RIORI Vol 3, Installment 25: James McTeigue’s “The Raven” (2012)

The Raven 2012

The Players…

John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve and Brendan Gleeson, with Kevin McNelly and Oliver Cohen.

The Story…

Baltimore’s unfavorite son and equally under-appreciated writer Edgar Allan Poe discovers that a killer is stalking the city, executing his victims inspired by Poe’s tales of the macabre. To exonerate himself from any hand in this business, it’s up to the drunken, addict scribbler teaming with the steely, maverick Detective Fields—his only solid ally, to be sure—to get to the bottom of the mess.

Using his wily art of cogitation, Fields employs the best modern forensics to find the link between Poe’s work and the killer’s motives. But it all seems so simple to Poe—in and out of his opium haze—that these grisly murders are a mere matter of life imitating art. His grim and demented art.

What an honor! Now praise the Lord and pass the laudanum!

And we’re back.

Yeah, I know. I told you all last year that the 2016 inaugural installment of RIORI would beachcomb Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones. Seemed appropriate (I guess) with the launch of the new chapter in the saga, The Force Awakens. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the Netflix queue. Turns out by a turn of sheer bad luck The Force Awakens also touched ground the exact same time my Netflix feed politely hit me over the head with a waiting list that reached all the way to Terra Haute. All six of the other films—yes, including Clones—were on back order. Every title announced, “long wait,” “very long wait,” “are you still waiting? There’s, like, this new movie out now,” “looks like you need some sun, fanboy. Drop the Funyuns and get some air,” “Christ, get a job already…” And so forth.

So, yeah. No Clones this time out. Some other time, sorry. Hell, I needed the fresh air anyway.

Still, one would think Star Wars fans would’ve already been well acquainted with the series arcana and inferred mystical—wait for it—forces. So much that the custom Chewie at Build-A-Bear moves out faster than an elephant with dysentery could describe. Either that or fan dads and fan moms had to educate little Dick and Jane all about the life-changing experience that is classic Star Wars with a little mandatory movie night. Research, you see, for the ultimate trip to the multiplex and get an eyeful (quite possibly a dozen) of The Force Awakens.

Or maybe the Netflix execs are a bunch of dicks and parse out only so many movies at a time for sh*ts and giggles. Especially the obscure ones like Star Wars. That and Barbarella in 3D.

I’m not that frustrated, though. The remaining time off was well spent. I got to expose the wifey to a few of the essential, early James Bond films. Yep. This yielded some fruit. We watched Dr No and From Russia With Love with great interest (okay, was into them; she politely feigned interest.) But with little surprise we hit pay dirt with Goldfinger. Big shocker there. She dug it, and even though it had been years since I last saw it, I found my delight with Bond thwarting the titular, nefarious gold smuggler hadn’t diminished much. Goldie is the seminal Bond flick, replete with all the hallmarks (and eventual cliches) found in every 007 flick since. Cool cars, hot babes, globetrotting, Q and his oft-questionable spy tech and M being a dick, taking notes from Netflix execs. Y’know, the essentials. We both enjoyed the latest Bond flicks featuring Daniel Craig, but I felt it my cinematic duty to introduce her to a very young, studly Sean Connery and how it should be done. Some designs cannot be improved upon.

All right. Had to get all that out of the way. You’re welcome. Happy New Year!

On to this week’s drubbing…

The Rant…

You might’ve had this experience, too.

A million years ago, back when I was in middle school, I was exposed to the weird world of Edgar Allan Poe. In 7th grade were we learning about esteemed American writers, and teach thought it cool to get us all hip to Poe in reading some of his key scary stories are Halloween time. Good idea. We read The Black Cat, Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, all the biggies. Admittedly, I wasn’t really blown away at the time. One, I was too busy in nabbing the attention of your garden variety, unattainable girl a few rows over to be bothered with some dead writer with a bad comb-over. Two, learning about Poe was school-related, so any 12-year old doing his due diligence had to let any introduction of knowledge go in one ear and..and…what was I talking about?

Right, right. Oatmeal cookies. I do like oatmeal cookies. A lot of people don’t, since they masquerade as choco chips, but for me—

*eraser bounces off blogger’s head*

Thanks, Teach.

Anyway, despite raging hormones and being compelled to hurtle into C- minus territory as fast as f*ck as possible, I couldn’t deny that Poe’s work got in my head anyway. I guess it was The Raven as ear worm that planted a seed (that and the Treehouse Of Terror bit was no slouch either. Admit it). That poem and The Murders In The Rue Morgue cured the concrete. With that one I caught a TV adaptation starring the late, great George C Scott as the proto-Sherlock Auguste Dupin with a very young Val Kilmer as his flunky. It was a pretty good murder mystery as far as Poe adaptations went, as well as CBS went, too.

About Morgue. Along the way I uncovered that Poe’s Dupin was the first literary detective. First. Created and presaging Conan Doyle’s immortal creation Sherlock Holmes by almost 50 years. It’s been said there are maybe only five or six original American art forms. Poe created one of them: the detective story. That got my attention, and I only uncovered that factoid decades after 7th grade (I’m a slow learner. BTW, did you know it’s bad to put a fork in the microwave? Tell that to my eyebrows).

Discovering this I went back through time and reviewed my Poe. Not just his famous stories—recognition solidly earned—but his bio. That’s how I roll. Interesting fact planted in my water-headed brain and off I go to abuse Wikipedia. What I uncovered about one of America’s early literary masterminds was Poe’s inherent f*cked up-ness. The boozing. The drugs. The Lolita Complexes. What fun date he was. Small wonder the guy wrote some seriously messed up sh*t. Murder, incest, demonic possessions, the whole buffet. It’s hard to not to feel a sense of respect and awe.

It should come as no surprise I’ve went on and on and on here at RIORI that I do not play well with others. No happy camper here. A lot of the sh*t Poe wrote about—and doubtless dabbled in—fascinates me. He was a great writer, perhaps ahead of his time (e.g. Auguste Dupin). But his diseased brain is what I can identify with the most. I mean, all writers are f*cked up on some level. Sure, they have a public face that is usually sunny and marketable. They also have a side strictly reserved for the audience of the PC.

For example, Psycho author Robert Bloch was known to be nothing but a perfect gentleman (and he was a student of HP Lovecraft, before God). He also invented Norman Bates. Stephen King is one of the giants of horror fiction. He also plays guitar in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band promoting literacy, as well as dumping his millions into ever-improving his town of Bangor, Maine. He also coaches Little League.

You gotta have a keenly cracked psyche to write graphic sh*t and still make the donuts every morning. Was Poe like that? Probably not. I think his grace was in reverse. He was an very flawed individual, not anyone to pick as a wingman. But the guy could write emotional, visceral, creepy tales of the macabre like no one’s business. Hell, if I could’ve written anything as well as he did, that chick a few rows over might’ve blinked at me.

Anyway, Poe’s work with all its meat and gristle has been adapted to film before. There were those nifty, yet kitschy movies with Vincent Price back in the 60s. The above version of Morgue. Most have been scattershot, however, almost capturing Poe’s R-rated catalog into a shoehorning PG-13 world. With Edgar (by which the mystery-writing top dog award is named for), it was all about atmospherics. It’s kinda hard to capture the perverse air of House Of Usher without Hollywood smearing CGI feces all over the production. To be sure there have been bright spots, but most of the time the spirit gets lost, like a cask of Amontillado that was never there.

It should be simple. Poe’s work is rife with a feeling of mystery. The horror part sold the stories. The head-scracthing brought an audience back for more. The wonder imbued. Vincent Price and his buddies gave it the college try, but substance was for wanting. You know what a good Poe Picture (as Stephen King coined them in his memoir) really needs? Mystery, and healthy does of the creeps. It’s hard to pull those from a story onto film.

Director James McTeigue tried his best with The Raven to pull this off...

It’s tough to be a writer. It’s even tougher to keep up a public face of a writer. Regarded a chronicler of life, love and leaving, your work must not only speak for yourself but also reflect society through your creative eyes and muse and hope the people follow you down.

Then we have Edgar Allan Poe (Cusack). The biggest issue he has to face it to quit trembling every time he reaches for a snifter of brandy. That and clearing that never-ending bar tab. Oh yeah, and writing. Can’t forget the writing.

When not being a lushy dipsomaniac (which isn’t often), Poe usually spends his days staggering about, denouncing people who fail to respect—let alone acknowledge—his talents. Despite being Baltimore’s bon vivant/enfante terrible, Poe and his work get little recognition. Plus very little money.

But someone loves you, Edgar. Perhaps a bit too much.

At the scene of a grisly murder one Detective Fields (Evans) recognizes the scene straight out of Poe’s stories. Being a fan, Fields seeks out the infamous, unstable writer for some insight. Not wanting anymore heat from the constabulary, Poe reluctantly agrees. Sure enough, the scene is right out of his murder mystery, The Murders In The Rue Morgue. And it only gets worse from there.

The Pit And The PendulumThe Cask Of AmontilladoThe Tell-Tale Heart. Ensuing bloody crime scenes echo Poe’s works. Fields deputizes Poe—very much against his will—to get to the bottom of these killings. We have a serial killer on the prowl, so its up to Baltimore’s sharpest detective and booziest writer to track down the murderer or else the killings are bound to continue until Poe’s entire catalogue is exhausted.

Hopefully before the bar tab gets even longer or when the opium runs out. Whatever comes first…

Shortly into watching The Raven, I came to a revelation.

“This has been done before.”

Not that Poe’s works never made it to cinema. The Raven‘s execution was painfully familiar, but I couldn’t place where. You know, when the writer becomes a character/gets trapped in his own work. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation came close. So did the cinematic version of The Dark Half, but not really. Regardless, this meta-inducing plot felt familiar. As well as its mundanity. But the execution of the story was curious enough that it held my attention. That’s a good thing, right?


You know what I said earlier about Poe’s writings’ essential atmosphere? The Raven has in it spades, as well as some sharp visuals. The whole movie is slippery, dingy and grim. I like that, especially since we’re dealing with a killing spree. The 1700s Baltimore of Poe’s days—according to The Raven‘s creators at least—is a ruined reflection of the Victorian Age. It’s a grey slum, smattered with endless, pissy rain and very few of its denizens come across as upstanding, not to mention having their own agenda. This is handy since we’re delving into a murder mystery. You gotta lay on some heavy ambiance of the creeps to get the lay of the land. We’re also dealing with Poe-inspired murders, so that cracked, psycho poet view runs thick. Almost too thick, actually.

Hang on. I remember  where I saw a similar  period piece mystery like Raven: the Hughes’ Bros From Hell. I tackled that one a while back here at RIORI. That murder mystery steeped in actual events was a pretty good whodunnit, albeit with a lot of unlicensed surgical gore and Johnny Depp’s trademark un-histrionics (and Heather Graham’s oh-so unbelievable Irish accent, not to mention her lack of facial scarring as hallmark of Mary Kelly’s occupation. That and…).

*second eraser touchdown pending*

Ahem. Any who, so yeah Raven is a Jack The Ripper…well, rip-off. It seems that way at first. From Hell is Raven’s immediate analog, and director MacTeigue is determined to one-up the Hughes’ film in everything. More mysteries, more menace, more violence and more period set work than a revival of Far From The Madding Crowd. Too bad it doesn’t really work; you can’t shake the “this has been done before” feeling. Originality is for lacking.

But it ain’t dull. Take Raven as From Hell lite. MacTeigue’s vision is just as dark and forbidding as Hell, but with a lighter touch. There’s a good deal of humor mixed in with the murder and mayhem. Just a spoonful of sugar don’t you know. I figure Raven would be just another swipe at the period mystery movie if not for the snickers and raised eyebrows.

One of the things—maybe the only thing—that makes Raven stand on its feet is the acting. Without colorful characters lurking around Baltimore’s underbelly, this would be nothing than a derivative From Hell. And boy howdy we got a gem acting as Poe. John Cusack has always been at heart a comedic actor. Even with more “serious” roles like this one there’s always a humorous undercurrent to his delivery. He’s really fun when he hams it up, loses his cool. Remember his Rob Gordon back in High Fidelity? Yep. It’s also too bad the movie seems to enjoy it, too. Cusack’s Poe runs perilously close to being one-note, but tempered by our no bullish*t Detective Fields.

The stern yin to Poe’s unhinged yang, Evans’ performance is what keeps the story from hopping the tracks. Sure, we have a sort of paint-by-numbers mystery going on here, but to keep everything moving along smoothly (good pacing, woof) and not come crashing down into potboiler territory with a lot of flayed skin we gotta have a guy like Fields around to spearhead the crime, not to mention keeping Poe on a leash. Evans’ performance from determined cop to stiff out-of-his-league to tiresome is a slow crawl and can be a drag, but the beleaguered officer is a reliable character type, and a tonic to Poe’s eccentricities (of which there are legion). We got a weird Sherlock action all up in here where Poe as Watson are one and the same. There better be a steady-handed Inspector Dupin at the ready (and Evans’ portrayal as the profiler was far more palpable and relatable than with Depp’s signature weirdness). One could make the argument that this is another rip-off from From Hell. Wacky cop paired against street-smart raconteur, only in reverse. I say it’s no matter. Entertaining, though not necessarily unique characters are all I’m asking for/expecting here. Good thing we got Cusack on board.

Speaking on being unique, Raven’s execution plays out like the plot of a graphic novel. I know, I know. Raven‘s sister movie was indeed based on a comic, and seeing how MacTeigue’s directorial debut of V For Vendetta was based on a graphic novel (written by Alan Moore, author of From Hell. Hey, wait a minute…) either some hero worship or hangover persists here. What I think is that MacTeigue is a Poe fanboy. Sure, he didn’t have much of a hand in the script, but his hand is heavy in establishing a narrative slathered in imagery right out of the Master’s stories. It teeters on overdose territory here. I’m also of the mind that the Poe angle was the supposed selling point. Raven is a trivia delight for fans (almost on a Star Trek con level). When was the last time a big deal, big budget cinematic adaptation of the man’s works hit the screen? Doubts even here, but I bet there was a vast, quiet flock out there waiting and waiting.

Under MacTeigue’s lens, for both Poe and crime drama fans, they had to take a weakened dose. Even though the director gets the atmosphere right, and Cusack’s fevered performance ably pushes the story along, there’s not much to hang onto here. The Raven is hampered with weak tension, forced style and bad case of the From Hell‘s. Like I said, it borders on derivative and blatant rip-off, but there are enough tricks in MacTeigue’s bag to keep Raven from being outright lame. Sure, it’s thin, but not uninteresting.

If you can get beyond the movie’s overt flaws, there is a neat mystery creeping underfoot.  There’ nothing revolutionary going on here, but regardless of the moody stylizing and gore, there’s a fairly decent mystery story. Not that the mystery proper is anything to crow (Ha!) about, but the details make Raven not drag as much as it would against all its other hiccups. A prime example (maybe the only one), is in the third act when the mystery reaches a head. I really enjoyed the trolling. Really. MacTeigue really toys with us. Any character acting suspicious hints at being the killer. It keeps you guessing. Oddly, Poe never comes across as REDACTED, but everyone else in the primary and secondary cast could be. Again, maybe overkill, but I dug it.

On the tails of that, my only serious, outright gripe with Raven is the ending. Yeah, I know. That’s a biggie; a real deal breaker. But I had patience enough with the first hour and forty-five minutes of this fanboy-drenched, slick and shameless reach-around swindle to hang out for the conclusion. And I got screwed. Actually, pissed is a more apt word. The ending ruined almost everything. Of course I’m not gonna ruin it for you. Take a risk like me, and consider getting your head checked.

Oh well. Was Raven a good movie? No. Was it a good time-waster? Sure, okay. Was it all just an opium/ego-induced dream? Well if so, I need a mixture like that. Come to think of it, so do you.

This is the part when I’m supposed to squawk, “Nevermore!” Right?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Really. It’s a kinda cool waste of time, ideal for a Halloween movie night. Not ideal for…well, any other time of year. Pass the brandy. And the needles. And a fountain pen to stab things with. What the hell.

Stray Observations…

  • “Try not to sh*t yourself.” I always fancied Poe was a coarse talker.
  • Awesome editing between the pendulum and the heart.
  • “So was she 14?”
  • Back in Poe’s day, actors—and acting as a profession—were looked down on as mere entertainers; they were people who didn’t earn their keep with a hard day’s work and paid accordingly. My, how times have changed. Right, Sandler?
  • “I didn’t say I was an admirer.” “Yet…you did read them.”
  • Okay. The thing with the raven? A bit too much.
  • “Time for a piss.” Be right back.
  • The “catacomb” search is rather convoluted.
  • “…I guess I went a little nuts.”
  • There is no version of Barbarella in 3D, you idiots!

Next Installment…

Jack Black takes us on a modern trip through Gulliver’s Travels. Let’s hope it doesn’t suck ass.

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