“You are referring to one of my stories. A work of fiction!”
Celebrated horror writer Edgar Allan Poe was found in a rambling and incoherent state on a bench in Baltimore, 1849. Although given shelter and treatment he died, aged forty, under mysterious circumstances a short time later. His exact cause of death was never properly ascertained, lovers of the ghoulish can’t seem to let the commonly held belief that it was some murderous poison that took him give way to more mundane claims that his queer dementia was a result of a brain tumour, syphilis, cholera, diabetes, or many other such afflictions, or that he had even been a victim of ballot-box “cooping” (there had been an election that day, so this is not such a strange idea). Leaving behind a rich legacy of superbly paranoid stories – most notably The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death, Murders in the Rue Morgue and, of course, The Raven – he passed away never realising the cult popularity and influence that his work would attain or the high esteem with which it would come to be regarded.
James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assasin) takes this intriguing premise and tries to provide us with the fictionalised events that led up to this ignominious and perplexing demise. Having adapted a highly intricate and very evocative graphic novel that wasn’t set in the Victorian milieu but certainly took on the heightened trappings of its decorative and literate ambience (V), this is not altogether that much of a thematic or visual departure for him. We are once more in the realm of masks and shadows and subterranean lairs, and once again thrust into the trajectory of a daring crusader of cause and imagination. However, the result is not nearly as clever or inspired. The screenplay comes from former actor turned scribe Ben Livingstone and Hannah Shakespeare – and how about those for two more appropriately learned historical names to add to the pot – and it contains the kernel of an interesting story.
John Cusack, who looks and even acts just like Nicholas Cage (good or bad thing, you decide), commences the role of the out-of-luck Poe as a complete irritant. This is purely intentional – the irritating part, not the Cage similarity. Poe is a frustrated genius – well, at least, he thinks he is. He seems to have lost the capacity for delivering the eloquent and grotesque stories that the public loved (“I’m all used up … there’s nothing left.”) and has resorted to a gutter-level column in The Baltimore Tribune. His volatile verbiage isn’t finding as much favour with the press, though, and he is struggling to get any work printed other than critique of other more popular writers. The love of his life, lantern-jawed, tomb-toothed Alice Eve’s Emily, is frequently kept apart from him by her demonstrative, wealthy and powerful father Captain Hamilton (the ubiquitous Brendan Gleeson) who despises Poe and would happily send him to the afterlife if Emily didn’t keep dissuading him. Poe is also broke … and alcoholic. And he loves his tinctures too. His loudly aggressive, self-centred and snobbish nature is hardly conducive to purloining either a tab or a free drink in his local tavern. Nor even a willing audience to listen to his own excitable poems. It seems the world wants to hear of The Raven … nevermore.
But somebody out there still admires him and his work … and they do so enough to re-enact the ghastly deaths that he has constructed in his fiendish prose, for real.
Life and death mimic Art with harrowing consequences for all concerned as a determined serial killer stalks the streets of Baltimore, and the tormented psyche of Edgar Allan Poe.
When the local constabulary, led by Luke Evans’ Detective Fields recognise the similarity in the killer’s modus operandi and the crime scenes themselves, they naturally come straight to the man whose imagination has clearly sparked such atrocities. Initially something of a potential suspect in the bloody matter, Poe becomes driven to unlock the mystery of his biggest fan – a state of affairs that becomes all too imperative when the killer then embarks on his own variations on Poe’s theme, and then openly challenges the author to burn the midnight oil and write up each murder as an ongoing series, like a chronicle of evil, that is to be printed in the paper the next day. But lest the author sit back on his laurels, the grim task is made all the more urgent and unbearable when the killer successfully abducts Emily and then leaves taunting clues as to her whereabouts and how little time she has left to live. So it would seem that Poe is writing the story of his life to save a life.
To be honest, this is quite a hook for what should be a gripping and a ripping yarn. It is almost like a Stephen King idea flung back over a century-and-a-half ago. King loves making writers reluctant heroes suffering as a result of their own imaginative creativity. Thus, the theme of an artist teased by his own work, and tormented by someone who is actually in awe of him is hardly something new, though it is certainly a popular device. But the film is handicapped by McTeigue’s headlong rush to make the whole thing intense and exciting, yet laced with period charm and draped with lashings of gothic ambience at the expense of a properly constructed narrative or characters that we actually give a damn about. The film looks good but is only very superficial – it lacks the more intoxicating detail and texture of foggy yarns like Murder By Decree, Sleepy Hollow, From Hell and, of course, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Although the foundations are sturdy enough - the pitch, itself, is actually quite effective - the eventual tapestry doesn’t hang together half as well as it should and, sadly, The Raven ends up spluttering and squawking and dropping from the sky before its flight is even half-way complete.
Although quite comprehensively lambasted by most critics who seemed to agree that it was a derivative scheme and a wasted opportunity, I found that I almost enjoyed the film despite its best efforts to rankle and disappoint me. I’m smitten with classical horror, though, and I’m drawn to the notion of someone like Poe becoming entangled in a gruesome affair like this, and I think there are a few tantalising little vignettes that actually manage to provide a smidgeon of suspense and a degree of suspicion. This said, though, I can certainly see the elements that don’t work and, in truth, the film cannot properly surmount them. The story probably peaks far too soon with the final reveal a pathetically humdrum anticlimax. Some episodes trip over themselves and ultimately fail to excite with individual climaxes that are hideously abrupt and edited in a gangly Three Stooges-like manner, and the leads don’t exactly encourage much in the way of character empathy. But there is an undeniable mood to this period Se7en that, expectations realistically lowered, I found quite engrossing at times against my better judgement. The shadowy, gas-lit provinces are interestingly recreated, convincingly dark and squalid even if they aren’t exploited to the full for all the mystery and menace that you would anticipate. Shot in the bleak and chilly environs of Serbia and Budapest – common Hollywood ports of call these days - the photography from Danny Ruhlmann is a mixed-bag, but it does cater for some splendidly evocative moments and one or two striking images of lurking figures and creepy, claustrophobic close-ups. During the second half of the film, Ruhlmann keeps the camera on the move, forever circling the characters as they ponder evidence, slowly tracking or pulling in or out, and this lends it a gentle kineticism that, otherwise, is completely lacking.
There has been a lot of messing about with real-life historical figures in books, comics and films. Only this year we have had Abraham Lincoln as either, depending upon your budgetary expectations, a Vampire Hunter or a slayer of Zombies. So the placing of Edgar Allan Poe in such a wicked and devious plot is not so random or abstract or far-fetched. Even Robert Bloch dabbled with the author in a tale that would becomes a vignette of the popular Amicus anthology picture Torture Garden (1967) with the redolent chapter The Man Who Collected Poe starring Peter Cushing and Jack Palance, and H. G. Wells became the focal character in Nicholas Meyer’s romantic Sci-Fi hunt for Jack the Ripper, Time After Time, and The Brothers Grimm ended up battling real monsters in Terry Gilliam’s vigorous 2005 fantasy, so there is a lively sub-trend towards pursuing these meta-histories into a more escapist and fantastical genre.
But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind as to how this particular re-invention came about. And there is even a slow-mo bullet shot through a forest to clinch the deal in case you had any lingering doubts.
James McTeigue has very evidently seen what Guy Ritchie has done to invigorate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who has also appeared as a fictional protagonist in Mark Frost’s novel The List of Seven) and liked it so much he has decided to do his own take. To this end The Raven has huge aspirations of being visually and tonally the Baltimore equivalent of Ritchie’s first, and far superior, take on Holmes. The film even starts off with an almost identical reference to it – with horse-drawn police wagons thundering down cobbled streets and their occupants looking decidedly nervous about what they are about to encounter. Are they just late to the party to catch Mark Strong’s dastardly and satanic Lord Blackwood in the act? The sets, the supporting cast of tense, edgy coppers, the sense of one astute brain unravelling a dark and devious mystery and of a maverick outsider forced to think on his toes as he goes out clue-gathering amidst dubious allies who both despise and admire him, and the very atmosphere of the film seem so archly designed to fit that format that you can almost believe that McTeigue took what could have been an interesting screenplay and hammered it over an anvil until its square peg could finally fit into the round hole of the crowd-pleasing aesthetic that Ritchie concocted. Further proof, perhaps? Okay, well the architecture, the costumes and moody lighting are bound to have some similarity, being as the stories are set roughly in the same time period and in a similar locale, but it is patently clear that Cusack’s Poe is merely a Sherlockian stand-in of decidedly Robert Downy Jnr proportions. He is impulsive. Obsessive. Supremely arrogant and erudite, and vastly convinced of his own superiority. This is the Poe of McTeigue’s alternate interpretation, although it could also be argued that the Downy/Ritchie depiction of Holmes had a smattering of the real horror writer’s twisted, persecuted persona about him, also. But there is no mistaking the fact that Cusack is merely channelling what made Downy Jnr’s Baker Street boy so appealing into this terse and frequently knee-jerk incarnation, whose softer, more compassionate moments have absolutely no substance when compared to his go-getting flipside. During a poetry recital, Poe is supposed to have his female flock rapt with his ever syllable, and perched upon the edge of their collective seat with his fulsome, blood-curdling delivery … but Cusack is just not up to the task. He has no true vocal presence, and none of that glowering, magnetic intensity that the role demands, and the scene can do nothing other than sink to its knees.
A shame. With this story, we really need an actor who has that aura of the manic and the dangerously obsessed. We need to understand that Poe has been to the brink of madness and peered over into its steaming abyss. We need to know that this guy has seen the Devil, whether over that precipice or at the bottom of a whisky bottle. There is a requirement to have this Poe appear as some form of Byronic force of nature, and this could really have worked. But not with John Cusack.
One sequence, the standard gothic archetype of a masked ball, threatens to be awesome. We know, and the cops know, that the killer is planning something terrible for Captain Hamilton’s big society shindig and, under considerable duress, the stuffy, cantankerous cliché has allowed Fields and his men to go undercover at the ball and lie in wait for him to make his move. There is considerable tension developed here as Poe, who has been utterly forbidden to show up, infiltrates the party, in disguise, to help protect the girl he loves, and we keep seeing nightmarish imagery of a demonic, death-masked rider drawing ever closer to the mansion house with malevolent intent. But, unbelievably, McTeigue fumbles all this with a what? Is that it? conclusion that robs all the intensity, dread and excitement from the set-piece in one fell swoop. Such a cack-handed approach – all build-up and woeful, confused payoff – becomes commonplace with a warped investigation in a theatre staging a production of Macbeth, and a frantic chase through a system of tunnels. Although there are times when the pursuit of the killer regains some sense of steam, many moments just fall similarly flat and leave you wondering just how you are supposed to feel. Thrilled, maybe? Shocked? What? I actually quite liked McTeigue’s V for Vendetta for its frivolous combination excessively articulate dialogue, dramatic rug-pulling and blade-time action whereas many others didn’t. But The Raven does seem to make clear how slapdash he can be even given quite juicy material.
I’m afraid that I couldn’t buy into the love affair between Poe and Emily at all. Trite and massively unlikely, this is where the film especially founders and loses its emotional core. Seen as a gobby diva and self-aggrandising wordsmith, Cusack’s Poe is inarguably believable. But watching him try to turn Poe into some love-struck, heartfelt hero just does not work. Age-gap aside – well, in those days, it would scarcely have mattered anyway – the two just do not make a convincing couple. Cusack gives their tender scenes together his all though his mood-swing from volatile to sweet is, frankly, absurd, and even Alice Eve, all demure and proper but filled with a rather bogus desire, just doesn’t fit the picture at all as Alice. The real-life Poe had been married (in the film he does talk of her terrible death from tuberculosis), but had little physical inclination towards his wife’s, or anybody’s direction, so to see him acting the passionate lover is both refreshing, and a bit daft, but it is Poetic license after all. I’ll give Eve credit for her more anxious and dramatic scenes later on, in which she is put to the test both physically and emotionally in a situation that the real Poe was quite fixated upon – that of premature burial and spooky catacombs - but when the story hinges upon her survival and her relationship with the paranoid fabulist, we are given very little of tangible worth to make this actually matter all that much to us. The two simply have no chemistry whatsoever and Eve is a terrible actress however you analyse it. Therefore it is a struggle to become concerned about her plight.
And that just can’t be right, can it?
The intermingling of fact and fiction – well, there isn’t much fact to be honest – is not a problem for me. Certain concessions would have to be made to the character and situation of Poe if a proper story can be wrestled out of his last few days. But considering that he is not a well man to begin with, which we are clearly told, Cusack makes him appear bold, chivalric and dynamic. When he isn’t springing around Baltimore with a revolver in his hand, he is riding a horse like Roy Rogers. If we had seen him collapse a little bit more, or cough up some blood like John Constantine, then this would have tempered the heroics with a more personal edge, reminding us that he is having to work that much harder than everyone else just to keep going. As it stands, though, Cusack’s supposedly addled avenger is altogether too damn healthy. To eager for the chase.
And I found the scenario too repetitive for its own good. The good guys are always blundering pell-mell to the scene of another crime, or charging along on the follow-up of another major clue. Thus, the film often feels very stop-and-start. Set-pieces in a warren of dank underground tunnels and then in a mist-enshrouded graveyard fail to spark the adrenaline anywhere near enough. After the theatre debacle, which is another example of how McTeigue totally botches what promised to be an arresting sequence, we are then asked to believe that Fields just goes home without following his now-trusted ally and lending him assistance after he has received disastrous news that may, or may not be connected to the case. Things like this just don’t add up. And there are far too many of them.
Usually reliable and colourful support from Kevin McNally, as Poe’s harassed newspaper chief, Maddux, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle, as Poe’s equally harassed bar-man, Reagan, falls by the wayside, and poor Pam Ferris is just squandered in a silly bit of high-society poetry reading. Familiar TV face Sam Hazeldine also crops up as someone who still believes that the addicted loose canon of Poe can possibly come up with the goods and maybe deliver that final masterpiece. None of them, however, can summon-up a convincing Maryland accent.
But there are some plus points, folks. The film has a bravura score from the relatively unknown Lucas Vidal. I didn’t know what to expect from his first big gothic orchestral presentation, but this is quite startling, exciting and often full-throttle. Intercut with a classical waltz is a beautifully thunderous and satanic motif for the eerie approach of the death-mask rider, and there are many such unnerving passages to help bolster McTeigue’s clumsy handling of the narrative, adding the tension that the director seems so unable to maintain.
The gore FX, though really quite tame, are pretty decent, with the downside to their inventiveness being that the CG embellishments are highly overt. The swinging axe pendulum is one of those deaths that horror-fans have always salivated over. Just the idea of that huge blade slicing through the air and dropping down closer and closer to a trapped and squirming victim is wickedly nasty and gratuitous. Bizarrely, it has never really been filmed – well not quite in its full and appropriately grungy context. Roger Corman’s original adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum never showed us anything, and Dario Argento’s segment of his wishy-washy team-up with George Romero at the start of Two Evil Eyes, was fantastically gruesome even it only showed us the grisly aftermath of the deed – a bisected nude female corpse courtesy of the great Tom Savini. So, in The Raven’s favour, we can now applaud the horrendous sequence seen through from its beginning when the poor victim first spies the wicked blade with incredulous eyes (“I have children!!!!”) to its sinew-severing, gut-scything conclusion. And special kudos should go to the fact that the victim – Rufus Wilmot Griswold (John Warnaby), a real-life critic of Poe’s writing (sort of reminiscent of Vincent Price’s revenge upon his snobbish naysayers in the classicTheatre of Death) and sniping rival – is a hugely overweight guy, which means that we get to witness the blade cleaving several times through acres of eviscerated flesh. Patently obvious CG splashes of blood (no better than the claret seen in The Midnight Meat Train) getting flung, alongside the blade, up into our faces actually make you wonder how effective this might have appeared had it been shot in 3D. But this nasty moment, like the majority of the more explicitly ghoulish bits, is to be found early on, meaning that for the majority of the time the film is actually very low on splatter.
For fans of classical horror and mystery there may be enough nuggets of gothic skulduggery here to amuse. We have Poe, for starters, and all the references to his work that can be shovelled into the premise, but there is more than a hint of the hidden obsession of The Phantom of the Opera (what with a lengthy spell of determined investigation taking place backstage in a theatre, and the maniacal drive to have an artist perform their masterpiece), and a race-against-time vogue that befits the Ripper saga, and there is, of course, that undeniable sense that you what you are watching is actually an unofficial Sherlock Holmes adventure. Or rip-off, if you so prefer. Cusack and Evans are semi-decent despite being handed such obvious and irksome characters to portray, and there are certainly some thrills and chills along the way, though Alice Eve is just plain wretched. Perhaps the best element is to be found in that crucial finale in which we find out exactly how this doomed literary wunderkind came to be doing an impersonation of a wino on the bench in the cold mist. I know people who have never lasted this far with the movie, though.
There was definitely potential here … but this seems to have come crashing down without much proper thought or consideration.
You could find that McTeigue’s film is possibly not as bad as you may have heard, but The Raven is still a frustrating exercise in narrative-flow caused by an overly enthusiastic director clodhopping through the material and fumbling both the subtleties of the gothic tale as well as some of the more exciting high points of drama and revelation that, if handled with more care, could really have elevated the movie into something special.
As it stands now, The Raven is a rushed and often irritating potboiler that will surely be forgotten about just as the end credits are about to appear. If, indeed, you can last that long.
Mediocre, and a waste of a damn good idea. I’m more charitable than most, so this still gets a 5 out of 10 ... if only for the concept.
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