals are cute. Luke Evans looks like a strange hybrid of Dominic West’s McNulty and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and spends most of the film making Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine face. All the actors are really, really trying, but the script can’t decide what to
rip off homage next. Poor Cusack suffers the worst as he careens from a West Point graduate who leaps on a horse and goes galloping after the murderer gun a-blazin’ to a jittery milquetoast cowering in a corner rending his hair as Brendan Gleeson punches him in the face. Well, maybe Alice Eve has it worse, but really, she’s kind of resigned herself to being eye candy. Boobs and raccoons, kids. Boobs and raccoons.
Lest we forget the title, there are constant shots of ravens: fluttering in the background, springing forth from coffins, feasting with blood speckled beaks on the corpse of a pregnant cat. But just because a blackbird caws doesn’t make things so Raven. While they were ripping off all those better films, I wish they had paid attention to what was making them work — a sense of humor and brutal gore. I fucking loved Ninja Assassin and that had equally wooden actors and absolutely no coherent plot - because it was a hard-R. I expected to get a James McTeigue movie, but all he kept was his sound design and penchant for squishes and metal sqwinks. Without attempting to spoil the entire film, when the murderer finally confesses why they went through all this trouble, the explanation is that it was out of respect for Poe. But like the people who created this, they really didn’t capture any of the haunting depth of his work, instead opting for a cheap copy, a plagiarization of creative ideas foisted off as art. They tried to quoth the raven, but all they did was give Poe the bird.