Second Breakfast Octoberween: Quoth the Raven, “Please Stop”

Unfortunately, I already used the headline “Edgar Allan Poesers” (for which I cannot take credit) back in 2016 while reviewing Extraordinary Tales. It would apply extremely well here.

The Raven (2012)

Universal Studios
I resisted the temptation to write a paragraph about John Cusack’s stupid goatee.

The Plot: When a string of grisly murders mirroring the work of Edgar Allan Poe hits Baltimore, police inspector Fields (Luke Evans) enlists the help of Poe (John Cusack, for some reason). Poe’s a depressed alcoholic who hasn’t written anything great in recent years, so having a serial killer use him as inspiration isn’t going to help his psyche. Things get worse for Poe, and the plot gets more belabored, when the killer kidnaps the poet’s girlfriend, Emily (Alice Eve).

Back in February 2013 (so, somehow, eight and a half years ago), my Rooster Illusion colleague over at Sci-Fridays reviewed The Raven. She made several good points, to which I will merely add here, criticizing the vapid characters, mostly tired acting, and extremely questionable plotting. At one point she qualifies her criticism by saying, “I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Poe.” Don’t worry, the screenwriters weren’t, either.

Universal Studios
“GRISLY DOUBLE MURDER!” All caps, exclamation point. Honestly, that’s just a really good way to sell newspapers.

Said script is penned by Hannah Shakespeare (whose technique is not quite on par with her namesake) and Ben Livingston. The former appears to primarily make a living in television, and the latter as an actor. That neither are dyed-in-the-wool cinematic screenwriters shows. To begin with, the characterization of Poe is tired and lazy. Cusack may as well have been basing his performance on a Wikipedia page. Tortured, alcoholic, and pretentious—a nominal “genius”, since the script keeps telling us he’s a genius without him ever demonstrating that. This version of Poe certainly has its audience in the modern world, though it is mostly based on a posthumous and borderline libelous biography of the poet written by his personal enemy Rufus Griswold. The screenwriters knew enough of this rivalry to reference it (Griswold is one of the murder victims, though history shows us he outlived Poe by eight years and died of tuberculosis, not pendulum), but not enough to use it in a productive way. They also didn’t read any of Poe’s letters or read what his family and friends had to say about him.

OK. I had to get that out of my system. Criticism like that is probably irrelevant to this type of movie. The worse problem than historical inaccuracy is that Poe isn’t an interesting or likable character.

And as for the plot. This kind of structured, themed serial killer plot can work and can be a lot of fun. Consider the Vincent Price classics Much Ado About Murder (a.k.a. Theatre of Blood) and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and to a lesser extent Se7en. There’s a lot of Poe to go around, and using his stories as inspiration for a cinematic serial killer could work. Having Poe himself investigate is a mistake. Luke Evans (who’s a great actor nearly exclusively trapped in bad movies) certainly could have carried this film on his own. As it winds up, he kind of has to anyway. He does, to his credit, put 100% into his performance. I’m not sure if I can say the same of Cusack, but in his defense, he A) was miscast, and B) didn’t have much to work with.

Universal Studios
Actually, slap a mustache on Luke Evans and I’d give him a whirl at playing Poe.

Throughout the runtime, I kept thinking two things to myself. First, I kept thinking about how this wasn’t a particularly good movie. Second, I thought a lot about how good it would’ve been if it had been made in the 1960s and starred Vincent Price, and didn’t feature Poe as a character. So, I guess in conclusion, I think The Raven could have been a really good movie if it had been a completely different movie.

If you’re looking for some Poe-adjacent cinema to help you get in the mood for Halloween, you’d best spend your time with some of the Price/Roger Corman team-ups. The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, The Tomb of Ligeia. It’s all good. More to the point, it’s all better than The Raven.

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