by Glenn Lovell
The one true master of the macabre becomes a suspect in killings inspired by his own stories in James McTeigue’s The Raven, an energetic, appropriately grisly what-if thriller in the tradition of Agatha, Murder by Decree and, more recently, the Hughes brothers’ From Hell.
A sallow, goateed John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe near the end of his short life (the author died at 40). Instead of laudanum and that old demon rum, the most-frequently cited culprits, McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) posits another explanation for Poe’s death, one that hinges on passion and murder. To wit, the author of The Tell-Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum makes the supreme sacrifice for his muse. No, not his recently departed child-bride, Virginia. Rather, his new squeeze Emily, who, we’re told, was the real inspiration for “Annabel Lee,” his last poem.
The setting is Baltimore, 1849, mere days before Poe’s ignominious passing on a park bench. A serial killer whose M.O. is hauntingly familiar stalks the streets of the city. The police are baffled. That is, until Inspector Fields (Luke Evans) arrives on the scene and proclaims the trick window lock and corpse stuffed up a chimney are straight out of Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The destitute Poe is hauled in for questioning and quickly goes from chief suspect to Field’s partner in detection as, one by one, the author’s best-know stories are reenacted by a mad man. A newspaper critic (goody-goody) is halved by a razor-sharp pendulum, a distinct improvement on Poe’s inquisitional device; and an unfortunate sailor is walled up in a subterranean catacomb a la The Cask of Amontillado.
The ghastly theatrics become decidedly personal as the killer combines the plots of “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Premature Burial.” He first kidnaps Poe’s feisty gal pal Emily (Alice Eve) at her father’s gala ball and then inters the unfortunate lass alive. The fiend’s challenge to the blocked Poe: Continue publishing stories to keep your beloved alive. Taking a page from Misery, McTeigue and his screenwriters have made their culprit Poe’s No. 1 fan.
Crammed with historical tidbits (did you know Poe received $9 for the publication rights to “The Raven”?) and played out against a facsimile of 19th Century Baltimore (actually PFI Studio in Belgrade), The Raven has a grimy, coal-dark look, a nice approximation of every 221B Baker Street mystery as well as the horrific Harry Clarke pen-and-ink etchings that graced the grandest of all Poe anthologies, the 1908 Tales of Mysteries and Imagination. To allow us to share Emily’s predicament, McTeigue, like Clarke, offers a side-view of a woman squirming and screaming in a box.
While not as ambitious or romantic as V for Vendetta ‒ the saga of Edgar and Emily never rises to the level of tragic operetta and the denouement proves a letdown ‒ The Raven benefits from its breathless pacing and stylish camerawork. As for Cusack, one of our favorite actors, he’s too hale to be a convincing as an ailing dipso peering into the abyss. But what Cusack lacks in appearance he more than makes up for in volume and false bluster, haranguing both police and patrons of a bar as philistines not worthy of his melancholic pearls. Here, Cusack reminds us more of the vainglorious Cyrano than Baltimore’s most famous burnout.
Never mind. If Honest Abe can be transformed into an ax-wielding vampire hunter, why not a handsome, heroic Det. Poe?
THE RAVEN ✮✮✮ John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally. Directed by James McTeigue; scripted by Ben Livington, Hannah Shakespeare. 111 min. Rated R (for violence, grisly makeup effects).