For a good hour or so, The Raven is gruesome, ludicrous fun. Then it’s just ludicrous. This speculative work of horror takes the mysterious events surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe — who died on Oct. 7, 1849 of unknown causes after being found on the streets of Baltimore incoherent and delusional — and melds them into a Seven-style mystery surrounding a serial killer using Poe’s stories (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death and The Cask of Amontillado among them) as inspirations for a string of ghastly, elaborate murders.
“This crime is familiar to me,” says Detective Fields (Luke Evans) while investigating the murder of a woman found dead inside a locked room, with the only window nailed shut from the inside. Eventually, he realizes the sight is familiar from one of the notorious stories written by Poe (John Cusack), who has been floating around town, broke and often drunk, begging barkeeps for credit and pitching fits of indignation at newspaper editors who censor his scathing reviews of the works of his competitors.
Cusack’s performance as Poe injects a shot of adrenaline to director James McTeigue’s carefully rendered but rather lifeless recreation of 19th century Baltimore. The actor plays Poe as a flask-swigging rapscallion, constantly spouting self-aggrandizing boasts and declarations that mask his inner insecurities. He’s a jerk but an entertaining, flamboyant one. You wouldn’t want to hang around him, but you don’t mind watching his disruptive antics, and Cusack lets us see how Poe feeds on the negative energy he creates, the fuel to his self-destructive fire.
As the film opens, Poe is broke and in dire need of cash, but questioning his own talents (“I’ve got nothing left,” he mutters. “I’ve used up all my tricks.”) He’s madly in love with the beautiful Emily (Alice Eve), but her wealthy father (Brendan Gleeson) disapproves of her notorious suitor, so they keep their affair a secret. Then the murders begin, Zodiac-style, with the killer leaving clues and notes aimed directly at Poe. Who is taunting the author and why? What does he want, and how far will he go to get it?
The Raven, which was written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare with an obvious affection for Poe’s work, is engaging in a goofy, artificial way as long as the murder investigation remains in the background and Poe commands our attention. Cusack is primarily known as a gifted comedian, but he’s equally good at roles that require him to reveal glimpses of his inner darkness (The Grifters, The Ice Harvest, Money for Nothing). Those are the parts he takes between paycheck roles. Unfortunately, McTeigue (who directed V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin) is more comfortable with pyrotechnics and flash than angst and brooding. The longer The Raven goes on, the less use the film has for Cusack, who visibly checks out of the picture once he’s reduced to running around frantically, playing Sherlock Holmes. By the time bullet time special effects a la The Matrix pop up, The Raven has drifted away into the land of brain-dead sensationalism and dunderheaded story knots. Poe, for one, would have screamed murder.
Cast: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally.
Director: James McTeigue.
Screenwriters: Ben Livingston, Hannah Shakespeare.
Producers: Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy, Aaron Ryder.
A Relativity Media release. Running time: 111 minutes. Explicit violence, graphic gore, strong adult themes. Opens Friday April 27 at area theaters.