There have been many mystery books written with Edgar Allan Poe as a sleuth. The appeal is irresistible–not only did Poe invent the detective story, but his tales of murder are highly imaginative and linger in the American consciousness today. Therefore, a movie that promises a serial killer using methods from Poe’s stories, and Poe himself involved in the investigation, is catnip for the well-read moviegoer, including myself.
As such, The Raven (not to be confused with the campy 1963 film by Roger Corman of the same name) delivers the material that will interest English majors, but is otherwise a let-down. It looks great–director John McTeigue is generous with evocative images of men in cloaks, cobblestones, and fog. There is no sunlight to be seen in this film, set in Baltimore, in the days before Poe’s death in 1849.
The film begins with two women murdered in a room with a door locked from the inside. The inspector (Luke Evans) senses something familiar, considering one of the women is stuffed up a chimney. When he is able to open a window that seems to be nailed shut, he realizes it is exactly like Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
That crime was committed by an orangutan, but this one is not. Evans finds Poe, and considers him a suspect at first. Then a critic and Poe’s rival is found dead, sliced in half by a large blade on a pendulum, taken directly from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Soon a note is found, with the killer taunting Poe. He has kidnapped Poe’s love (Alice Eve) and threatens to kill her unless Poe can find him.
This is fun at first, especially if you know the stories. We get references to “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Murder of Marie Roget,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “Premature Burial” (Eve is kept in a coffin under a layer of dirt). Some of the clues and the responses to them are too convenient–a dead sailor is from a ship called the Fortunado, which is a character in “The Cask of Amontillado,” which sends the police into underground tunnels to find someone walled into the masonry.
The film slowly runs out of gas. The identity of the killer is too easily surmised by the savvy viewer, and the pacing is awkward–there are too many long scenes of dialogue that slow things down. But it’s worth seeing for fans of Poe, and John Cusack gives a lovely performance as the great writer. He’s a dissolute drunk and opium addict, but at heart a romantic who has never gotten over the death of his wife. Cusack brings an emotional quality to the role that strikes me as authentic. And we get snippets of Poe’s writing, including “Annabel Lee,” and, to make the title somewhat relevant, “The Raven.”
My grade for The Raven: C.