On October 3rd, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found sitting on a bench in a park in downtown Baltimore, delirious and near-death. Four days later, he passed away in a hospital bed, the cause of death attributed to everything from cholera to rabies, but no conclusive reason for his demise was ever reached. It was said that, during his brief hospital stay, Poe cried out a single name, over and over again. It is this fact-based period in Poe’s turbulent life that serves as the launching point and finale for James McTeigue’s The Raven; a sort of revisionist historical thriller in the vein of The Dante Club, in which the literary giant finds himself in the role of detective.
A mother and daughter are murdered in their Baltimore apartment as the police arrive just in time to hear one of the woman’s final, desperate pleas for help before breaking down the door and discovering the two bodies, but no killer. The apartment’s only point of egress – a window – is nailed shut, and there is no place to hide within, yet, somehow, the killer has eluded them.
Enter Emmett Fields (Luke Evans); a brash, young detective, who immediately recognizes the scene before him. He examines the only window in the apartment, and discovers that one of the nails in the window is actually a spring-loaded mechanism that allowed the killer to escape unhindered, buying him time while the police wasted theirs looking for alternate points of escape. When asked by his fellow officers how he knew about the window, Fields informs them that he read it in a story; more specifically, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Baltimore’s own Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack).
Poe, meanwhile, has recently returned from a self-imposed exile from the Baltimore pubs that serve as his second home. Penniless (as usual), he tries to procure some credit for drink, promising that he’ll be flush by morning when the local paper runs his latest and greatest critical essay. The bartender refuses, and, fueled by ego and a need for alcohol, Poe causes a scene that sees him tossed from the bar, and forced to return home.
The next morning, after a brief encounter with his secret love, Emily (Alice Eve), and her disapproving father, Captain Hamilton (Brendon Gleeson), Poe is brought into Fields’ office for questioning, and informed that his work has served as the inspiration for murder. As Poe is being interrogated, another man is found murdered, this time using the motif of The Pit and the Pendulum, and it becomes quite clear that one of Poe’s “fans” has decided to bring the author’s works to life.
A clue left at the scene – an ornately carved red mask, as used in The Masque of the Red Death - leads Poe to deduce that the killer aims to target Captain Hamilton’s annual masquerade ball (where it is planned that Poe will propose to Emily in front of her father and all of his friends), mirroring Prospero’s masquerade ball in said story. Poe believes that Hamilton is the target, and that, as in the story, the killer will arrive at midnight. Fields stations dozens of officers around the mansion, and, just as in the story, a masked horseman crashes through the ballroom doors, and is shot by Fields’ men. The rider, however, is a decoy sent to deliver a message to Poe, while, in the ensuing chaos, the killer abducts Poe’s beloved Emily. It is here that the killer’s true intentions are revealed, as his message declares that Poe must chronicle the man’s further exploits if he wants to see Emily alive again.
The Raven is actually a much better film than its mediocre box-office and initial critical lashing would suggest. The film looks gorgeous, with a suitably dark and gloomy aesthetic that calls to mind the “gore by gaslight” style of Hammer’s best gothic horror flicks, combined with some decidedly Fincher-esque camera tricks (macro style CGI, tilt-shift focus), and great attention to period detail. It’s also a one of the goriest studio thrillers I’ve seen in quite some time, with nifty murder set pieces and some convincing and borderline nauseating special effects.
I’m still not crazy about the casting of Cusack as Poe, but the actor’s take on the troubled writer is an interesting one, especially during the first act, where he imbues Poe with a borderline manic, narcissistic personality and condescending sense of humor that plays to Cusack’s strengths. It took me a bit to warm up to him, but, when the stakes are raised by the abduction of Emily, Poe’s determination and desperation become apparent, and, here, Cusack’s performance becomes much more focused and internalized, radiating the sense of melancholy most of us associate with Poe.
While I enjoyed The Raven, I do have a few issues with the film, most of which center on the oversimplification of the procedural elements, which, to me, seem geared more toward C.S.I. armchair detectives than fans of more intelligently crafted murder mystery films. I also found the pacing rather plodding, and felt that the film would have probably worked much better had McTeigue trimmed off about ten minutes or so of excess expository fat, or, at the very least, lent some of the time spent on Poe and Emily’s courtship to fleshing out the anemic antagonist a bit more. Instead, what could have been a nifty riff on the Holmes/Moriarty interplay plays out like an episode of Scooby Doo, and that’s a shame considering how much of the film actually works and works well.
The Raven soars onto Blu-ray courtesy of Fox, and features a striking 2.40:1 1080p transfer that does well with the dark material it’s saddled with. The film, shot on 35mm, takes place mostly in darkness and shadow, with candles and lanterns barely illuminating the proceedings. As should be expected, this results in higher noise and lesser detail, but the image is still quite attractive and, in daylight or well-lit interior shots, the picture quality is quite impressive. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track offers a very expressive mix that works all corners of the room. Dialogue is crisp and organic sounding, and the bone-shaking bass will certainly have your downstairs neighbors breaking out their brooms and banging on the ceilings.
Extras include a somewhat prosaic commentary track with McTeigue, as well as producers Marc Evans, Trevor Macy, and Aaron Ryder, in which the trio rattle off factoids about the production and technical aspects of the film. Cusack’s inclusion here would have certainly lent the discussion some life, but, obviously, he was either unable or unwilling to take part.
Also featured are Deleted and Extended Scenes (HD), as well as a collection of short featurettes including the short making-of, The Raven Guts: Bringing Death to Live (HD); a bio piece entitled The Madness, Misery, and Mystery of Edgar Allen Poe (HD); Music for the Raven - The Team (HD); a very short EPK entitled Behind the Beauty and Horror (HD), and the Iconoclasts-style interview segment, The Raven Presents John Cusack & James McTeigue (HD).
While The Raven doesn’t quite live up to its exciting premise, I still found it to be an entertaining spin on the now popular alternate history genre. Cusack surprises in the role of Poe, the mystery is engaging (if not infuriatingly simplified), and the film’s look is extremely polished. Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is, as one would expect, technically excellent, although the selection of supplemental features are a bit of a mixed bag. Truth-be-told, even if I weren’t sent this film for review, I’d have definitely purchased the The Raven just for the Poe factor, alone, and I suspect that my fellow Poe fans will gladly do the same and find much to love here. However, those looking for a truly suspenseful and intelligent thriller/mystery may be better served giving this one a rental first.