opens with Edgar Allan Poe near death on a Baltimore park bench, which conforms to what historians know about the writer's final moments.
Circumstances surrounding Poe's death remain a mystery, but The Raven offers its version - we see that not long before, Poe had been trying to get money out of a newspaper publisher, which would kill just about anybody.
Poe, as we learn in The Raven, was not just the genius inventor of the detective story, the proto-Goth poet, nor the swooning balladeer to the departed. He also was a newspaperman, a critic to boot, who made money by penning fearless put-downs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson - just about any revered literary figure with three names.
One funny early sequence has Poe (played energetically by John Cusack) cussing out an editor at a Baltimore paper who'd replaced his Longfellow screed with one of Longfellow's own poems. This hurt Poe's pride, and his pocketbook: The destitute writer never made more than a few dollars from his poems and his fiction, not nearly enough to fund his prodigious liquor bills.
The editor advises Poe to write more gory fiction - that's what the people want. One of those people is a psychotic Poe admirer who starts to kill people in Baltimore (re-created with moody photography and CGI), patterning the crimes after Poe's own stories (like "The Pit and the Pendulum"), and promising to kill Poe's girlfriend (Alice Eve) unless he writes an admiring story about the killer's spree.
This seems like a familiar movie gambit (shades of Stephen King's Misery), but it's a conceptual idea with some depth. The movie credits Poe as the godfather of so much morbid popular culture, and it is correct to do so. There would be no CSI anything without Poe, or Saw, or Hannibal Lecter (also a Baltimore guy). The killer fancies himself a Poe devotee, so it's as though Poe is being stalked by a twisted version of his own legacy, somebody who copies Poe's gruesome mechanics but misses the layer of florid romantic feeling.
The problem with The Raven is that ambitious as it sometimes is, it's never really scary. Characters register poorly, so the stakes are low when they're entombed in boxes, suspended beneath blades, walled up behind bricks, etc.
The job of directing Raven goes to James McTeigue - he of V for Vendetta, apparently Hollywood's go-to guy for movies about masked misanthropes who torture women. The Raven, at least, does not pretend the women are being tortured for their own good.
The Raven also needs a script doctor. It pays tribute to Poe's literary chops, but with dialogue that is both pedestrian and anachronistic. Poe calls a guy a "mouth breather," and then, moments later, taunts him again as a - "mouth breather." I think the real EAP could do better.
The Raven ** (out of four stars)
Directed by James McTeigue. With John Cusack, Brendan Gleeson, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, and Kevin McNally. Distributed by Relativity Media.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, gore)
Playing at: area theaters