Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore in October 1849, by most accounts in a state of dissipation and despair. The Raven, which is directed by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”; “Ninja Assassin”) and hits theaters today, differs from most accounts by imagining Poe in his final days as a heroic crime fighter, tracking down a diabolical serial killer with the tenacious ingenuity of the special agents on “Criminal Minds.”
Since Poe is widely credited with inventing the detective genre, it seems only fair that he should have a chance to do a little sleuthing of his own. That seems to be the intention of a sadistic murderer whose grisly and ingenious methods are drawn directly from some of Poe’s tales. This homage is horrifying to Poe (who is played by a wild-eyed, wild-maned and furiously energetic John Cusack) but also perversely flattering. Someone has read the work of this notoriously vain, ambitious and competitive writer closely and has been inspired to imitation.
That “someone” can equally refer to McTeigue and the screenwriters, Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare. The fannish obsessiveness that animates The Raven is its most appealing attribute, and even Poe scholars can forgive it for discarding the biographical record in favor of playful, gruesome fantasy. There is a geeky pleasure in matching the on-screen murders to the tales they replicate, as in a Gothic version of Jeopardy! “What is ‘The Cask of Amontillado’?” “Who is ‘Marie Roget’?” “What is ‘The Masque of the Red Death’?”
And The Raven might have worked best as the pilot for a creepy, old-style television series, featuring the writer embroiled in a different one of his own narratives each week. In addition to Poe himself, Mr. McTeigue also pays tribute to Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations from the early ’60s, the best of which stand as perverse masterpieces of low-budget, over-the-top Grand Guignol. There is abundant blood, feverish overacting and an atmosphere of hysterical Victorian Americana. Baltimore is envisioned as a city of mist and wet stone, dark wood, rotted gentility and ambient corruption, a place that seems to know that, in 150 years or so, it will be the setting for The Wire. (The Jimmy McNulty of 1849 is a dogged, handsome cop played by Luke Evans.)
DIRECTED BY:James McTeigue
STARRING:John Cusack (Edgar Allan Poe),Alice Eve (Emily Hamilton)and Luke Evans (Detective Fields)
RUNNING TIME:110 Minutes
The film’s heart is in the right place (which is to say beating insistently under the floorboards). Its literary bona fides are certainly in order, and the filmmakers’ affection for the boozy, wanton world of mid-19th-century print culture — for the inky swamp of sensationalistic newspapers and scurrilous magazines from which American literature sprouted — is very much in evidence. But if Poe was the drunken, tragic bad boy of American letters, he was also a meticulous and disciplined craftsman. And it is on this score, rather than in matters of biographical detail, that “The Raven” lets him down.
“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story,” Poe writes in The Philosophy of Composition, a great, mad essay from which young scribblers may still profit. Most writers plod through the “striking events” of the narrative and fill in the gaps with dialogue, description and commentary. “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect,” Poe says, emphasizing the singular. “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”