There’s a promising premise on the boil here. What if Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) spent the last days of his life trying to nab a serial killer who’s been using macabre ideas from Poe’s short stories to off his victims? The Pit and the Pendulum, anyone? OK, The Raven sounds like a TV series that gets canceled soon after its debut. But it has compensations, chief of which is John Cusack, who plays Poe with just the right blend of romantic longing and tortuous doubt.
Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), an assistant to the Wachowski brothers on The Matrix, pulls us in with the period atmosphere. A few days before his death, Poe was found on a park bench in Baltimore, babbling incoherently. So much for truth. Booze and syphilis reportedly contributed to Poe’s demise. But the script, by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, posits that he’s been poisoned by a crazed fan who adores and loathes him in equal measure.
Cue the flashbacks and a feeble fictional story about how Poe’s heiress fiancee, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), gets interred alive (The Premature Burial) and Poe labors to help police detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) find Emily before her breath runs nevermore.
None of this huggermugger generates much excitement. What drew me into the film most was the depiction of Poe’s life as an impoverished poet, trying to make a few bucks by composing detective fiction while fiercely criticizing the work of other writers. In one scene, the anguished Poe wagers that at least one person in a pub will recognize him as an author, best known for “The Raven.” Cusack captures that desperation vividly enough to make you wish this was the real Poe story, which The Raven onscreen leaves buried alive.