||Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have been adapted for the screen many times, but the writer has also appeared as a character in films for more than a century (D.W. Griffith, no less, made a biography of him in 1909). He’s even been cast as an unofficial detective before—Joseph Cotton played him as a mysterious stranger who solves the mystery in “The Man With a Cloak” (1951), though in that case his identity was treated coyly.
Almost any of those earlier movies would be preferable to “The Raven,” a dumb and cheesy period potboiler that of course has nothing whatever to do with Roger Corman’s 1963 picture of the same name, which took nothing from Poe’s poem but the title. Here John Cusack plays the writer in his last days, when, a dissolute alcoholic, he helps the Baltimore cops track down a deranged villain who’s perpetrated a series of gruesome killings based on the writer’s stories, and depicted here in the sort of Grand Guignol style familiar in today’s bloodfests. (The “Pit and the Pendulum” sequence is especially repulsive, but the others aren’t far behind.)
Poe has special incentive to find the maniac, since the brute has kidnapped the writer’s great love, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) and is threatening to dispose of her horribly—burying her alive, actually—unless Poe figures out the clues the malefactor leaves with each corpse in order to locate her in time to save her life. (Another requirement is that Poe produce a story each day for the newspaper, recounting the killer’s latest brilliant act and his own failed attempts to forestall it. The excerpts we hear from these, in hilariously florid prose, would have ruined the writer’s reputation forever had they really been published under his name.)
This is truly a silly plot in which the clues are pretty much incomprehensible even to a Poe fancier, and by the time the identity of the villain is revealed in the final reel, the screenplay has descended to a truly ludicrous level. (One of the last lines in the movie is spoken by a doctor hovering over Poe’s corpse. He says to the chief police detective on the case, “I’m sorry, sir, you’re not making much sense.” That pretty much sums up the whole picture, and especially the big finale.)
“The Raven” isn’t well executed, either. Cusack looks understandably desperate as Poe, and he has every reason to be embarrassed, given the arch dialogue he forced to mouth. (One of his first lines is “Another abject humiliation!”—which might have become his mantra.) Luke Evans tries to act heroic as the chief police inspector, Detective Fields, but merely comes across as stiff. Eve makes a totally unconvincing damsel in distress. Even usually reliable actors like Brendan Gleeson and Kevin McNally are at their worst as Emily’s blustery father and Poe’s newspaper editor, respectively. Lesser roles are even less ably handled, with Sam Hazeldine standing out among the supporting players.
Nor does the picture look good. Shot in eastern Europe, it boasts the sort of dark, supposedly moody cinematography (by Danny Ruhlmann) that usually indicates the need to camouflage chintzy sets and not-quite-persuasive locales, and the overall production design (by Roger Ford), sets (by Kerrie Brown) and costumes (by Carlo Poggioli) suggest a modest budget. Lucas Vidal’s score is bland, but preferable to the raucous music heard over the end credits.
At a couple of points in “The Raven,” the writers try to pre-empt reviewers by bad-mouthing critics as an uncreative bunch. But that won’t work here. Quoth this critic: It’s a bore.