Once upon a midnight dreary, Judge Clark Douglas pondered, weak and weary.
The only one who can stop a serial killer is the man who inspired him.
"You're referring to one of my stories. A work of fiction!"
Facts of the Case
The year is 1849. The place is Baltimore, Maryland. Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack, Hot Tub Time Machine) is one of the most esteemed writers of his generation. He is also an impoverished drunk who has run out of inspiration. These days, Poe struggles just to get his lacerating literary reviews published in the Baltimore newspaper. However, when a killer commits a murder using some grisly techniques described in one of Poe's stories, police detective Fields (Luke Evans, Immortals) turns to the writer for assistance. The killer continues plowing through Poe's bibliography in search of creative methods of murder, and makes it personal by kidnapping the author's fiancee (Alice Eve, Men in Black 3). Can Poe and the detective uncover the fiend's identity before it's too late?
The Raven begins on a somewhat promising note: John Cusack's wild-eyed, strung-out Edgar Allen Poe is ranting and raving in a local pub, desperately hoping that he can use his fame to persuade someone to buy him a drink. He's a wreck, but nonetheless has a certain caustic charisma that prevents him from being tossed out as quickly as most ranting drunks might be. We don't yet know what The Raven has in store for us, but we do know that we have a central character who will be worth spending a couple of hours with. Unfortunately, that character is quickly stranded in a film filled to the brim with clunky performances, overheated direction and mundane plotting. It seems a shame to trap a writer as fine as Poe in a film that feels like a third-rate adaptation of a James Patterson novel.
Director James McTeigue made his debut with V for Vendetta, a film that was far too on-the-nose but that nonetheless worked reasonably well. Alas, after seeing McTeigue's efforts on Ninja Assassin and this film, one begins to suspect that the parts of his debut that worked were due to the quality of the source material he was working with. He brings an army of fog machines and tosses his characters into shadows in an effort to create a sense of atmosphere, but it feels phony and forced next to something like From Hell (which had its share of problems, but which handled this sort of thing so much more effectively). Red herrings are thrown out haphazardly, and there's never much in the way of genuine suspense as we build up to the (underwhelming) revelation of the killer's identity.
The Raven draws bits and pieces from Poe's entire body of work, but never comes close to capturing the elegance, thoughtfulness or genuine horror of those tales. As far as the film is concerned, Poe's primary contribution to literature was his knack for writing creative kills (which should only be a barometer of success if you're being judged by one of those disreputable horror-themed review sites that devote an inordinate amount of time to determining precisely how many pounds of entrails are spilled over the course of a film). There are a few scenes in which the film uses snippets of Poe's poetry as voiceover narration (the title piece and the aching "A Dream Within a Dream"), but the poems never seem to have any purpose related to the story the film is telling other than to remind us that Poe did indeed write them.
Cusack delivers a performance that is better than the film deserves, making a valiant effort to recreate the brilliant and tormented Poe (a role that inspires more energy from Cusack than we've seen in a while). Alas, his key supporting players seem to have been selected for their magazine-ready looks rather than for any genuine dramatic skills. Alice Eve turns in a flat, unmemorable performance as the film's one-dimensional damsel in distress, while Luke Evans fails to bring any personality to Detective Fields. Old pros like Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges), Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey) can be spotted in the supporting cast, but they don't have much of interest to do. The actor who plays the killer (who may or may not be one of the aforementioned folks) is a particular disappointment, running through a series of bad guy cliches before making a dull exit.
The Raven (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that does a decent job of recreating the excessively overcast look of the film. While the image does seem a bit soft much of the time, that's entirely due to the manner in which the film was shot. Otherwise, the deep blacks and strong shadow delineation prevent the film from looking too murky. Flesh tones are warm and natural and the occasional bursts of color are quite rich (though those are few and far between). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is quite strong, fully immersing the viewer in the dank, depressing version of Baltimore it presents. Lucas Vidal's energetic score is pretty crummy in basic musical terms, but it does provide your sound system with an impressive workout. Dialogue is well-captured and clean (despite the constant mumbling of a couple of cast members). Supplements include an audio commentary with McTeigue and producers Mark D. Evans, Trevor Macy and Aaron Ryder, five EPK-style featurettes ("The Raven Guts: Bringing Death to Life," "The Madness, Misery and Mystery of Edgar Allen Poe," "Behind the Beauty and Horror," "The Raven Presents John Cusack and James McTeigue" and "Music for The Raven: The Team"), some deleted/alternate scenes, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
The Raven should have been an entertaining piece of revisionist history, but this clunky Se7en wannabe provides its fine protagonist with a crummy, conventional story.
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