Baltimore, 1849. A double homicide in mysterious circumstances: two dead women brutally slaughtered in a locked room with no obvious escape route. If it sounds like the stuff of macabre fiction, it is – the killer, it seems, has been inspired by the works of the city’s most famous writer, poet and critic, Edgar Allan Poe.
Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) is determined to get to the bottom of the case before the killer strikes again, and enlists Poe (John Cusack) to help catch him. Poe, meanwhile, has problems of his own: he’s an alcoholic and drug addict, is suffering from an incurable case of writer’s block which has left him on the point of financial ruin, and the father of his beloved Emily (Alice Eve), the wealthy Colonel Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson, who sports a luxuriant pair of golden mutton chops) hates him enough to threaten him with a pistol.
Gradually, however, the killer’s attention becomes focused on those closest to Poe, and the writer must put aside his demons (not to mention the demon drink) and bring all his intellect to bear on the case before it’s too late.
For avid readers of Poe’s work, there are constant allusions to spot in The Raven – his poems are read aloud by comely ladies with ample bosoms, everything the killer does is borrowed in some shape or form from Poe’s tales of mystery and imagination, while Poe himself rants in the same purple prose he uses in his stories. All these things are fun to discover – like a literary wordsearch – but sadly, the film itself is rather less inventive than the yarns from which it draws.
Poe’s part of the problem. John Cusack’s witty and raffish enough to deserve the hand of the leading lady, but he lacks the brooding introspection and melancholy the character surely needs – his Poe is also a surprisingly well-presented alcoholic, and perhaps the only gentleman in the whole of 19th century America to make such unapologetic use of tanning lotion and eyeliner.
The more fundamental problem with The Raven, though, is that it gives Poe so little to do. For much of the narrative, he’s little more than a pottering sidekick to Luke Evans’ proud-chested alpha male detective, and spends far more time complaining or rushing about with his mouth agape than actually doing anything useful. For a writer who single-handedly invented detective fiction with his Monsieur Dupin stories, his lack of deductive skills is disappointing.
Director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) opts for a camp horror tone vaguely akin to Robert Englund’s splashy treatment of Phantom Of The Opera back in the 80s, or Hammer Horror’s baroque gorefests of the 50s and 60s, which is a good thing – the scenes of fatal injury and dismemberment are lavish in their use of gore, and there’s some handsome cinematography from Danny Ruhlmann.
The dialogue is equally colourful, and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare deserve praise for the script’s glimmers of dry wit. “We are in dire need of your unwholesome expertise” Fields tells Poe, as they enter one early, gruesome crime scene.
Given the Hammer-like tone of The Raven, it’s hardly worth pointing out the numerous anachronisms – one newspaper headline screams “THE SERIAL KILLER” more than a hundred years before the term was invented – because it’s not a film that aims for period detail. But unfortunately, The Raven isn’t quite fast-paced or exciting enough to qualify as a fun, daft night out at the movies either, and it’s a wonder who the film’s really aimed at. Its plot is too hare-brained and illogical to truly satisfy fans of murder mysteries, and its splashy murders are too few and far between to satisfy gore hounds.
Worse still, the identity of the killer is frighteningly obvious. “Surprised?” The maniac asks when unmasked, to which the audience can only reply, “No, not really.”
On the positive side, it’s a good looking film, a tattooed sailor is found wearing a spectacular dress, and I’d dearly like to shake the person by the hand whose idea it was to give Poe a pet raccoon called Carl. If only the story itself had a bit more drive, and provided the kind of gut-wrenching twists and unexpected fates that made the author so enduringly famous. Quoth the raven: disappointing.