Are we ready for Edgar Allen Poe, police detective?

By Gary Clift

6John Cusack is back on the movie screen, this time playing Edgar Allen Poe, the author of the poem which gave its name to this movie: “The Raven.” Director James McTeigue, who also gave us the controversial “V for Vendetta,” was lucky to get the remarkable Alice Eve (the great discovery from “She’s Out of My League”) and Brendan Gleeson for his cast and to have the film’s wonderful photography.

But, then, Luke Evans, playing Baltimore police detective Fields, reads all his lines as if he were in “True Grit.” The costumes look Gilded Age rather than Antebellum. And Hannah Shakespeare’s screenplay relies on leaps of logic and on clanking dialog that undercuts the film’s effect.

Good and bad. Is the sum of these disparate parts worth going out to the twelveplex to see? Perhaps that depends on whether or not the viewer is offended by the use of historical personages as characters in fictitious stories.

“The Raven” is a thriller which takes us back in time to Baltimore before the Civil War. The drunken, drug-using Poe is running around starting arguments—often about his place as a literary deity—and trying to earn money enough so that he can marry Society girl Emily (Eve). His flashy intrusions on her life and his poverty repel her father (Gleeson).

Then the police are called to an upstairs room in an apartment block. Screams continue to come through the locked door until just before Fields forces entry. Inside he finds a dead woman strangled by a huge hand, a twelve-year-old girl dead, thrust up the chimney, the only window nailed shut, and no one alive to have done the killing.

Now that’s like a scene in Poe’s story “Murders in Rue Morgue.” Fields recognizes the similarity and, after a man is found dead under a mechanism described in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the detective calls in Poe as an expert consultant on the murderer.

The killer uses a masked ball and references to “The Masque of the Red Death” to distract the police as he kidnaps Emily, burying her alive (see “The Fall of the House of Usher”). “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are also referred to in stunts the killer uses, apparently to get Poe to write another horror story. Poe’s effort does lead to a deal with Emily’s captor. But the murderer’s plan seems to end all chances that there will ever be another grizzly story from Poe’s pen.

So the plot makes fairly little sense. The stunts aren’t much like the stories. The cops leap wildly to conclusions—a victim is an actress so they go to the theater and count the stage hands! And the dialog is rough draft quality: “There is plenty of fault to be passed around.”

On the plus side, the story has pace and gallops from one interesting scene to another. Cusack looks sort of like Poe, as one notices if one every takes one’s eyes off Eve. Her scenes are the most interesting ones. Not only is she good-looking, but she has got an idea of how to play this character which makes sense in the historic context.

But are we ready for an Edgar Allen Poe, police detective? Some of the film character’s less reasonable successes in leading the cops to the next clue reminded me of an ancient “Saturday Night Live” skit called “What If Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?” Whether or not you enjoy “The Raven” may depend on how you feel about seeing people from history made suspense movie characters.

And remember, we still have “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” to look forward to.

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