The death of immortal American author Edgar Allan Poe, he of The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, and grandfather of the horror and mystery genres, remains unsolved, even to this day. What we weren’t aware of, until the release of The Raven, directed by James McTeigue, most famous for the landmark job of utter hackery that was V for Vendetta, was that Poe, until mere seconds before his departure from this world, was deeply entrenched in an absolutely gonzo kidnapping/homicide case, one that involved legions of Baltimore policemen, and reached into every imaginable social sphere. Naturally, there’s absolutely no factual basis for this mystery, except that it sounds cool, and makes for a proper three-act Hollywood script, courtesy television vet Hannah Shakespeare (no relation to the Bard) and actor/first-time scribe Ben Livingston.
If you think that there’s nothing new to be done in the “find the killer before it’s too late” genre, you’d be correct, but there’s a thin line between tolerably pedestrian and downright incompetence, and, surprisingly, McTeigue’s film mostly stays on the right side of that line. While full of welcome gore and blood spatter, it’s bankrupt of any creative spark. Lucas Vidal’s score layers forgettable synth strings with “cool” electric guitar dirges, and Danny Ruhlmann’s cinematography is appropriately gloomy but never expressively so. John Cusack, still alarmingly ageless, rends whole sheets of scenery with his shouty, hoarse-voiced impersonation of Poe. Nevertheless, there’s a smidge of comfort to be had in this largely painless exercise in gothic/Joel Silver-inherited action melodrama. If The Raven was a house, it would be small and cramped, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, but the cockroaches keep to themselves, and there are relatively few major fire hazards.
Concerning the respectful or disgraceful depiction of canonized authors and their work in movies, The Raven does no great harm. Poe’s immortality is assured because older readers carry a torch for his sense of the uncanny and his fine craft, while youngsters are drawn to the macabre, gruesome aspect of stories like The Masque of the Red Death and poems like The Raven. Having been adapted to the screen by auteur directors as varied in popularity and/or refinement as Roger Corman, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Jean Epstein, Poet’s work has been more than well-represented in the movie medium. Even The Simpsons has done right by him, with their striking, two-thirds-sincere adaptation of The Raven for “The Treehouse of Horror.” McTeigue’s movie, of course, has no purchase in the field of Poe adaptations, being a simple serial killer/mystery template, dressed in period attire. While he’s quoted heavily in the dialogue, Poe is no more the author of McTeigue’s film than Orson Welles is of Me and Orson Welles. If there’s injury done to the writer’s reputation, it’s a glancing blow, quickly forgotten.