Two women are dead by the time “The Raven” begins. The Baltimore police find their bodies in a locked room, sans murderer or any clear escape route. One woman has been strangled horribly by long, inhuman fingers; the other is stuffed up a chimney and halfway decapitated.
You don’t need to be a sleuth to recognize this as the central mystery behind Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where an orangutan and trick lock proved decisive in solving the case. One of the first detective stories, starring amateur private eye and expert logician C. Auguste Dupin, “Rue Morgue” authors as varied as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler. “The Raven,” if it inspires anybody, will only teach them how not to deal with Poe, in film, writing or otherwise.
The “Rue Morgue” murder, we discover, is the first act by a deranged psychopath — part Zodiac killer, part James Patterson villain —obsessed with Poe’s writing. Around the time he chops up an anti-Poe literary critic with a large, razor-sharp pendulum, the police catch on, and Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) decides it might be worth asking the Master of the Macabre himself for help.
John Cusack plays Edgar Allen Poe, a difficult role for any actor, and Cusack never rises wholly to the challenge. It’s not for lack of likeness — Cusack manages, even with a questionable beard, to capture most of Poe’s physicality — nor for lack of effort. He simply cannot transcend the film’s script and structure, which aims to strip away the complexity and allure from a troubled, gifted soul in place of turgid romance.
“The Raven” spends most its length trying to prove its legitimacy as a work about Poe. Each time the Poe Killer borrows from another short story, the film stops to cite all the technicalities: the story name, date of publication, publishing magazine. Mention is even made, offhandedly, about Poe’s time at West Point. Yet fidelity to fact is not fidelity to essence, and where it really counts — when it comes time to show us Poe in a light we never considered — “The Raven” irrevocably fails.
In real life, Poe was a paradoxical figure, charismatic but hidden, intelligent yet haunted. He dealt with his life’s many tragedies by building a protective shell of cold, brooding rationality. “The Raven’s” Poe is reduced to an egotistical buffoon — he starts a bar fight over who can recognize a line from his work, and hurls words like “marsupial” and “philistine.” The series of murders only interests him when his lover, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, emotionally flatter than a pancake) is kidnapped. Why does he love her? The same man who was shattered when his wife and cousin Virginia died — except the film glosses over that fact. It also seems to think “Annabel Lee” is a romantic poem to a living lover instead of its actuality, a near-necrophilic lament.
Which goes to show the filmmakers only care when it suits the film’s purpose: heaving spectacle upon a life that has had enough of pyrotechnics. Cusack’s Poe complains his more critical works are ignored in favor of lurid bloodshed, and yet he stars in a film all about the lurid and bloody. The result is uninvolving, boring, a failure on multiple accounts. It’s not audacious enough to be campy or so well made we forgive its flaws. For all its inaccuracies, I never felt indignant or offended — just disappointed.
“I am your crowning achievement,” the killer tells Poe at the end. Had Poe actually made “The Raven,” he would have worked in subtlety and suggestion. Suspense would build, emotions would linger and we would learn to fear what we couldn’t see along with the visible. “The Pit and the Pendulum” was terrifying because the pendulum never touched its victim. “The Raven” shows the pendulum sinking right in. How dull.