Editor’s note: This review first was published April 27, 2012.
‘The Raven’ an insult to Poe’s achievements
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” a piece of poetry published in 1845 and known for its exacting language and otherworldly atmosphere, is one of the most famous poems ever written. It’s been an inspiration to several modern works, including Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Parrot Who Knew Papa.” To this day, it’s still referenced in popular culture. In his follow-up essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe explained how logic dictated every stanza and how he exerted total control over every word (though that may be a bit exaggerated).
“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story,” he wrote. “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”
This painstaking logic and methodical approach, however, is nowhere to be found in the theatrical version of “The Raven,” directed by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”). Instead, what we get is a Sherlock Holmes-meets-”Saw” concoction, a true insult to Poe, who is credited with inventing the detective genre.
Some may say the forefather of “CSI” should have a chance to partake in a little sleuthing of his own, and that idea seems to be the catalyst behind McTeigue’s and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare’s tale of misery, mystery and murder. It also seems to be the inspiration behind the movie’s antagonist, a serial killer whose sadistic methods have been drawn directly from some of Poe’s most gruesome writings. It’s a homage, if you will, to Poe’s dark imagination, played by a frantic John Cusack.
“The Raven” is essentially a mash-up of some of Poe’s more famous, and gory, works, including “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” And while you may derive some pleasure from being able to match each horror with its correlating literary work, the blending produces an overwhelming multiplier effect, inundating you with so much unrealistic exposition you may stop caring altogether.
On the verge of being too much, McTeigue reconstructs a misty and gloomy Baltimore, wet stone and dark wood abound, where gentility and corruption go hand in hand. (The hardworking cop here is played by Luke Evans.) There’s enough blood and mystery to sustain any Poe poem, and the hedonistic world of the mid-19th-century print culture is a touch well-done.
What sensical plot there is revolves around Poe and his brutal imitator. The murderer slays Baltimore’s citizens in an effort to draw Poe into a game of “Can you figure out what I’m going to do next?” But then to make matters more convoluted, there’s a love story (Poe’s love, Emily, is played by Alice Eve), which runs counter to the boozy mess Poe embodies. It’s incoherent, and Poe, a critic himself, would have eviscerated this movie in mostly unprintable terms.
Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore in October 1849, found on the streets delirious and in need of medical attention. He never returned to sanity long enough to explain how he came to be in such a dire predicament, or why he was wearing someone else’s clothes. He is said to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, though no one knows the significance behind the name. The reason behind his death remains a mystery. (Possible causes include heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, cholera and rabies.)
“The Raven” seeks to explain, in fictional terms, what happened to Poe in his final days. There’s a strong argument to be had that he may have known this movie was going to be made.
One raven-black star out of five.