A tale more grotesque than arabesque, The Raven replaces Edgar Allan Poe’s “opulent imagination” with a standard-issue horror story. Though it stars Poe himself (John Cusack), the plot is merely an excuse to fill in the author’s literary descriptions of madness and cruelty with gore and poorly choreographed action sequences. The backstage of a theater, underground tunnels, and most disappointingly, a masquerade ball, are all ill-used as backdrops for chase scenes. What’s being chased is a serial killer getting the one-up on Poe’s published stories. But where is the terrifying momentum, the unbearable suspense, the hovering between nightmare and reality? Must’ve flown the coop.
The Raven starts out promisingly, with a view of Edgar sitting on a park bench, breathing his last. In flashback we learn that he is impoverished, at odds with the newspaper editor who prefers Longfellow, and in love with a young lady, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose powerful father (Brendan Gleeson) detests him. It seems that the mystery will be about the manner of Poe’s death—which is unconfirmed to this day. But when a mother and daughter are brutally murdered, Edgar, whose macabre stories are well-known if not well-regarded, becomes the suspect.
Then another victim is found, and another, with gruesome details that are meant to convey a message. Intelligent detective Fields (Luke Evans) soon realizes that Poe is the inspiration, not the perpetrator, and he enlists Poe to help him catch the killer, who taunts them from the bowels of Baltimore.
What’s frustrating about The Raven, besides the misused beautiful period art direction, is that most of the time Edgar is marvelous company: cynical, egotistical, and deliciously articulate, especially when it comes to insulting the philistines that don’t appreciate him. The master of woebegone irony, Cusack is compelling and convincing with this side of Poe. Where the character flattens is with his romance with Emily (Eve is competent, nothing more). As the murders continue, the Poe-like detective becomes more intriguing than Edgar (Evans does a lot with very little), especially after Emily is abducted.
Poe and his unobtainable lady love appear to be acting out roles: She adores him for his romantic poetry, and he worships her because she recognizes his talent. The staginess of their romance seems to be deliberate, but it robs the film of the passionate sweep that might’ve made it at least a smartly turned out horror film, instead of a by-the-numbers slasher flick disguised as a literary thriller.