At the height of his literary fame, Edgar Allan Poe, who popularized cryptography in his story “The Gold Bug,” was so renowned as a code-breaker that his public would eagerly submit encoded messages for the writer to cipher.
The Raven, which stars John Cusack as Poe, his goatee the least of the film’s historical liberties, imagines a variation on this reader-meet-author game of wits. In Baltimore, 1849—the place and time of Poe’s death—a serial killer puts out a challenge to the dissipated Poe, committing murders copycatted from his Tales, each crime scene containing a clue to string the author along to the next fresh atrocity.
“Is imagination now a felony?” Cusack’s Poe asks when recruited onto the case by a brusque Baltimore inspector, played by Luke Evans—and it seems for this moment that The Raven has a hold of an idea: the suspicion with which society regards the producer of “sick” art, founded on the conviction that imagination cannot simply be imagination. Unfortunately, Poe’s tenuous social position is thereafter glossed over—the screenplay, by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, insists on making Poe just a regular lusty all-American fella at heart, overfond of a drink, perhaps, but committed to his pet raccoon, Carl (!), and to winning fair Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the belle of Baltimore, away from her wealthy but philistine father (Brendan Gleeson). All trace of Poe or his time is quickly lost. Where is the high-strung man who married his 13-year-old cousin? How can the staid opulence of bourgeoisie, fin-de-siècle Eastern Europe—The Raven was shot in historic districts of Budapest and Belgrade—stand in for a muddy, half-wild, pre-Civil War American city?
Handling such a tarted-up version of Poe’s life, director James McTeigue might have salvaged something by taking the trashiness of the material at face value, making a colorful E.C. Comics-meets-Illustrated Classics version of it, possibly with old nemesis Longfellow unmasked as the killer at the end. Instead, his Raven is wedged uncomfortably between self-serious period-piece solemnity—Cusack is clearly committed to the part, but working in a vacuum—and slavering sadism, with a particularly splashy staging of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” always pausing to take close-ups of the nasty bits.
Though Poe, progenitor of the modern detective and horror story, has had an incalculable effect on popular culture, this fascinating, complicated man’s fascinating, complicated life has never been properly brought to the screen. Freddie Francis and Sylvester Stallone both tried, with the latter long shopping around the screenplay to an unproduced Poe biopic. “I keep telling my producer, Avi Lerner, ‘Make Edgar Allan Poe!’” Stallone has recounted. “He says, ‘Does he have a gun?’ ‘No, he doesn’t have a gun,’ ‘Can he throw a knife?’ I say, ‘No, he writes poetry!’”
The Raven solves this “problem,” pushing a revolver into Poe’s hands. It is rather typical of the minds of movieland moneymen that, after assuring only the most insipid “deadly game of cat-and-mouse” Poe script imaginable should be the one produced, they will then view the foregone failure of their dunderheaded product as evidence that there’s “no market for this sort of thing.” It’s a pathetic missed opportunity—and one occasion of actually going broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.