Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid longing for the good old days, when movies about historic figures were about those historic figures and not the slapdash way they might be jammed into a straightforward genre piece. That’s clearly a passé way of thinking in the age of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but sometimes old-school is the way to go.
The life of Edgar Allan Poe was fascinating and mysterious enough to warrant a new movie about it, to be sure. You could call it The Raven and cast John Cusack as your lead.
Amusingly enough, there is indeed a movie opening in theaters this weekend called The Raven and it does star Cusack as Poe. Unfortunately, it’s basically a waste of time, forgoing the opportunity to tell the poet’s extraordinary story for a mundane detective narrative that recasts him as Sherlock Holmes (the one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created, not Guy Ritchie).
It’s not all a wash. The screenplay, written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, has some tense moments. Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) effectively incorporates a sinister, foreboding mood into the portrait of a serial killer stalking Baltimore circa 1849, lifting his grisly murders directly from Poe’s works. Cusack does a fine job as the writer, presenting him simultaneously as a mad genius, a lovelorn everyman and a luckless fool.
But the film never answers the all-important existential question. To put it in journalistic terms, the movie offers “who, what, where and when,” but it never bothers with “why.” As in, why bother making CSI: Baltimore? Why resurrect an American literary giant onscreen so he can help a police investigation? Sure, Poe essentially invented the detective genre, but come on. It’s sort of like making a movie about Beethoven giving a piano lesson.
The Raven is your everyday somber, gothic 19th-century detective thriller, imbued with the usual shots of darkened cobblestone streets, seedy pubs and sinister villainous lairs. The sadistic killer slays at will, the cops remain perpetually one step behind and sudden epiphanies drive the action. It’s From Hell with less style and less personality.
You watch The Raven with the same level of interest that you might a middling episode of Law & Order. The movie successfully disguises the killer and offers a couple interesting conceits, all in the service of unequivocal competence.
But competence isn’t sufficient when your protagonist is one of the most imaginative, important authors in history. You need bold, grandiose gestures, memorably macabre details, something that in some way pays tribute to the spirit of Poe. When it comes to this movie, “nevermore” sounds about right.
The Upside: A slick atmosphere and darkened mood. John Cusack gives a credible performance as Edgar Allan Poe.
The Downside: The movie is about one of the most mysterious, fascinating personalities in the history of the arts and it turns him into a glorified detective.
On the Side: Now’s as good a time as any to check out Roger Corman’s Poe series. Start with 1963’s The Raven, starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.