Baltimore, 1849. Murders inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe baffle the authorities, so police detective Emmett Fields (Evans) consults Poe (Cusack) himself. Emily Hamilton (Eve), Poe’s girlfriend, is abducted and buried alive, and the killer challenges Poe to solve clues left on corpses to find her before the air runs out.
In 1912, the first film called The Raven wrote Edgar Allan Poe as a character into one of his own works. Many subsequent books and films have sought to fill in the dark blanks in the author’s biography – no-one really knows what he did on the last few days of his life – with sensational fiction. This injects the down-on-his-luck poet into a mid-Victorian version of Se7en as he shows up at the scenes of gruesome crimes based on his own stories – a woman shoved up a chimney in a locked room, a critic cut in half by a pendulum, etc – and puzzles over clues set by a killer who's playing out the horrors that spring from the author’s head.
A thin, bearded John Cusack makes a reasonable Poe, suitably febrile and mercurial – given to outbursts of verbal and physical aggression, though the low-flown dialogue seldom sounds in period and never sounds like even a cracked genius. The low-wattage supporting cast, though, suggest a project that was downgraded during development: busy Luke Evans (The Three Musketeers, Immortals) doesn’t hold up the cop/sidekick role, pretty Alice Eve is just a token (fictional) pretty woman to be emperilled and Brendan Gleeson just shows up as the girl’s blustering father (the sort of dolt who won’t cancel his masked ball just because of a few murders). From the first crashing chords of the disastrously inappropriate rock score to the frankly dumb punchline, this consistently misses the mark – mostly thanks to haphazard scriptwriting which suggests a wikipedia level of Poe scholarship and a failure to grasp the concept of the whodunit.
Thunderingly directed by James McTeigue (V For Vendetta), with swooping camera and period art direction but no flair at all for the Gothic, The Raven keeps evoking other, better essays in the metafictional detective genre, from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow through From Hell to the Conan Doyle-as-sleuth TV series Murder Rooms but never finds its own identity.
Besides being an author, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most vicious, merciless critics of his age. He would not have let this get past him without skewering its shortcomings with a barbed quill.