THE RAVEN (2012)
REVIEW BY THE TOMAHAWK MAN
Lead players: John Cusack (Edgar Allan Poe), Luke Evans (Detective Fields), Alice Eve (Emily Hamilton), Brendan Gleason (Captain Hamilton), The Killer (Sam Hazeldine—oops!).
Directed by James McTeigue, Produced by Marc D Evans, Trevor Macy , Aaron Ryder, Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, Music by Lucas Vidal. Distributed by Relativity Media 2012. Rated “R”. 111 mintes. Released in the UK: March 9, 2012. Released in the US: April 27, 2012. Released on DVD in US: October 9, 2012.
LORD, HELP MY POOR SOUL
Let’s get two things out of the way before we can begin.
Spoilers. You’ve come this far, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, so take it. How can I discuss a film without discussing all of the film? So grow up. “Spoilers” don’t spoil anything. Surprise is shallow. Suspense is deep. You want a surprise? Open your cell phone bill. (Spoiler alert! It’s not what you thought it was going to be!)
The second thing: spinning in one’s grave. I’ve sometimes wondered if, when one spins in one’s grave, is it really fast and counter-clockwise like a flicked Twister spinner arrow, or is it like a series of spinning revolutions at 90 miles-per-hour, like a chicken on a rotisserie spit?
As for The Raven starring John Cusack, I’ll bet Edgar Poe is spinning giddily in his grave, like a tilt-a-whirl at the State Fair. And that would be the happy-prankster Poe. The famous hoaxter.
NEVER LET THE FACTS GET IN YOUR WAY
Detective Fields (Luke Evans) and Poe (John Cusack)
Funny thing about visitors who come to Baltimore after the film The Raven was released. Some of them ask about where the park bench was where Poe was found dead on. (He died in a hospital in Baltimore). They want to know the name of his pet raccoon. (Mr. Snookums? Works for me. But Eddie and Virginia had a cat.) Visitors visit the little house on Amity Street and protest; “where’s the nice roomy place Poe lived in when he died?” (He was a resident of New York when he died mysteriously in Baltimore). They search in vain for the display case that exhibits the lock of his (goatee) hair…(there are only a couple-three photos of Poe, and in none of them does he sport chin whiskers. Poe did have trim 19th-century sideburns for much of his adult life, but you never see him depicted with those, do you? You wouldn’t recognize him without his mustache. He only sported the ‘stache in the last years of his life.)
And The Tomahawk Man has offered a $1000 reward to The Maryland Historical Society to prove that a killer pendulum and torture chamber existed in Baltimore in 1849. I’m waiting…
A PENNY DREADFUL—the story of The Raven
A little pit and pendulum action...
Okay. So The Raven is pure, unapologetic fiction (bunkum) regarding Poe’s last days, from top to bottom.
I like to think of the film as a fevered nightmare that the real Poe had when he died, in his last week of delirium, tossing and turning in bed at Washington Medical College. The only thing that would have made the movie better, was if at the end, Poe woke up from this dream to discover Suzanne Pleshette in bed next to him*
In the Raven, as written by Ben Livinston and Hannah Shakespeare (!) and directed by James McTeigue (“V For Vendetta”), a passionate Poe (John Cusack) lives in Baltimore, tired of churning out the horror stuff that folks seem to prefer over his poetry (the more things change, the more they stay the same…). He’s got a case of writer’s block, and in the town (or, as illustrated in the film) the bar where nobody-knows-your-name, Poe is very, very frustrated at not being taken seriously for his art. Worse, that nobody reads. (The film is set in Baltimore in 1849, way before the City adopted the slogan “The City That Reads”. But, same as it ever was, onward…)
Poe wants to sleep with (i.e. marry) Emily (Alice Eve) the beautiful daughter of Captain Hamilton (Brendon Gleason). Emily isn’t a real woman. She’s the embodiment of every heroine in real-life Poe’s world who actually lived or Poe imagined. Part childhood sweetheart, part Virginia Clemm Poe, part Annabel Lee/Lenore/whathaveyou, Emily wants to sleep with Edgar, too.
Alice Eve as Emily embodies every Poe heroine--real or imagined.
Her dad, Captain Big “Red” Herring (actually his name is Hamilton), doesn’t like Poe. Mostly because Poe owns a raccoon, I think. But just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse for our hero…
A serial killer strikes! And we know it’s a serial killer, because a newspaper headline will tell us so later. (The anachronisms abound. The use of the phrase “serial killer”, most of Emily’s dialogue, and don’t get me started on the guns used in the picture. But you get what you pay for in a 23 million dollar period film). Baltimore, by the way, never looked better, as it was played by cities in Belgrade and stunt doubled by cities in Budapest.
Anyway, one person who does read in Baltimore is killing people off based on Poe’s more gruesome stories. (If the killer had staged a murder based on Poe’s Eureka, he’d have my respect.) Enter the other person in town who reads, Detective Fields (Luke Evans), who has a vague memory of having had to read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” at school, and begins putting two-and-two together, and realizes that equals Poe.
The killer name-checks Poe’s catalogue of crimes (with a delightful in-joke of a critic named “Griswold” as a victim), and Fields enlists Poe’s help to play C. Auguste Dupin and help solve the case.
The killer, who reads, has obviously read Stephen Kings Misery, because he (Annie) forces Poe (Paul Sheldon) to write one more horror story, ‘cause he’s jonesing for a new Poe thriller. Like any writer, Poe has trouble with deadlines and pressure, so like any publisher, The Killer puts a clock on Poe: he kidnaps Emily, re-enacts The Premature Burial with her, and gives Eddie a deadline he can’t refuse.
The Killer forces Poe to do a "Paul Sheldon"...
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the film has to end at some point, so Poe, with Fields help, rescues Emily. Poe sacrifices himself, and The Killer is revealed to be someone called Ivan, who never had the money to pull off the elaborate deaths but somehow did. (This could happen in real life, though. Monomaniacal fans somehow come up with the money to do the most amazing things. Just check out the British guy who took decades to make his flat look like the interior of the Starship Enterprise.)
With Poe dead on a snowy park bench, and buried, and now really, really famous, Fields chases Ivan (who changed his name to Reynolds) to Paris, where Fields may or may not have shot him, and where Reynolds may or may not have escaped to London to resurface as Jack The Ripper in 39 years, and Fields may change his name to Dupin, and open a boutique detective agency, as he’s too embarrassed to return to Baltimore to tell anybody the truth about what really killed Edgar A Poe.
WHEN IT’S GOOD, IT’S VERY, VERY GOOD
The Raven follows a long line of films that use monomaniacal themes perpetrated by serial killers to good effect. Theatre of Blood (1973) with Vincent Price and Se7en (1995) with Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey come to mind. And maybe they do it better.
What The Raven does best, however, is Poe. Those expecting a Gloomy Gus are surely disappointed. What Cusack does with a Poe, a Poe straight-jacketed into a penny dreadful potboiler, is pretty full-bodied and rich. His Poe is passionate. Passionate about raising the art of writing to great heights. Passionate about beauty and women. A brain, a critical and creative thinker and a sensualist. A mercurial dreamer who can take action when action is needed.
All these qualities are qualities of the real-life Poe. The Poe who could edit and critique with a sharp pen; who could pursue a mad dream relentlessly and single-mindedly making a living at his art; a man who loved and loved deeply; an intellect who could create puzzling ciphers and was prescient in his understanding of the cosmos, and how it worked (with Eureka). Poe was all this, and more.
And it’s refreshing to see flashes of all of that in what little time Cusack can. He is forgiven the goatee.
The other performances in the film are serviceable, as all are foils for the character of Poe-made-detective. “Baltimore” is made to look beautiful by fine cinematography and the music stings when it needs to. (A bit of a sour note during the end credits, when a contemporary pop song plays over them.)
Pssst...The Killer is. Right. Next. To. You.
Director McTeigue does his best to keep things by turn appropriately gruesome and darkly humorous when he can, saddled with a screenplay that really drags and gets a bit tedious in the middle. The reveal of the killer, and tying it in to the mysterious “Reynolds” (Poe supposedly spoke of when he died), is a bit of a WTF reveal, but then, who saw the orangutan razor-wielding ape coming at the end of Poe’s own Murders in the Rue Morgue? Poe didn’t write Agatha Christie-like who dunnits. Neither did screenwriters Livingston and Shakespeare (Hannah, not Wil).
|Is The Bird pooping on the movie? You decide.|
So enjoy it for the romp it is. A nightmare mash-up of a Cliff’s Notes life (and death) of Poe and a hit parade name-check of his great stories. And imagine, at the end, after the credits have played, that Poe wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette, and the whole thing was a dream. Within a dream.
-The Tomahawk Man
Review filed on October 5th, 2012
*Suzanne Pleshette (January 31, 1937 – January 19, 2008) played Bob Newhart’s wife on The Bob Newhart Show from 1972 to 1978. When Newhart ended his second TV series, called Newhart in 1990, the final episode feature a guest appearance by Pleshette, reprising her role as Bob’s wife from the first series, thus making everything that happened in the second series, a dream. One of the best Final Episodes in TV history.