“I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness…” These words, from Edgar Allen Poe’s infamous 1842 short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” perfectly sum up the new Poe-based thriller The Raven. A film that really has no idea what it wants to be, The Raven squanders its interesting and gruesome premise in favor of exaggeration and cheese. It’s a shame, too, as many of the people involved in the film’s production have previously demonstrated their talent – from star John Cusack (1408) to director James McTeigue (the vastly underrated V for Vendetta). Unfortunately,the finished product here is a jumbled mess with only a moments that hint at something that could have been a great film – though not even a thrilling final act can bring back any goodwill lost.
Equal parts boring and silly, The Raven’s premise is this: a serial killer in mid-19th-century Baltimore is patterning his brutal killings after the works of Edgar Allen Poe, with elaborate traps and inventive methods of death. When police are baffled by the handiwork of the crime scenes, they enlist the help of none other than Poe himself (Cusack) in order to put an end to the madness (as if!). But when the killer kidnaps Poe’s lover Emily (She’s Out of my League’s Alice Eve, just as beautiful here, but twice as bland), all bets are off, and Poe must race to stop a madman that he himself inspired.
The real problem with The Raven is that it has absolutely no idea what sort of tone to set or how to engage an audience. It is as if the writers came up with the brilliant, Se7en-esque idea of the story, threw together a quick and generic script with as many pointless Poe references as possible, then rushed to get it made before taking the time to figure out how to correctly make a thriller that is, you know, thrilling. The pacing is atrocious, the gore is pointlessly over-the-top and would only fit in a Saw film, the romance is not very believable, and worst of all Cusack’s acting as Poe is utterly unhinged and comical.
“God put a spark of genius in him,” one character remarks of Poe. “…and then quenched it in misery.” Yet Cusack’s performance is neither genius nor miserable – it’s just… weird. He’s overacting half of the film, and appears drunk for the other half – it’s not the usual Cusack we’ve come to expect. However, I must say it is not the poor guy’s fault, as he is given terrible dialogue to work with; much of it just comes out as laughable, especially in the context of a gruesome murder investigation. Said investigation plays out slowly and cyclically, with intermittent spurts of blood and fear, some speculating, an occasional close call with the killer, and then repeat. By the time we do get to the third act, however, the pace does pick up, as an interesting case development (finally!) breathes a little bit of life into the action before the film wraps up.
The few standouts here include Luke Evans as the gruff and mysterious young detective heading up the search for the serial killer, as well as a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game of an ending with Emily’s life on the line. However, other than these elements, The Raven does not have much to flaunt, instead tripping over its own feet and devolving into downright ludicrousness. It’s a shame, too, as the film’s dark premise and elaborate mystery show promise and the smallest hint of a genius idea that the real Poe would have been proud of. The finished product, though… well, this film is best left in the very grave where Poe is probably turning over right now.