Is it 1999? Did I miss some kind of cataclysmic temporal shift? Because The Raven seems like the product of another time, and not the era of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic horror yarns. The Raven feels like it was pumped out by an industry desperate to capitalize on the success of Shakespeare in Love by repurposing another “household name” author into familiar genre trappings. That it also feels like yet another Se7en knockoff makes the paradox complete. There’s a goofy joy in the film’s conceit – a serial killer basing his crimes on Poe’s stories, tracked down by Poe himself – that could have led to a wonderful, if trifling, piece of historical fiction. But that would have required a witty script and playful direction, and all we get from The Raven is a grim slog of a film, flooded with reverence and references but lacking in anything closely resembling entertainment.
I say this as a critic, mind you, and if you do see The Raven (not recommended) you’ll find that the film is custom made to piss me off. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not being paranoid about this: multiple characters throughout the film disparage artistic criticism throughout The Raven, and easily the most gruesome death – the old pit and the pendulum gag – is of course reserved for one of my kind. The blood pours out of his stomach like the juice was suddenly loose in a Starburst commercial, and afterwards his own employer insults the recent dead by writing off his life's work, criticism, as “the easy stuff.” While I’m sure it’s frustrating to have your hard work torn down by the so-called intelligentsia, I would advise filmmakers in the future to fight back with some intelligence of their own, and not creepy wish-fulfillment about my untimely slaughter. Or if you must, at least have as much fun with it as Theatre of Blood did.
It’s no great sin that The Raven isn’t brilliant. It’s a pulpy concept, and that justifies a pulpy attitude towards the story. But there’s no pleasure to be had. The life of Edgar Allan Poe was a melancholy and legitimately tragic one. His various works don’t lend themselves easily to humor (although Roger Corman certainly brought a welcome campiness to some of the more arch stories), so it's bound to be morbid. What’s disappointing is that the cast and the crew don’t appear to have taken any pleasure in that morbidity. Cusack’s interpretation of the author finds less inspiration in his drunken, egocentric proclamations than it does in the quiet moments that make Poe seem like a pretty generic individual. A little Vincent Price would have been appreciated, or at least a little melodrama to make Poe as charismatic an individual as his prose and poems would seem to suggest.
“Oh, but perhaps that's what Poe was really like,” could be the argument, but The Raven makes little claim to historical fealty, populating Poe's life with fictional characters and suspect contrivance. The murders themselves are filmed without gruesome fascination, which would have at least made The Raven feel memorably macabre. Fascination, in fact, is the greatest thing missing from this film: like many of the great artists, Poe was underappreciated in his time, but surely someone besides the killer could have been a fan, and enjoyed the prospect of being around him? Luke Evans plays a hopelessly milquetoast inspector who could have easily been spruced up with a little fanboyism. He claims to have read Poe’s work, but says nothing further about it, good or ill. Would not the film have been improved by making him as interested in the author as the audience is supposed to be? If you’re a Poe fan, and the odds are good that you are, wouldn’t you have questions to ask if he were in the room? Wouldn’t you bask in observing the literary titan as he really was? And shouldn’t a film clearly intended as fan service provide those same thrills, if only vicariously?
Lacking, as it does, any insight into Poe’s life, The Raven was responsible for one thing only: gothic amusement, and there’s simply none of that here. It’s a formulaic murder mystery and a blasé, unenlightening look at the life of Edgar Allan Poe that could really have used an imp of the perverse. I fail to see the upside of making a thriller this non-threatening. Then again, what do I know? At the end of the day, I’m just a critic… but at least I didn't make this boring movie.