Review: The Raven (15) / Director: James McTeigue / Screenplay:Ben Livingstone, Hannah Shakespeare / Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans / Release date: March 9th
There is a scene of unexpected, poignant sentiment in James McTeigue’s new thriller The Raven, in which a newspaper editor informs a police detective that Edgar Allan Poe is a man whom ‘God gave a spark of genius and quenched it in misery.’ The US poet, short story writer and literary critic was a man beset with financial and relationship woes his entire life. All forty years of it.
Poe suffered a mysterious death unsolved to this very day. One week after going missing, he was found ranting and raving in the streets of Baltimore wearing ill-fitting clothes that did not belong to him and died in a hospital bed. This rather ignoble end and biographical detail allows for a fantastical re-imagining of the man’s last days on Earth. Admirers and fans longing for a proper biopic could hardly get excited by the B-movie premise on offer here. The Raven continues the post-modernist method of taking historical/literary figures and putting them in outlandish fictional scenarios. This film's origins could hail from a graphic novel by Alan Moore or one of those bestselling potboilers such as The Dante Club. It’s that type of set up.
A killer loose on the streets is taking inspiration from the macabre works of Poe. The police are baffled, but one detective feels like he’s seen it, or rather read it, all before. This central conceit allows McTeigue’s film to pay homage to key texts such as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Read Death and Annabel Lee and deliver it in playful, near giallo-esque style. The Raven, to get straight to the heart of the matter, is all about horror frolics and gory fun.
John Cusack is a seemingly strange choice as the lead yet clearly relishes playing the part. It’s arguably one of his strongest performances in years. Poe here is an egotistical, proud and vain sort with a massive drinking problem. So pretty much like he was in real life.
The film does, unfortunately, choose to perpetuate the myth he was a raging alcoholic when in fact he was closer to what we’d call in the 21st century, a binge drinker. He didn't need alcohol to function but to unleash all his rage at individuals and the world in general.
Ben Livingstone and Hannah Shakespeare’s screenplay benefits from amusing dialogue often delivered in the form of a barb or retort from the whip-smart Poe. Upon reading a note from the serial killer taunting the investigation the writer comments, “the man’s as barbaric as his prose!”
In another scene, Alice Eve, playing love interest Emily, declares the poem Annabel Lee to be the most romantic thing she’d ever read, not understanding the subtext of profound melancholia and even necrophilia many have read into the work. The Raven is littered with such in-jokes for the sharp-eared and eyed.
Perhaps the film’s major failing is in presenting the man’s work as nothing more than inspiration for a killer’s game. We’re offered glances of the poet’s fascinating inner life and the richness of his words rarely captured. The scene in which Cusack recites from A Dream with a Dream is quite moving. However the film hasn’t quite earned the right to be so suddenly emotional.
The Raven is not the disaster many predicted and McTeigue delivers a solid B-movie benefiting from a game cast. This is, indeed, the sort of helmer the project needed. Heaven forbid it ever took itself seriously! The director appears to reference the moods and atmosphere of ‘Hammer horror’ along with Roger Corman’s 1960s Poe adaptations. It’s a real compendium of literary and cinema influences.
Whilst fun enough as a genre picture it never aims to rise above largely popcorn aims and giving the audience a horror thrill. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Poe and his work deserve much more, quoth the film critic.
Expected rating: 3 out of 10