Any good student of American literature could probably tell you that Edgar Allan Poe died under mysterious circumstances. He was found on a park bench in Baltimore, Maryland, delirious, some say raving, even. A cause of death was never established and the paperwork has since been lost. Because Poe had problems with alcoholism and drugs, and probably because he already had a reputation as a troubled artist, people chalked his death up to hard living. The new film The Raven, offers a fictional account of events leading up to Poe's death full of mystery and imagination fitting the author's legacy.
In The Raven, Poe (John Cusack) is desperately short on cash and outraged when his newspaper editor cuts a review he wrote in order to publish a poem by Longfellow. No print, no payment. The editor demands another "Tell-Tale Heart," something gory that will sell, but Poe isn't sure he has it in him anymore. It soon becomes clear that Poe suffers not only from addiction, but also from a disconnect between the literature he wants to write and the literature that will sell. Before much longer, however, Poe is dragged into a situation that forces him to write his best and last works. A serial killer begins committing horrific crimes that bring Poe's stories to life. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) reads between the lines and demands Poe explain himself. When Poe is cleared from suspicion, he becomes an important resource to the police, interpreting literary clues the killer leaves behind. Next, the killer sets up what appears to be a "Masque of the Red Death"-inspired killing at Captain Hamilton's (Brendan Gleeson) annual costume ball, but instead kidnaps Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), Poe's fiance. The madman draws Poe into a game of wits in which Poe must write and publish the story of the case, wedding fact and fiction, to keep Emily alive long enough for Fields to solve the mystery. Coping with Captain Hamilton's hatred, his addictions, and anguish over endangering the woman he would give his life for, Poe has to overcome writer's block and prove that he's a master of his art.
The Raven takes huge poetic licenses with Poe's life. For example, the whole Emily Hamilton romance is made up, sorry to disappoint. And the poem "Annabel Lee," while his last finished poem and also very romantic, is actually about the death of a beautiful woman. That makes it fit the story wonderfully, just not exactly as it's been used. Further, the stories he writes to keep the killer appeased were obviously never written, not to mention published as front-page news. Nonetheless, I think the story stays true to Poe as he's become legendary in American literature. The character Poe in the film is dark and twisty, but also intensely loving, befitting a man whose career was built on scary stories and works about the death of women he loved.
On the other hand, the mystery plot is engaging and scary. Absurd levels of artificial fog, horse chases, and the absence of electric light created an atmosphere that gave me the creeps even before corpses started turning up. Through the whole film, I was on the edge of my seat so uncertain of who the killer was that for a short moment I even considered whether it could be the poet Longfellow, who Poe scathingly criticized. The story reminds me of ABC's Castle, as the writer helps the police figure out killings inspired by his work. Poe feels guilt over the crimes, picking up common critiques of horror for giving the criminally insane ideas. The movie, however, does not sacrifice good storytelling in order to make a point, and so Poe's feelings compel him to keep going as the mystery unfolds.
Admittedly, the plot of The Raven was a little stupid or far-fetched at times and the last scene was over-the-top. I never really bought John Cusack as Poe, perhaps because as a favorite actor and author, both men already have well-established personas in my imagination. What I loved about this movie, however, was the way it did something totally irreverent—fictionalizing a murder mystery around the death of a legendary writer—in a way that clearly reveres Poe as an artist. I think the writers have paid homage to Poe's legacy both as a master of suspense and as a poet, balancing the two sides of his career that Poe struggled with early in the movie. In fact, only as I watched a murder inspired by "The Pit and the Pendulum" did I realize how gruesome that story really is, but I also left the theater prepared to go reread "Annabel Lee." I hope that The Raven similarly inspires other moviegoers to read or reread Poe's stories and poetry. 4/5 stars
The Raven was written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare and directed by James McTeigue. It runs 111 minutes and is rated R for bloody violence and grisly images.