What a strange little movie this is. Strange in both good and bad ways, I suppose, but an odd concoction all the same. What we have here are the final days of a real person, indeed a very famous one, that have been combined with a rather perfunctory mystery story. Some will see half a biopic that disrespects its subject by saddling his tragic end with a goofy mystery tale; others will appreciate how a rather basic murder mystery actually fits in, at least as entertainment, with the final days of the legendary Edgar Allan Poe. As a big fan of the author and a big fan of comfortably basic murder mysteries, I suspect that I fall into the latter camp: James McTeigue's The Raven, despite a handful of narrative missteps and a few errant accents, is actually a pretty compelling "what if?" story.
Poe purists may fume at the very concept of wedging fractious fiction into Poe's tragic final days, and while that's a very respectable position, the simple truth is that more works here than doesn't. Starting at the top: John Cusack's admirably low-key performance as the ill-fated Edgar Allan Poe. Reserved and commanding, even in the film's sillier moments, Cusack lets loose with some mania here and there, but he never goes overboard and chews the scenery. One would not expect that sort of work from John Cusack to begin with, but when playing a drug-addicted master of the macabre, one never knows how an actor will respond. Kudos to Cusack.
Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare with equal amounts of cleverness and basic predictability, The Raven is at its most interesting when it pulls back from the machinations of the murder mystery format and focuses on Poe as a person. The Raven often seems unsure if it's a mystery, a character study, or a horror film, but there's just enough novelty in seeing a famous literary figure have his most infamously horrific creations thrown back in his face. The murderer, you see, is killing his victims through methods found in Poe's own work, which allows us to get a few interesting moments in which the author worries that his own black imagination has indirectly inspired several true-life horrors.
Unfortunately the film keeps navigating back towards the simplest route: the whodunnit, which might actually be the least compelling aspect of The Raven. Indeed in the film's biggest reveal, the identity of the killer is not all that fascinating -- but the game he's finishing up with Mr. Poe, well, it actually is. Frequent missteps in the editing department (especially in the "action" scenes) and a truly vacant performance by the lovely Alice Eve are countered by a gloomily adorable 19th century Baltimore and some colorful backup from Luke Evans and Brendan Gleeson ... oh, but the horror fans will absolutely despise the truly shoddy digital blood that frequently flops across the screen. I mean, really; if you're going to have the stones to stage the infamous "pit and the pendulum" murder, you need to go get 55 barrels of fake blood. The CGI stuff is simply atrocious.
Usually one can end a review by implying "yeah, see it" or "no, don't," but The Raven presents a weird problem. Hardcore Edgar Allan Poe fans will probably detest the liberties taken with the man's life, even if they enjoy all the story references and Cusack's lead performance. Those who just want a murder mystery will leave less than thrilled, as in that department The Raven is only one step above a weekly TV series about a weird detective. Horror fans will probably just be bored for the most part. ...and yet, there's something here that I quite enjoyed. Perhaps it's Poe's history as a critic, horror author, and detective writer that makes him so interesting when jammed into a "whodunnit" piece, or maybe it's just the age-old question of "does art inspire crime?" as filtered through a weird lens of an early American author... It doesn't work much as a mystery, truth be told, but as a piece of speculative fiction about an author I truly admire... It's weird. I just like this film. Despite an obvious array of mildly nagging shortcoming, I like the vibe, the look, and the attitude of it. I also quite like the films From Hell and Sleepy Hollow, and The Raven feels like it was sort of cut from similar cloth. It's messy but I liked it.
I do not like the CGI blood.