Edgar Allan Poe has a long history in Hollywood, and it is not a very successful one. Filmmakers have been adapting Poe for almost as long as there have been motion pictures, yet very few have gotten both the spirit and story close to the peculiar effect a reader has under the author’s dark spell. Poe was a master of language, a poet and a literary stylist. Three definitive qualities for a writer that have almost no parallel in cinema. Poe’s best work is on the short side, and seldom long enough to sustain an entire feature length film. Poe wrote for an effect, not for the turns of plot that modern film audiences expect. Besides, Edgar Allan Poe seldom offered happy endings to his readers and with characters mostly unheroic at best. Roger Corman made a good run at melding Poe’s visions into a nice series of films based on Poe’s work. You could say that the best a modern Poe film could hope for would be to be compared favorably to one of Corman’s classics.
The Raven (2012) takes a different, probably dated (do we still care about serial killers?), approach to Poe’s body of work. Placing a literary star in the center of their own world is not unique to this film, but on the surface would still seem like a great idea. Poe’s work is deeply personal and a film that pushed him into confrontation with those forces would be fertile with meta-content and layers of meaning which might honor his writing in a sincere way. As Poe confronts his nightmares made real, modern audiences could enjoy the subtext of a creator’s responsibility for the fan’s actions, the effect the fiction has on the real world of many. These are just a few of the opportunities that a film like this could offer.
I will say that I am a deep Poe fan and my admiration has grown with age. In some ways, I am the best audience for this film, but I am also the worst audience for it. John Cusack inhabits Poe well, as he is able to deliver both the melancholy of the public Poe with the speculations of what the daily life of Poe may have been. Yet, this story calls for a little too much of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and this is not a role the skulking Poe is meant to play. Of course, this is a film, and if Jules Verne can be an extraordinary gentleman, if Abraham Lincoln can be a vampire-hunter, then why can’t the creator of modern detective fiction also play the part of a detective?
Perhaps he could, but not in this movie. Director James McTeigue doesn’t fail to understand Poe, the author, at the expense of creating Poe the whodunit hero. The film shows depth and an interest in how Poe lived his life and what the fact behind the legend may have been. It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers didn’t want to make a film with Poe in name only. However, the very machinery of the film pulls away from Poe’s spirit as surely as a pendulum. We see Poe in a shoot-out in the woods; Poe chasing phantoms in the catacombs; and Poe confronting a killer on a theater catwalk, revolver in hand. Poe has had all he can take and he can’t take no more.
This wasn’t the Poe I know and love, this man chasing the clock and bad guys, because this Poe doesn’t seem to understand the heart of his own work. Poe saw that the universe is going to kill you, one way or the other. The more you struggle the sooner you die. Perhaps, somewhere there is a draft of the script where Poe is whispering about the inevitability and triumph of the grave to the earnest Detective Fields (Luke Evans). If you have it, send it to me, I’d love to make a fan film of that.
I know the film’s taken it on the chin among critics. I can’t say the film is bad, though. I laughed, I was touched by Poe’s fate, and the production is well done. The cinematography is effective, if not sublime, the performances are solid all around. Sam Hazeldine delivers a nice surprise performance as the print man Ivan. While much of the plot is plenty predictable, the final reveal may surprise while at the same time fulfilling a promise made in the first frames of the film.
The strongest part of the film, besides Cusack, is probably the murder tableaus themselves. Fans of the work will likely be leaning forward in the seat trying not to blurt out the inspiring story to the screen above them. As some of the crimes are drawn from more obscure works, this will be doubly satisfying. Most rewarding is the pendulum sequence which follows through with the entire arc of the torture device. In this film, for better or worse, the camera does not look away from the aftermath of the famous machine.
Ultimately, The Raven won’t rise to the top of the Poe film list. The film is too uncertain about what it wants to be to, whether it wants to thrill horror fans, Poe fans, or mainstream crowds. There are plenty of things that make it worth watching, and so it does fall in line with a long tradition of Edgar Allan Poe films which get a few things right, but fall short of the overarching feeling which has sustained Poe’s fame through the years. Which is fitting, anyway, Poe died many years ago and he knew full well that once he took his last breath, his words, his vision, would be uttered nevermore.