THE BEST THING about the new thriller "The Raven" is John Cusack's amped-up performance as Edgar Allan Poe.

Cusack lost 30 pounds and pushed himself to the point of exhaustion to play Poe, a sometime action figure in "The Raven" who gallops on horseback through the fog and shoots guns. Cusack, however, said the really taxing aspect of the role was trying to achieve Poe's famously agitated mental state.

"He was a starving writer and a pretty serious alcoholic, so I thought it was correct for him to be very lean and working on the edge. It was very hard to get into that psychic space, which is right at the border of being crazed and deranged," said Cusack, who researched the role thoroughly, and ended up admiring Poe on many levels.

"It was very hard to make a living in those days as a writer. He was one of the first people to copyright his work, not that it helped him much. He never made much money from his writing, and was generally destitute," said the actor, who also gained a new appreciation of Poe's varied literary output — the short stories, the detective fiction, the poetry — some of it pure art, some of it designed to sell.

"To me, he was this very interesting mixture of a very calculating guy who knew how to gauge the effect of his writing," Cusack said. "He was hip to the zeitgeist, and knew how to capitalize on that. But he was also a great romantic poet of the very highest caliber." "The Raven" is more interested in the "hip" Poe, and the plot has him pursued and manipulated by a serial killer who's staging murders based on Poe's lurid stories.

"Poe could do lowbrow, but when he wrote in that mode, it was real lowbrow, shocking lowbrow," Cusack said. The actor is fairly certain that Poe would be pleased to see that his legacy is alive and well today.

"He'd be very happy that he created the 'Saw' franchise. He would say, 'That's mine,' and he would love the shock value of it." n

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com.