Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Raven

The challenge of adapting any particular Edgar Allen Poe story to the big screen is one of length. Most of Poe's horror tales are built to a single shock effect and nothing more. Dramatically, there's not a lot going on, and there's a reason a number of Poe adaptations are anthologies, like Two Evil Eyes and Tales of Terror.

If nothing else, The Raven (2012) deserves credit for a building a feature-length narrative. The year is 1849, and there's a murderer on the loose, and he's basing his crimes off the work of none other than Edgar Allan Poe himself (John Cusack). Drawn into the investigation with Police Inspector Fields (Luke Evans), Poe is blackmailed into writing more lurid tales by the killer, who has kidnapped his beloved, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve).

The Raven opens with text explaining that Poe was found delirious in the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849 and taken to the hospital, where he died. The movie functions as speculative fiction, postulating the true nature of his death and the days leading up to it. Considering Poe's alcoholism and constant need of money, his death was a terrible loss to American literature but in retrospect probably not that surprising. But hey, I've always been a sucker for the "true" story behind the recorded facts because a good story is a good story, whether it's fact, fiction, or a blending of the two.

Despite the Gothic window dressing and some biographical details about Poe, The Raven is fundamentally like one of those 90s police thrillers in which a deranged killer taunts the hero and deliberately leaves clues as a warped game between the two. If you've seen Se7en, The Bone Collector, Insomnia, or The Watcher, then you know where The Raven is heading. Other than the cool period details, there aren't many surprises.

Poe's horror tales, or "weird fiction," were dark, twisted, and gruesome, Gothic details of obsession, insanity, revenge, persecution, and delirium, and yet, he also wrote beautiful, tragic poetry about love and death. His real life was a sad one, but he left an indelible mark, even if his talents weren't fully appreciated in his time. Any movie featuring Poe as the protagonist could tap into those qualities.

Unfortunately, Cusack, a great actor who's given one terrific performance after another, does not make for a particularly compelling or even interesting Poe. He seems rather distant, distracted even. The dark brilliance and the sad eloquence are absent, and what should have been the strength of the movie turns into one of its liabilities.

Evans does what he can with a thin part. Part of me wishes he had been the main character, and Poe had been on the sidelines as a more enigmatic figure, someone we aren't sure we can trust. Eve is charming and has to carry a scene where she's buried under the floorboards, but the script leaves her helpless too often. Brendan Gleeson is wasted in a role as Eve's disapproving father.

There are some interesting angles the movie could have explored: Poe's life, the cutthroat nature of publishing in the 1840s, and the effect lurid writings have on the writer and the reader. The last item is the most interesting. Is Poe himself deranged for having such an imagination, and has his imagination twisted someone else? Alas, not much is done with these ideas.

I will say though, while the movie is not all it could have been, it's a reasonable time killer. I like the period details and the biographical bits on Poe that are worked into the script. The movie moves quickly and has some exciting action. The mystery formula is a formula for reason, and it is fun for the movie to have assembled Poe's greatest hits in one movie, even if the end result ultimately does not linger long in memory.

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