The Raven, which stars John Cusack as Poe, his goatee the least of the film’s historical liberties, imagines a variation on this reader-meet-author game of wits. In Baltimore, 1849—the place and time of Poe’s death—a serial killer puts out a challenge to the dissipated Poe, committing murders based on his Tales, each crime scene containing a clue that leads the author to the next fresh murder.
“Is imagination now a felony?” Cusack’s Poe asks when recruited onto the case by a Baltimore inspector (Luke Evans), — and it seems for this moment that The Raven has a hold of an idea: the suspicion with which people regard the creator of “sick” art, based on the assumption that imagination cannot simply be imagination. Unfortunately, Poe’s fragile social position is neglected later in the story—the screenplay insists on making Poe just a regular lusty all-American fellow at heart, overfond of a drink, perhaps, but committed to his pet raccoon, and to winning fair Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the belle of Baltimore, away from her wealthy but philistine father (Brendan Gleeson). All trace of Poe or his time is quickly lost. Where is the high-strung man who married his 13-year-old cousin? Moreover, The Raven was shot in historic districts here in Budapest, and in Belgrade—where is a half-wild, pre-Civil War American city?
Moreover, the character of Poe is basically NOT written at all, thus Cusack didn’t have any chance to play the role properly. The Raven is like an average b-budget crime movie, just in an earlier setting, with the usual “clue left on the crime scene” stuff. It is quite unbelievable that 50 years ago, Roger Corman and Vincent Price could capture the whole “Poe-ish” atmosphere more effectively, and they did not have a budget of 26 million dollars. And this is the weakest point of the movie, that it completely lacks the characteristics of Poe: distress, melancholy, apocalyptic but at the same time romantic meditation.
What “The Raven” lacks in narrative invention it makes up for by pushing the audience’s face in blood, guts, and hacked flesh. You get that the filmmakers are going for a modern take on Poe’s Gothic vision, but their approach has no poetry and barely any prose. After the “Holmes” movies, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and this, the steampunk-action genre may be played out. Quoth the audience, “Nevermore.”