(by Dustin Putman
One of the earliest writers of the horror genre, famed author, poet and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe met an untimely - and some might say baffling - end in the early morning hours of October 7, 1849. At the time, his death was attributed to "congestion of the brain," which otherwise meant that no one knew the cause. Alcoholism, heart disease, syphilis, cholera - really, Poe might have died from any of these things, or none of them at all, his medical records and death certificate long since lost in time. Taking quite a few creative liberties and flights of fancy, the alluring if decidedly uneven period thriller "The Raven" fictitiously reinvisions just what might have become of Poe during the final week of his life. A darkly sumptuous, exceedingly enticing murder mystery, the film, directed by James McTeigue (2005's "V for Vendetta"), reminds of 2001's Jack the Ripper saga "From Hell," or, what Guy Ritchie's overly silly, dull and inconsequential "Sherlock Holmes" movies should have been from the start. Article continues below
In mid-19th-century Baltimore, a mother and daughter are found brutally slain in a room that was locked from the inside. How did the killer get in there and, more importantly, how did the culprit escape? Noticing keen similarities to a story he has read, Detective Fields (Luke Evans) contacts the writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack), next to penniless as he struggles to come up with a new story while convincing the papers to publish his harsh critiques. When a new gruesome murder scene is found, this one emulating "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe comes on board the investigation—one that doesn't quite become personal until his own lovely fianceé Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped and positioned to be the latest victim. With time running out, Poe must solve the riddle of Emily's whereabouts, or risk losing her forever.
"The Raven" is luxuriously gothic in subject and tone, inventing a "what-if?" scenario on the order of 2009's WWII reimagining "Inglourious Basterds." Clearly history proves it is not based in truth, but it could have been had things gone differently. Helmsman James McTiegue and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are nowhere near Quentin Tarantino's equals, but few filmmakers are. Watching the movie, which hinges upon two things to build suspense—who the psychopath responsible is, and where Emily has been buried alive—the identity of the killer is an afterthought next to the journey Poe takes to find the imperiled woman he loves. Besides that, the experience of drinking in the moody visuals, the cutely nefarious plot turns, and an inspired lead performance should be enough to lift most viewers over the picture's occasionally more lugubrious mid-section.
John Cusack's (2010's "Hot Tub Time Machine") turn as Poe is just plain terrific. Sly, hard-drinking, and unabashedly big-headed—he often bemoans the writer hacks he must put up with and, in an early scene, offers to pay for the drinks of anyone in a pub who can finish the line, "Quoth the raven..." - Cusack is at once a fireball of energy and a more internal lost soul who knows his talents of the pen are worth more than he's ever been able to obtain. For her part, Alice Eve (2012's "ATM") is a mesmeric Emily, her initial outward disdain for Poe but a ruse to keep her rigid father Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) in the dark about their romance. Eve has the gift of being instantly likable the second she comes into frame, and her recitation of Poe's poetic ode to her, "Annabel Lee," brings depth to a relationship that must be established relatively quickly. Thus, when she goes missing, the viewer cares all the more about her fate.
The opening credits of "The Raven" are deliciously macabre, blood seemingly dripping off the "v" and onto the beak of an actual raven, currently snacking on a carcass lying on the cobblestone streets below. Cinematography by David Ruhlmann lives up to what you'd expect from a story of this kind, right down to the fog-shrouded neighborhoods and alleys that bear a closer resemblance to London than Baltimore. As the film presses on, there are noticeable cut corners - the use of CGI blood has no place in an 1849 setting - some by-the-numbers procedural stuff, and a third-act reveal of the killer that isn't interesting enough to be surprising. Where "The Raven" gets under the skin, at least momentarily, is in the threatening feel it emits and the lurking sensation that Poe's days are numbered. By the end, he has redeemed the mistakes he's made in a single act of sacrifice that gives unexpected poignancy to a revisionist's history we know isn't real. Perhaps that is its biggest success of all.