Taking the collected works of America’s original master of horror and drawing on their most gruesome murders as the inspiration for something resembling the love child of Saw and Sleepy Hollow might have seemed like a good idea to director James McTeigue. After all, the former protege of the Wachowski brothers had directed V For Vendetta and Ninja Assassin, films that strain to commodify and stylize bloody violence into some semblance of a meaningful story. Having all the murders already written for you by an American literary icon must have seemed like quite the head start. Unfortunately, the only thing McTeigue does with Edgar Allan Poe’s work after getting his hands on it is make it laughably two-dimensional.
An idea that probably seemed very cinematic on paper ends up feeling like CSI: 1840s Baltimore once it makes it on screen. The Raven is clumsily directed, turning macabre murder mysteries into procedural exercises that disconnect the audience. Despite the best atmospheric clichés the filmmakers could conjure (lanterns, fog, sewers), there isn’t much suspense because you don’t care much for the characters. As noir stylings go, The Raven aims for the realm of David Fincher’s Se7en and ends up at about a two. Not since the rat at the end of The Departed has there been such insultingly blatant symbolism, with the titular black birds cawing and flapping their way around screen to remind us of… something deeply meaningful, probably. There are even a few moments of humor in the film, a few of them on purpose.
The real crux (crutch?) of The Raven, though, is the gore. “The Pit and the Pendulum” becomes a mechanized torture device conceived to bisect a man and make us watch. “The Tell-Tale Heart” gets boiled down to a woman buried underneath a floor somewhere, at one point trying to punch her way out, à la Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo. There’s even a nod to V For Vendetta, when a man in a mask jumps off a roof to slit the throat of one of his pursuers. Many of these moments are watch-through-your-fingers gruesome by design, and could even have achieved a level of artistry had they originated with a pen instead of a sword. The lone bit of intricacy in the torture porn subgenre lies in the devices that elicit pain and illuminate moral conundrums. Here, the blades are used merely to cut through the boredom.
The lone tether for a floundering audience to grasp here is John Cusack as Poe. Cusack has made a career out of offbeat humor and cynicism, and seemed like a good choice to play the tortured author. But even he struggles with a character that is essentially a collection of short stories. There are moments where he has us in the palm of his hand, but those are outnumbered by the moments in which he loses us, transitioning from witty and verbose to monosyllabic in the face of adversity. It doesn’t help that Cusack’s Poe has no peer to raise the level of his performance—the supporting cast might as well be wallpaper. The serial killer using Poe’s work as his muse is a distant threat, but the game he’s playing with the master of the macabre is checkers, not chess. It might help if Poe’s beloved were anything besides shrieking eye candy, but the token attention paid to her does nothing to invest us in her survival. Indeed, the only person’s survival that means anything is Poe’s, and we know he’s doomed from the outset. The only real suspense The Raven conjures is whether another misfire will give John Cusack cause to evaluate his choice of roles more carefully next time.
Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Ben Livingston & Hannah Shakespeare (screenplay)
Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans
Release Date: Apr. 27, 2012