On October 7th 1849, the American writer Edgar Allan Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. He was taken to hospital, where he later died, aged forty years old. The cause was unknown, as were the meaning of the only words he spoke, the name “Reynolds,” over and over. Taking its name from Poe’s most famous work, from that mystery springs this film in which John Cusack plays the eponymous writer, forced to assist the police as they investigate a series of murders which take inspiration from his stories.
In life, Poe was known to be difficult, a heavy drinker and a harsh critic of his peers, and his early death opened the gates of posthumous character assassination, but instead of exploring the man, Cusack is boisterous and bullying rather than layered. It is unavoidable that he does not resemble Poe, but no attempt has been made to create the illusion; instead of Poe’s moustache, Cusack sports a beard for the whole film, a persistent and infuriating incongruity.
The early scenes are heavy with the burden of exposition; in a modern world of comic books and ebooks, how many have read Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or are even familiar with the Roger Corman adaptations of Fall of the House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum? Time is wasted establishing Poe and his literary heritage, but rather than endearing the character to the audience, they find his drunken tantrums as wearying as do the staff of the newspaper he writes for.
Directed by James McTeigue, who made the excellent V for Vendetta, The Raven suffers from an absence that his earlier film filled with Natalie Portman’s Evey, a sympathetic character who compensates for the faceless nature of her vigilante rescuer. Here, our link to Poe should be through his secret love, Alice Eve’s Emily Hamilton, but as they spend most of the film separated, Cusack has no such support. Instead, the film tries to compensate for lack of connection with frequent heroics over literary prowess, but as Luke Evans’ capable Inspector Emmett Fields fills this capacity, there is no need for any Edgar Allan action.
These failings are a shame for a film that is in so many other ways excellent; production values are high, as evidenced by the multitude of extras in their exquisite period costumes at the masked ball from which Emily is kidnapped, an expense no doubt made more economical by filming in continental Europe. While the Hungarian locations undoubtedly add atmosphere and character beyond the grand facades of mansions and theatres, the resulting feeling is overly ostentatious for the city of Baltimore a mere twenty years after it was founded.
While liberties with historical record are taken in the name of drama, the conclusion is clumsy in its adherence to the tone of the source. Much of Poe’s work was designed to convey an impression of dread or horror, often the loss of a beloved cousin or wife or premature burial, with little internal logic or satisfying conclusion; Ligeia in particular demonstrates all of these features. That dreamlike structure may be acceptable in the gothic short story, but a thriller has other requirements, and for Poe to unmask the killer in a “j’accuse” moment with no prior indication is a disingenous resolution.
The film is not perfect, but beyond those flaws it is slickly crafted with a strong supporting cast and a charming period feel. Most importantly, unlike many modern horror films, The Raven is mercifully not aimed at a teen audience, with the focus on narrative above shock and an awareness of the wider scope of Poe’s stories beyond those for which he is best remembered, encompassing his interest in detection and cryptography, though when the blood flows it does so more graphically than Corman ever staged.