By MICHAEL WALTERS
In “The Raven,” the original master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe, finds himself trapped in a story unworthy of his considerable talents. The film turns him into a slightly more morose Sherlock Holmes in a conventional by-the-numbers serial killer thriller that will recall countless others you’ve seen before. But this time, the serial killer is taking his cues from Poe’s own output of morbid grisly fiction.
At first Poe is viewed as a suspect by a police detective (Luke Evans) investigating the ghastly murders. But as the bodies start piling up, he sees Poe instead as an eccentric, obnoxious genius who can help find the madman behind it all. Then the killer kidnaps Poe’s well-to-do fiancée (Alice Eve) and orders him to write new grisly stories inspired by the investigation for a Baltimore scandal rag. Trust me this isn’t as intriguing as it sounds.
I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt in the early going. Poe was an unconventional genius who always seemed to find twists and turns his audience couldn’t see coming. But “The Raven” only uses Poe as window dressing for a serial killer plot that wants to sound a lot more inventive and intelligent than it actually is.
I have no quibbles with the casting of John Cusack as Poe. His dark, brooding eyes have always seemed to harbor some deep sadness, and they fit right in with alcoholic, desperate, depressed poet. But here he’s prone to bouts of Nicolas Cage type overacting. Quiet moments are often drowned out by scenes involving a blustery Poe ranting about the incompetence and mediocrity surrounding him and calling people “mouth-breathers.”
Director James McTeigue stages a handsome period production, and it turns out Belgrade, Serbia, makes a suitable substitute for 19th century Baltimore. But McTeigue can’t muster up much suspense as the mechanical plot winds down in its rickety third act that sends Poe chasing the killer through scaffolds, tunnels, and graveyards. And Cusack and Evans and the rest of the cast dial up their shouting to 11. All the modern melodrama and overacting get in the way. This scenery was made to be admired, not chewed.