Like many who read him as an adolescent, my introduction to serious literature was Edgar Allan Poe. So when I heard, some 50 years after Roger Corman’s campy cinematic send-ups, that a truly serious attempt at transposing Poe to the screen had arrived at the multiplex, I was as curious as excited. But after learning of director James McTeigue’s premise for The Raven–that Poe himself is enlisted to help solve crimes based on his own stories–I grew skeptical. How could a plot so intricate, with Poe as both author and protagonist possibly hold together? I walked in deciding it couldn’t be done.
But as the poetic beauty of the film’s opening image placed me under its hypnotic spell, I immediately retracted my secret bet that the filmmaker couldn’t pull it off: Poe, gazing up at the moon, is circled by a black raven as a light snow falls. And so “this final story of Edgar Allan Poe” begins with the haunting sentiment of his most famous poem.
A native of Sydney, Australia, director McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) made some unconventional location and casting choices that paid off. The Raven was shot in Hungary, which gives the film an eerily Eastern European beauty. And John Cusack’s strange mix of star power and anonymity makes for the perfect Poe–drunk and drugged near the end of his career with nothing to show for it but unpaid bar tabs and pedestrian work thrown his way by a local publisher. The bloody action that pervades the film starts quickly with a double murder, which Baltimore’s Det. Fields (smartly played by Luke Evans) astutely links to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (credited as literature’s first detective story). Teaming up with Poe, Fields quickly surmises that the killer is planning his violence dedicated to select among the author’s plots.
What follows is a real-life serial of one horrific homage after another, swinging back and forth like the razor-sharp pendulum of Poe’s invention, until the crime spree swerves directly into the path of the author’s actual (not literary) life. The very thing Poe cherishes, his fiancée Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, a plaintive beauty), is brazenly abducted by the serial killer. Emily’s father (Brendan Gleeson) jettisons his hatred for the brash Poe help. Who is the killer?
Will we tell? Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore!”