“The Raven” opens with Edgar Allan Poe near death on a Baltimore park bench, which conforms to what historians know about the writer’s final moments.
Circumstances surrounding Poe’s death remain a mystery, but “The Raven” sheds some light — we see that not long before, Poe had been trying to get money out of a newspaper publisher, which would kill just about anybody.
Poe, as we learn in “The Raven,” was not just the genius inventor of the detective story, proto-Goth poet and swooning balladeer to the departed. He was also a newspaperman, a critic to boot, who made money by penning fearless put-downs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson — just about any revered literary figure with three names.
One funny, early sequence has Poe (played energetically by John Cusack) cussing out an editor at a Baltimore paper who’d replaced his Longfellow screed with one of Longfellow’s own poems. This hurt’s Poe’s pride, and his pocketbook — the destitute Poe never made more than a few dollars from his poems or his fiction, not nearly enough to fund his prodigious liquor bills.
The editor advises Poe to write more gory fiction — that’s what the people want. One of those people is a psychotic Poe admirer who starts to kill people in Baltimore (recreated with moody photography and CGI), patterning the crimes after Poe’s own stories (like “The Pit and the Pendulum”), promising to kill Poe’s girlfriend (Alice Eve) unless he writes an admiring story about the killer’s spree.
This seems like a familiar movie gambit (shades of Stephen King’s “Misery”), but it’s a conceptual idea with some depth. The movie credits Poe as the godfather of much morbid popular culture, and is correct to do so. There would be no “CSI” anything without Poe (who knew the corpse was as much subject as object), or “Saw,” or Hannibal Lecter (also a Baltimore guy). The killer fancies himself a Poe devotee, so it’s as though Poe is being stalked by a twisted version of his own legacy, somebody who copies Poe’s gruesome mechanics but misses the layer of florid romantic feeling.
The problem with “The Raven” is that ambitious as it sometimes is, it’s never really scary. Characters register poorly, so the stakes are low when they’re entombed in boxes, suspended beneath blades, walled up behind bricks, etc. The job of directing “Raven” goes to James McTeigue — he of “V For Vendetta,” apparently Hollywood’s go-to guy for movies about masked misanthropes who torture women. “The Raven, at least, does not pretend the women are being tortured for their own good.
“The Raven” also needs a script doctor. It pays tribute to Poe’s literary chops, but with dialogue that is both pedestrian and anachronistic. Poe calls a guy a “mouth-breather,” and then, moments later, taunts him again as a ... “mouth breather.” I think the real EAP could do better. n
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, “Keep It Reel,” at www.philly.com/keepitreel.