“The Raven” is the latest in a Hollywood tradition that re-imagines historical icons in fantastic, alternative storylines.
Nicholas Meyer’s “Time After Time” (1979) saw H.G. Wells traveling through time to stop Jack the Ripper. Other movies of this kind include “Shadow of the Vampire” (1992), which asked what if Max Schreck, the star of F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” were a real vampire; as well as Timur Bekmambetov’s upcoming “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — the title says it all.
In “The Raven,” Edgar Allen Poe, a man whose writings have created wealth for Hammer studios and Roger Corman, is himself given the cinematic treatment.
The premise: 19th century Baltimore is hounded by a serial killer who re-enacts fatal scenarios within the author’s writings. Recognizing the similarity between a recent murder and one of Poe’s stories, Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) requests the aid of the struggling writer (John Cusack) to help track down the killer. With Poe in the mix, the plot thickens when his love interest, Emily (Alice Eve), becomes the next target.
Without spoiling the twists — what unfolds is a clever cat-and-mouse thriller that could have been wrought in the forbidden fires of the author’s imagination.
The concept of a killer predicating his (or her) murder spree on a literary or fictional source has been the conceit of many tales of horror and suspense. In “Basic Instinct,” the killer re-enacted scenes from an erotic potboiler. In “Seven,” John Doe was obsessed with deadly sins. The challenge of making a movie like “The Raven” lies in discovering new source material for the murderer to exploit.
The producers have earned their gold mining the treasures of Edgar Allen Poe, whose writings have captivated popular imagination. Some of his most famous works, like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” are given fresh life, re-conceived as spectacular death traps, designed to tickle the lobes of rear-window voyeurs and scopophiliacs alike.
A crucial source of pleasure in this movie resides in spotting casual references to familiar stories and poems. This is some of the magic that keeps the story’s excesses from becoming too apparent.
The other stuff of magic is Cusack’s sedate but respectful performance as the master of the macabre; his tongue is able to work itself around chunks of Victorian alliteration without sounding foolish.
With interest in the deceased writer so evident, enjoyment alone exists just in watching him alive on screen. A perceptive dramatist, Cusack goes for straight, never upsetting the balance with idiosyncrasies (a la Nicholas Cage), and relying on his uncanny likeness to keep the viewer’s interest from straying.
Credited for inventing detective fiction, Poe famously argued that the short story should work towards a singular and predetermined effect.
After his slump with “Ninja Assassin,” James McTeigue’s direction on “The Raven” is a welcome return to the potential he demonstrated in “V for Vendetta.” He imbues his latest picture with the “singularity” Poe often demonstrated in his own works, keeping the plot brisk, and avoiding the conventional pitfalls common to the thriller genre.
Noticeable hiccups aside, his invention turns cinematic cliche on its head, luring you to think you know who the killer is even when you don’t. Despite such artifice, the revelation is more or less anticipated if not foreseeable.
Predictability keeps this movie from surpassing its pulpy aspirations the way “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Psycho” were able to excel with theirs. Without Poe, without his writings and without Cusack, this movie would be just another installment in the “Saw” franchise, something akin to Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow,” or Joel Schumacher’s “8MM.”
Still, there is something satisfying and ironic in recognizing that an author whose preoccupations included re-animation and conscious entombment has been resurrected and embalmed by the canopic power of cinema.
Who says literature is dead?