Edgar Allan Poe’s influence has been present throughout the entire history of cinema, from the Roger Corman adaptations in the ‘60s to the more recent gore drenched franchises of Saw and Hostel, and not without good reason; Poe is one of the undisputed gods of horror. So for James McTeigue (director of V for Vendetta) to create a film based not only on Poe’s short stories, but on the last few days of the tortured genius’ life, is an interesting path to travel down.
The Raven presents a fictionalised account of the circumstances leading up to Poe’s mysterious death in October of 1849, when he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, incoherent and delirious. It begins in a tavern, with the author (John Cusack) trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a free drink from the bartender. He stands up, pushes aside his stool and shouts, “A drink to the man who can finish this line! Quoth the raven…” “Piss off!” comes a reply from the corner of the crowded room. At this point in his life, Poe’s heavy drinking has lost him his reputation, his imagination has exhausted itself and all that keeps him going is his love for Colonel Hamilton’s daughter Emily (Alice Eve). One night police find the bodies of a mother and child in a room locked from the inside, the assailant having escaped using a hidden lock mechanism in the window and Detective Fields (Luke Evans) links the murders to one of Poe’s recently published stories. As the deaths become more frequent, Poe and Fields team up to prevent the serial killer from turning any more of his stories into a reality.
Following the trend set by the newer Sherlock Holmes adaptations, The Raven turns its protagonist into an action hero, sprinting from murder to murder, black cloak flying behind him – the most macabre of superheroes. Cusack plays Poe just as you might imagine the man to be; dark, brooding and romantic, but at the same time he brings a much needed levity to the role; the cynical, intelligent humour making him instantly engaging. Another performance worth mentioning is Kevin McNally’s (Pirates of the Caribbean) character of Poe’s editor, for behind his impatient façade we see the sympathy and respect he clearly has for the author – an ally in disguise.
The main issue many people will have with The Raven will not be with the characters themselves, but with the film’s tone. Poe’s grotesque tales are less to do with the physical situations of the protagonists and deal more with the torments of the mind as they descend slowly into madness. The film lacks this claustrophobic atmosphere so often found in Poe’s fiction; the Victorian bleakness is lost amid violent killing and the ominous overtones that Vincent Price brought to previous adaptations are replaced by fast-paced action and the sound of gunfire. You can’t dispute The Raven’s claim of originality, but it doesn’t try hard enough to escape the shadow of the ‘blockbuster’.
All this aside however, The Raven does what it set out to do, and in the end does it very well. It’s not an art house film, it’s not filled with obscure motives or references that only Edgar Allan Poe fanatics would understand – it’s simply a very enjoyable detective thriller that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It also makes the audience, particularly the younger viewers, aware that these stories exist, and that can’t possibly be a bad thing, can it?