A film review by Craig J. Koban May 13, 2012


2012, R, 111 mins.


Edgar Allan Poe: John Cusack / Det. Fields: Luke Evans / Emily: Alice Eve / Col. Hamilton: Brendan Gleeson / Maddox: Kevin McNally

Directed by James McTeigue /  Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare

Edgar Allen Poe was, of course, an American author, critic, and poet and was one of the forerunners of modern psychological horror and tales of the macabre.  While living in 19th Century Baltimore he slaved away trying to eek out a meager living as a writer; when he was not doing that he gorged on a self-destructive lifestyle of alcohol and drugs. 

On October 3, 1849 he was found on the streets of Baltimore in apparent mental distress, babbling incoherently.  He was taken to Washington College Hospital and later died four days later.   Great mystery to this day surrounds his infamous demise; newspapers indicated that he had “congestion of the brain” whereas the actual cause of death remains uncertain.  For a titan of the literary world – known for being the granddaddy of mystery fiction – to die under such unsolved circumstances is the height of cruel irony. 

THE RAVEN – whose name is taken from Poe’s 1845 narrative poem of the same name, noted for its dark and dreary supernatural tone and highly rhythmic language – is a new period murder mystery thriller that does two things: (a) it provides a fictionalized explanation as to what happened to the real-life Poe upon his fact-based death and (b) places Poe within the backdrop of an imaginary storyline regarding a demented serial killer that models his grisly crimes on scenes from Poe’s own masterful literary canon.  Die hard purists of Poe as a figure of crucial historical significance in the annals of written fiction may balk and cry a resounding foul at the notion of inserting the real life author in a faux storyline (yes, yes...Poe was not a detective or a serial killer hunter), but for those in the audience that appreciate pulpy, speculative “what if?” scenarios, then THE RAVEN is for you.   

The film begins not too long before Poe’s enigmatic death.  A mother and daughter are found brutally killed in mid-19th Century Baltimore, after which Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans, unflappably stone cold and piercingly determined) decides to take the case and eventually makes a shocking discovery: the crime seems to be proverbially ripped right from the pages of a story written by a local struggling - and frequently inebriated - writer, Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack).  Initially believing that Poe himself may be a suspect, Fields takes the overly anxious, twitchy, and socially stilted author to police headquarters to question him…but then another ghastly murder occurs – inspired and bloodily recreated from Poe’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM - while Poe is in custody, which makes him innocent of the previous and current crime, but nonetheless a key expert when it comes to Fields discovering the killer’s next move. 



Poe begrudgingly agrees to help Fields' investigation, seeing as they both feel that it’s only a matter of time before the madman strikes again and uses another of Poe’s works as a form of perverse inspiration.  Things get very personal for Poe when his own fiancé, Emily (the beautiful and headstrong Alice Eve) is kidnapped by the perpetrator and places her in a hidden location that can only be discovered after Poe and Fields follow a series of precisely left clues at each subsequent murder.  Realizing that the longer Emily remains captive the more inevitable her likely death will seem, Poe and Fields respectively pool their own unique resources together in order to end the perpetual onslaught of this deranged serial murderer once and for all.   

The Poe as presented in the film is a curious amalgam of the facts about the real life writer and some intriguing exploratory character traits that make him a juicy figure of high melodrama.  Poe here is the obligatory starving and impoverished artist: melancholic, obstinate, inwardly tortured, suspicious of everyone unlike him, and a masterfully talented creative mind that uses a colorful dichotomy of poetic words to criticizes the world around him that he feels holds him back.  Cusack wisely understands that the key to playing this film version of Poe is to capture his overt theatricality, his creepy indifference, and his detached and drolly understated resistance to everything that’s thrown his way.  With his minutely groomed goatee, anxiety plagued eyes, perturbed vigor, and flowing black cloak, Cusack’s Poe is a delectably unhinged, nervously flamboyant, and gloriously verbose anti-hero.  It’s refreshing to see a protagonist in a serial killer procedural that’s not a self-assured action hero; Cusack’s Poe is a fidgety caldron of unease and despair that owns every frame of the film. 

THE RAVEN was directed with a workmanlike precision, proficiency, and consummate polish by James McTeigue, who previously worked as an assistant director to the Wachowski Brothers on THE MATRIX trilogy and made his feature film debut with his thrilling and thematically evocative adaptation of Allan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, which I placed on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2006.  McTeigue has a nice and understated eye for period detail in THE RAVEN and never allows himself to wallow in flashy and eye-fatiguing visual or editorial gimmicks.  Astutely and appropriately shooting in Budapest, Hungary, and Belgrade, McTeigue gives his film a sense of period veracity with minimal use of distracting CGI augmentations.  There are times, though, where he lets his penchant for stomach-churning gore get the better of scenes that would be more taut and frightening without it (the scene involving the killer recreating a death from THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM comes to mind).  Yet, McTeigue crafts a handsome and headstrong production that keeps the pacing and narrative momentum confidently striding forward. 

If THE RAVEN were to have a weakness then it would be in the area of its resolution, where the reveal of the killer does not shock as much as it should and a final confrontation between Poe and the villain seems painfully labored and rushed.  Many critics have also lashed out at the film for bastardizing Poe and his iconic work for the sake of transplanting it in a dutiful mystery yarn, which is a bit amusing.  THE RAVEN – unlike another faux-historical costume dramas like ANONYMOUS – neither takes itself too solemnly nor too preposterously to the point of coming off as pure camp.  The was-Shakespeare-a-fraud plot of ANONYMOUS played itself out itself as laughable fact, which made it come off as unintentionally hammy.  The makers of THE RAVEN don’t vulgarize the legacy of their literary subject matter because they are not trying to pass off their what-happened-in-Poe’s-final-days scenario as anything but fiction.  They use Poe as a creative muse to tell a well made and reasonably involving period thriller, which is what makes THE RAVEN such a nonsensically pleasurable diversion. 

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