By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Once upon a midnight dreary, came this thriller, dark and eerie.
Okay, I’ll stop.
Yes, Edgar Allan Poe enthusiasts, this one’s for you.
The final days and death of mystery and macabre maven Edgar Allan Poe, considered by many the father of the detective fiction genre, have never been adequately explained. In reality, he was found dead on a park bench, having vanished for five days. Now The Raven flies in with an unabashedly farfetched and fanciful theory, a fictional account of what might have happened to Poe at life’s end.
Implausible and fantastical but arresting and absorbing, The Raven — named for Poe’s best-known poem, suggesting the paraphrase above — is an atmospheric horror thriller, rated R for a series of grisly and graphic murders, a speculative account that posits that in his final days, Poe just might have been solving a crime himself.
John Cusack stars as struggling, self-pitying poet and author Edgar Allan Poe (The Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue), who is making a living as a critic and drinking too much in Baltimore in 1849.
Authorities are baffled by a string of murders — the first the brutal slaying of a mother and daughter — that seem to have been inspired by and mirror the graphic description in Poe’s published newspaper stories.
At first, and perhaps naturally, Poe is a suspect. But before long the police detective in charge of the case, Emmett Fields, played by Luke Evans, eliminates Poe from suspicions and instead invites him to lend his expertise and serve as a consultant in helping them catch the copycat serial killer.
“I feel I’ve gone from author to character in one of my own tales,” says Poe.
Then the woman Poe loves, Emily Hamilton, played by Alice Eve, is abducted and buried alive, and her abductor challenges Poe to figure out the clues left on the corpses so that she can be found before her air supply runs out.
So Poe, heckled by Emily’s blustery father, played by Brendan Gleeson, attends the gruesome crime scenes and teams up with detective Fields in desperate pursuit of the killer, who forces Poe to write a daily account of their conflict, thus ironically restoring Poe’s writing career, however temporarily.
Australian director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) works from the whodunit screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (a Shakespeare wrote the script?). But verisimilitude is not exactly the intention here, as the writers award themselves creative if not poetic license.
But there are plot holes the size of Baltimore Ravens; several severe, confusing editing glitches; far too much anachronistically contemporary dialogue (the newspaper headline refers to a “serial killer,” a phrase still a century away from being coined); and a climactic reveal that barely escapes being a distinct letdown.
However, that’s balanced out by the intriguing central conceit and our familiarity with the real-life literary figure, who makes for a refreshingly different kind of leading man in what remains a police procedural.
Cusack’s Poe is caustic and bitter and haunted, an abrasive, tortured artist who has gotten used to being broke and hung over, his glory days well behind him. Cusack is, as always, watchable — and even gets to perform the title poem — but pity that he doesn’t get to weave his natural sense of humor into the film’s fabric.
So we’ll scare 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for a problematic but interesting gothic Poe-pourri that never quite fulfills its Poe-tential. Glad I saw it, but how many more times will I watch it? Quoth The Raven, “Nevermore.”