Too many a midnight dreary in ‘The Raven’
‘People love the gory ones,” a newspaper editor tells Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) early on in “The Raven,” and presumably that line was part of the producers’ original pitch meeting. I’m guessing the phrase “ ‘Se7en’ meets ‘Sherlock Holmes’” was tossed about, too. A grimly preposterous serial-killer thriller set in 19th-century Baltimore, this riff on the final days of the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and other masterpieces of the macabre might qualify as literary desecration if it weren’t so silly.
Cusack’s Poe — conceived here as close cousin to Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes — is a talented wreck whose best days are behind him but who can still rear up and spit in the eye of the philistines, of which there are many in 1849 Baltimore. They include his editor (Kevin McNally) and Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson), wealthy and extremely hostile father to Poe’s beloved Emily (Alice Eve).
A depraved murderer is stalking the city, killing citizens in ways that copycat the author’s famous stories. A gruesome early highlight is the longtime Poe rival (John Warnaby) who gets the pit-and-pendulum treatment in disgusting detail. “But I’m only a critic!” he shrieks before expiring. I felt much the same way.
Initially a suspect, Poe ends up joining forces with the police inspector on the case, the manly Detective Fields (Luke Evans). The two race desperately from one horrific crime scene to the next — at a masked ball, in a church, backstage at a theater, in the sewers of Baltimore — and they’re led hither and thither by a mastermind whose cunning and resources seem increasingly far-fetched. “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget” — so many tales to choose from. “The Premature Burial” is reserved for Emily, who in Eve’s performance treats the ordeal as a particularly bad hair day.
“The Raven” has been directed by James McTeigue (”V for Vendetta”) with dark style and at galloping speed, neither of which disguise the fact that the movie often doesn’t make a lick of sense. If it were content to lighten up and admit it was trash, there might be some fun to be had, but the dialogue by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare mistakes the florid for the eloquent. (“God gave him a spark of genius and quenched it with misery,” someone says about Poe.) The jolts are effective in their Pavlovian way; it’s everything else that lets you down.
Sadly, the overripe notion of Edgar Allan Poe, action hero, never takes off. Cusack wants to give a serious performance — historically inaccurate goatee and all — in a movie that isn’t built for it. (Let’s hope Benjamin Walker in this summer’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” doesn’t have the same problem.) The star is pale enough to qualify for a Tim Burton movie but he’s awfully well-fed to play late-stage Poe, and he never summons up the glint of madness you get in photographs of the author. Behind the blowhard arrogance, Edgar seems eminently sane — not exactly what’s called for.
What “The Raven” lacks in narrative invention it makes up for by pushing the audience’s face in blood, guts, and hacked flesh. You get that the filmmakers are going for a modern take on Poe’s Gothic vision, but their approach has no poetry and barely any prose. After the “Holmes” movies, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and this, the steampunk-action genre may be played out. Quoth the audience, “Nevermore.”