“If I would’ve known that my work would’ve had such a morbid effect on people, I would’ve devoted more time to eroticism.”
The Scoop: 2012 R, directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack, Luke Evans, and Alice Eve
Tagline: The only one who can stop a serial killer is the man who inspired him.
Summary Capsule: Tagline kinda steals my thunder: Edgar Allan Poe has to stop a serial killer who uses his stories as inspiration.
Eunice’s Rating: “And, as his strength Failed him at length, He met a pilgrim shadow…”
Eunice’s Review: There is a group of fiction based around historical figures that I’m not sure of the defining term for. I don’t think it’s historical fiction -a fictional character going through historical events and interacting with historical figures [Forest Gump], or alternate history -what if it had happened this way instead of that?-[a specific event like It Happened Here, or more generally like steam punk]. What I’m talking about is a specific real person being used as the main character in a work of fiction, what do you call that? In any case, this niche subset ranges from something like Shakespeare in Love, to complete off the wall stories like HG Wells using a time machine to hunt down Jack the Ripper or Abraham Lincoln hunting Vampires.
The Raven falls under this, but mixes with whatever you call it when speculative historical fiction deals with unsolved mysteries/unanswered questions (The Black Dahlia. Was Johnny Ringo murdered? What happened to the Roanoke colony or the Legio IX Hispana?). In this case it’s ‘How did Edgar Allan Poe die and what happened during the unaccounted for days prior to him being found?’
In October 1849, Edgar Allan Poe is in Baltimore, MD. He spends his time looking for bars that’ll keep his tab open because he doesn’t actually have money to drink or picking verbal fights. Unable to find inspiration for a new story, he has taken hack work as a literary critic, but doesn’t actually like anyone else’s work and fights with his editor. He is in love with a young socialite, and fights with her father.
A Detective Fields is called onto the scene of a bizarre murder of a mother and daughter. It’s a locked room mystery where the daughter’s body was shoved up the chimney and the mother nearly decapitated. The detective finds this all very familiar, indeed, he’s read it in one of Poe’s stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe is brought in for questioning, not because Fields suspects him as murderer, but he feels that the killer is inspired by Poe’s writing (and Poe wants to fight with him too).
A couple of murders later, Poe’s would be fiancé Emily gets kidnapped by the obsessed fan with a challenge issued: Each murder will have a clue, if Poe is clever enough it’ll lead him to the next clue, but he has to be fast because Emily will die if he’s not.
I’ve always been a reader, and when I was nine years old a librarian I went to church with, Mrs. Pietrafesa, gave me a book she had a feeling that I would understand and enjoy. The book was a basic paperback copy of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, and she was right. Edgar and I were inseparable when I was a kid and I still reread and love his work now. So The Raven has been on my radar since preproduction chatter started waaay back. And hey, I’ve already talked about my affinity for John Cusack. And crazy but creative ideas, oh and mysteries, I like those too. It even has Luke Evans an actor more recently added to my list of names I’ll go out of my way to watch. I was destined to love this movie right?
I didn’t hate The Raven. It’s not the worst I’ve seen. It’s just I’m… highly disappointed. And some of that is my fault. I wanted to love this movie so bad, having missed it in theaters I’ve been waiting for it since April. That’s seven months of building it up in my mind, and I know better than to do that but did it anyway. That part, that part is on me.
But it’s not all my fault. When I was thinking of what I wanted to say the phrase that kept coming to mind was that the movie “didn’t ring true.”
Let me explain, obviously this is complete fiction, I’m not speaking from a straight facts stand point. But instead of going full fledged crazy either in the story by using time machines and vampires or through visual flair or an approach to the story, The Raven stays more even keeled. Which would be fine, but it never created a sense of time or place. The murders could have been in Boston, or New York, or London, or Paris from anytime during the 1800s. The costumes are there, but it just never feels grounded to that setting. I mean, I don’t need a history lesson, just a detail here or there, put in a little effort, capture the spirit of the thing.
The second thing that bothered me was the characters. Okay this is going to seem nit picky I know, but it bugged me a lot: Edgar Allan Poe was raised in Virginia, the Poe in my head has a Virginian accent. There should be a certain rhythm of speech. John Cusack’s Poe sounds like John Cusack. The characters talk about Poe and there’s a lot of cinematic short hand going on, but there’s never that moment where he becomes a believable character, a real person. Why does Poe have a raccoon?! What’s that crap about?
I liked Detective Fields, he seemed pretty interesting and the interpretation was pretty interesting. But the character was out of step with all the other characters. And Fields and Poe seem to share main character status, but they’re not sharing with each other, it’s more like they’re competing. They do reach an understanding and work together, but the focus in a scene is always leaning more towards one or the other instead of both. This could have just as easily been a movie about a detective who teams up with Edgar Allan Poe to catch a killer than a movie about Poe having to save his girlfriend from a murderous fan.
I really did like Alice Eve as Emily, she’s the only one who seemed to connect with the other characters (her father, Edgar, the killer) the way the movie was telling me she was supposed to. I especially liked Emily after she’s kidnapped, which I can’t get into for spoilery reasons, but will say these were the only parts that held any real tension or horror.
The rest of the characters just occupy space, and change temperament and function just because. And the characters of John and the housekeeper feel like at some point (a draft of the script or found the floor during the editing process) they were bigger characters, and it makes them distracting.
The Raven also really stalls on the mystery aspect too. I picked up on all but one of the stories being used for the killings and that part I enjoyed. But it was more about setting up those kills than pointing clues toward the murderer. And then the end is all silly and befuddled if you actually let yourself think about it. And the killer is obsessed with Poe and his work because it’s all dark and everything, but he’s also obsessed with Jules Verne at the same time, huh? Sorry, that’s not how obsession works. And what was he going to do, switch from killing people to riding hot air balloons?
And if it had been more stylized, if some element had been more over the top, a lot of those problems would be unnoticed or forgivable. But no. I’m having such a hard time believing that the guy behind V for Vendetta directed this. I can’t place my finger on it, there’s a wall between the movie and the viewer and so it never gelled for me. It’s a bit of an uneven mess. In some places it’s so dark that, watching it during the day, even after changing the visual settings on my TV and turning the lights off I still couldn’t see ANYTHING.
In all honesty I enjoyed it better the second time around. There are places where the dialogue is actually quite clever, and I found Cusack more charming. The things that bothered me still bothered me though, and even with readjusted expectations most of it came off flat. When I was done there was an awkward feeling of “well that’s that then… I suppose. Ho hum.”
I’d give it a C+, it’s all right I guess, not terrible, but there’s nothing about it that makes me excited to see it again. It’s an interesting idea with hollow execution. And I’m so, so, so disappointed.
- Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond en route to New York September 27, 1849, and was found by Joseph W. Walker wearing clothing that wasn’t his in a street in Baltimore October 3. After being incoherent and calling out the name Reynolds repeatedly for several days he died October 7, with his last words reportedly being “May God have mercy on my poor soul.” The cause of death is something people like to speculate about from alcohol or drugs, to mugging or murder. A popular theory is he was the victim of coopering since an election was going on at the time.
- Rufus “Lugwig” Wilmot Griswold, the second victim in the movie, not only survived Poe, but was the literary executor of Poe’s estate. He wrote a scathing obituary and an even nastier article about Poe after his death. It’s why script writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare gave Griswold the grisliest death in the movie.
- Stories refernced: Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Pit and the Pendulum; Masque of the Red Death; The Mystery of Marie Roget; The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar; The Cask of Amontillado; The Tell Tale Heart. You could even argue Emily’s entrapment is Fall of the House of Usher-ish. Poems referenced: A Descent Into the Maelstrom; The Raven; Annabel Lee; A Dream Within a Dream
- If not knowing the name of a tune bugs you as much as it does me, the music Emily plays is Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2
- Anachronism: Razors are razors.
- Would Emily be using the word “okay” do you think? While the word was in existence by 1849, I don’t think it would be used to calm someone down so much as an affirmative, i.e. “That is correct.”
- I think Poe breaks every vessel he drinks out of (glass, mug, bottle, etc.)
- Did the hand size clue ever count for anything?
- The true reason why Baltimore has so many problems with its pipes falling apart now. (that’s a localized joke)
- The end credits are nicely done.
Poe: I am an internationally lauded poet.
Mouthbreather: That’s why you got no money.
Poe: I am Poe.
Mouthbreather: That’s what I said.
Poe: Not “poor”, Mouthbreather! “Poe!” “Poe!”
Poe: Emily, tell me what do you want?
Emily: To begin with I want you to get up off your knees, unless you intend to use that position for another purpose.
Poe: The mind reels with possibilities, but what did you have in mind specifically?
Maddux: I believe God gave him a spark of genius and quenched it in misery.
Poe: It appears that my writing has become the inspiration to an actual killer, quite gruesome really. If I would’ve known that my work would’ve had such a morbid effect on people, I would’ve devoted more time to eroticism.
Poe: I went to West Point, don’t worry I was expelled.
Poe: Even in the end I’m confronted by plagiarists, without even the originality to invent themselves. I concocted you.
The Killer: I couldn’t agree more. I am your crowning achievement.
Poe: May God have mercy on my poor soul.
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