There are movies that draw you in on the basis of the premise, some on genre and some use stars. “The Raven” is a genre picture that attempts to use the serial killer taunting the authorities premise as it’s hook. It features a star as the author Edgar Allen Poe, and it features gruesome images to pull the horror crowd into the theater. As I was watching this movie, I was struck by the notion that it feels less like an exploitation film and more like a real “movie”. The pacing and imagery is much more in tune with a serious drama, or maybe a biopic on the famous author who basically created the horror field. There are times that the planning of the shots reveals an ambition to be taken as a true artistic enterprise. Unfortunately all of this is the weakness of this movie. Instead of horrifying us, it tries to titillate and comment on our obsession with horror. Instead of providing a full fledged story about Poe, we get a cliche based murder mystery. Finally, instead of having fun with the outlandishness of it’s premise, it takes itself too seriously.
I like John Cusack as an actor. He has a laconic manner and hangdog expression that have appealed to me on screen since “The Sure Thing”. The look should fit a story about Edgar Allen Poe, but Cusack is a tall guy and he makes Poe look much too healthy for a drunken, TB ridden, poverty stricken artist. The opening sequences of Poe in a bar trying to get some recognition and some credit to drink, are rushed and overdone. His lines stem from an acting exercise rather than a character. The performance settles down after that but the tone has already been set, Cusack is going to treat this pulp material as if it is meaningful. This seems like the wrong way to go, there is no chance for insight into Poe. This is a story about a serial killer, re-enacting scenes from Poe’s gruesome catalog, with a race against time to save the imagined love interest. Every time there is some discussion of literary pretension in the movie, it takes us out of the horror plot we are supposed to be engaged in.
The makers of this movie are hedging their bets, they never commit to one particular point of view for the movie. I think they might come close to getting a gruesome procedural out of this, but every murder save one, is revealed so quickly and in such a perfunctory manner that the horror element fails to develop. There is no dread sustained, no vicious act to pull back from. It simply comes on screen and then is rushed off for another sequence of Poe trying to write and understand the killer. This movie is probably budgeted in a moderate range, they needed to have the budget cut to force them to use some sensationalism to make it work. The admirable shots of a nineteenth century Baltimore, can’t make up for the lack of terror on the screen that a better developed scene of sick murder could bring to the story. It is not as if they did not have horrific ideas, they do. The problem is that instead of dwelling on the horror elements, there is a focus on action chases and inner turmoil. The lovestruck, writer with a creativity block is the lynchpin of the plot, but it is also the weakest element of the story.
Many things in the movie work well. After the histrionics in his first few scenes, Cusack begins to feel more real as Poe. The movie is nice to look at and there is a serviceable mystery plot to follow. There are some disturbing visual images and nice references to Poe’s works, but without any anticipation of what is coming, we are mostly left with looking at what has already transpired. That seems to be one of the elements that keeps this movie from working as well as it should. There is simply something not quite right about how it fits together. In the hands of a director who specializes in this kind of material, it could work well, here it simply feels workmanlike. As I said before, I felt like I was watching a movie that the film makers wanted people to see as a real film, instead of an entertainment piece. With this sort of material, I think the audience will feel a little cheated on both sides.
There is some nice writing in the story. I liked the idea of Poe having to write himself into the plot to be able to solve and resolve the mystery. The final shot resolution turns out to be satisfying as well, although it is not very well explained. Too often the movie relies on action sequences and chases to tell a story that does not really require them. I thought it particularly odd that a brilliant serial killer would count on his ability to be slightly faster than a police inspector in running through the water works catacombs under Baltimore, in order to deliver his next clue or see the reaction to his last one. There was no reason for him to be anywhere in the vicinity,except to put a little action tension into the film. “The Raven” is not a failure as a movie, but it is not as satisfying as it ought to be. If it sounds like I did not like the movie, that is wrong. I just wanted to like it more. In order for me to do, “The Raven” needed to be less middle brow and more exploitation.