The Raven

As the movie's opening helpfully informs us, Edgar Allan Poe was found in a bad state in October, 1849, in Baltimore, and died not long thereafter. "In a bad state", for Poe, was very likely code for "falling down drunk", but no one's absolutely sure of that, or even exactly what he died of, though it certainly might have been liver failure. The movie has him found on a park bench, though some sources claim he was found in the gutter, while others say it was in a pub, but hey, I don't think anyone's shocked at the idea that a Hollywood movie dramatized the facts a little too much.

But Poe was certainly America's answer to Lord Byron, in that he was mad, bad, and sometimes maybe even dangerous to know. He's played here by John Cusack, last seen by me in 2012, poor man, and in my opinion he's a much better choice than Ewan McGregor, who almost got the part, because I'm not sure Ewan would have been edgy enough. John Cusack is so low-key I sometimes forget he's a really good actor, but I entirely forgot who he was while watching this and I can't always manage that with a lot of the better-known actors.

Poe's always haunted by his own personal demons, but now he has a new personal demon, in the form of a serial killer who is taking gruesome inspiration from Poe's macabre stories. They even refer to him as a serial killer in the movie, which is wrong since that term wasn't used until the 20th century, but maybe I can start working on a sequel to my Top Five Most Historically Inaccurate Movies list. This could have been worse, though. There is a genuine mystery about Poe's death, since between September 28th and October 3rd of 1849, no one's exactly sure where he was, and the filmmakers wanted to come up with both a more gruesome and more romantic explanation for this than the usual assumption that he was just on a really bad drinking binge... which isn't such a wild guess in his case.

Anyway, Luke Evans, who used to be Zeus, is now a police detective named Fields. He has the unenviable task of solving a particularly nasty sort of locked-room murder, and when he realizes that the solution to that mirrors one of Poe's stories, the chase is on, with Poe dragged along as a reluctant technical adviser of sorts. All he really wants to do is get married to the lovely Emily Hamilton, played by Alice Eve, soon to be in Men in Black III and the untitled Star Trek sequel, though that isn't smooth sailing, either, since Emily's father would rather shoot Poe than see his daughter married to him. Since Mr. Hamilton is played by Brendan Gleeson (The Green Zone), Poe is right to be worried that he might actually go through with it.

All that background is historically inaccurate, too, by the way, except for the fact that Poe was trying to get married. The actual name of the prospective bride was Elmira Royster Shelton, so you can see why they changed that part, at least. But Poe's stories, and therefore the murders as well, are just as gruesome as ever. I mean gruesome. Did you ever read "The Pit and the Pendulum"? Gah. They don't even bother with the pit because the pendulum is quite awful enough, thanks.

Rounding out the cast are Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Fields' assistant, plus Kevin McNally from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Sam Hazeldine of The Wolfman as editor-in-chief and typesetter, respectively, at the newspaper The Baltimore Patriot. Sam Hazeldine was only barely in The Wolfman, so don't worry if you can't remember him. He was playing Horatio in the production of Hamlet that Benicio del Toro's character was in. The newspaper bit is also wrong; in the movie Poe is a freelance writer there, but really he wrote almost exclusively for magazines.

Any and all historical goofs aside, though, the film is still, well, twitchy. Parts of it were very good, while other parts were vaguely silly. There's a bit where they hunt through the tunnels of the Baltimore water system (since they don't have any catacombs) that failed remarkably in building any suspense, for instance. Other parts were so badly lit I couldn't tell what was going on, which built a little suspense at first but quickly became annoying. Then there's the way it glosses over things that shouldn't be glossed over. A main character is kidnapped and we don't get to see a thing... which might be okay, except the circumstances of the kidnapping were so deeply improbable that I'm pretty sure they didn't show us because they didn't dare. People would have laughed.

But I don't want to rate it too low, either, because once in a while it really was good. I'll try three out of five. It probably helps to be a fan of Poe's writings, of course, but they did all right explaining things for the non-fans without sounding too much like they were lecturing. And it can be a little difficult to manage when the movie starts out telling people that the main character dies at the end, but they did all right there, too. It was dark, twisted, bloody, and a little confusing -- so in short, much like Poe himself.

Poe exercising his second greatest talent: starting bar fights.


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