Some good news first: James McTeigue's "The Raven" is my favorite Edgar Allan Poe movie since the 1968 anthology film "Spirits of the Dead." But then, the three short Poe adaptations in that one were directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and, ahem, Federico Fellini.
The bad news, of course, is that "Poe movie" is not the noblest of cinematic categories. Go into IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base), scan the 251 titles associated in any way with the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe and you'll find a ton of high camp, low camp, rubbish and garden variety horror, high-end, low-end and back-end.
There are more than a few called "The Raven," too -- mostly shorts but the 1963 Roger Corman number is fondly remembered for its dueling faceoff between Boris Karloff and Vincent Price as rival wizards and Peter Lorre, as he's led through dark, musty, cobwebbed catacombs inquiring of his guide "tough place to keep clean, eh?" (One of the more delightful moments in Lorre's delightful, if largely invidious, career.)
The basic thing "The Raven" is trying to sell you -- besides a surprisingly ingenious serial killer plot -- is utterly absurd. And that's large, healthy, well-scrubbed John Cusack playing Edgar Allan Poe, a supremely quarrelsome, middle-sized, consumptive, dipsomaniac intellectual whose life was a cavalcade of misery and inconsequence and whose damnable imagination and shameless poetic rhythms were among the great glories of literature.
On his last day on Earth, according to witty John Sutherland in his recent "Lives of the Novelists" (bit of a misnomer in Poe's case), Poe was found "wandering the streets of Baltimore, ranting deliriously and wearing someone else's clothes. He seemed to be calling out 'Reynolds' (unidentified).
"One of his distant relatives who had been summoned took one look and refused to take charge of him."
And that's what I like so much about "The Raven," absurdity or no. Cusack may not be the actor who leaps to mind as miserable, scuffling, drunken, ever-disputatious Poe (ahhhh, Sean Penn, where are you when the world really needs you?), but this really tried to incorporate Poe's wretched life into its killer-at-large fantasy.
Which is, of course, about how Poe died trying to help the Baltimore police solve a string of murders that all seem to re-enact Poe stories including, yes, "The Pit and the Pendulum," whose infernal machine is used to torture and kill Rufus Griswold, a very real man who was Poe's literary executor and the source of many of the ugliest biographical misunderstandings about Poe.
Any movie fantasy that knows and cares enough about Poe to take grisly fictional revenge on Griswold ought to get the vote of anyone even tangentially literary. A lot of similar drive-by allusions to biographical reality are tossed in to make it different from most Poe movies (including his final ravings about "Reynolds").
None of which matters a hoot to anyone who might want to see a pretty ingenious serial killer in which poor, scrambling, besotted Edgar is so out of favor with his favorite Baltimore newspaper that they won't publish his latest critical incineration of Longfellow, preferring instead to publish a poem by Henry Wadsworth himself. The ultimate indignity.
That's when some crazy guy shows up to start killing people in ways that refer to Poe stories -- "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," "Masque of the Red Death," etc. Not only that, he kidnaps Poe's latest lady love (fetching Alice Eve) right out from under a masked ball her nitwit father (Brendan Gleeson) insisted on despite Poe's warnings. And yes, she's forced to re-enact Poe's "Premature Burial" for suspense's sake.
It turns out to be a rather ingenious serial killer movie -- despite the fact, of course, that the very phrase "serial killer" was all-but-unknown 50 years ago ("mass murderer" was how they inaccurately put it back then).
It's an enjoyable farrago of weird fidelity, punctilious inaccuracy, wild imaginative feints, cliches and a shoot-em-up chase on horseback.
Filmmaker McTeigue also directed that profoundly anti-social fantasy "V is For Vendetta." All the basic absurdities mix appealingly with some evidence of real reverence for the very real Edgar Allan Poe.
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Hazeldine
DIRECTOR: James McTeigue
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
RATING: R for violence and gory images.
THE LOWDOWN: Edgar Allan Poe helps Baltimore cops solve a string of murders based on his stories.