*. The 1935 Universal horror film The Raven starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff had little to do with the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Nor did Roger Corman’s 1963 movie with the same title. In fact, most movies “based on” or “inspired by” Poe, as with movies based on H. P. Lovecraft’s work, have little to do with their authors.
*. The Raven doesn’t have much to do with “The Raven” either, but that’s because it goes in a different direction. The premise here has it that the historical Edgar Allan Poe, played by John Cusack, is being stalked by a serial killer who is using Poe’s stories as inspiration. Cutting his victims in two with giant pendulums, burying them alive, that sort of thing.
*. This made me think of a couple of movies not Poe related. The first is Theater of Blood (1971), where Vincent Price plays a Shakespearean actor who kills off his critics in ways borrowed from the Bard’s plays. The second is Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991), which has Jeremy Irons playing Franz Kafka getting caught up in a Kafkaesque adventure.
*. Unfortunately, it isn’t as good as either of those pictures. Perhaps it was the paradoxical way that Poe’s tales of the weird and uncanny are made to fit into an altogether more predictable twenty-first century horror plot, complete with a kidnapped love interest and background police procedural. Even the locations have a familiar feel to them, and I don’t mean Baltimore. It was shot in Budapest and Belgrade, Eastern Europe being a place where it’s always sometime before 1900.
*. The big problem with The Raven though is that the killer turns out to be a total yawn. In most movies like this the killer isn’t a large role. He may only have a few lines, or none at all. But he has to be a larger-than-life presence, or at least be of some interest. Here he’s an anonymous figure of a clichéd type without any motivation that feels compelling enough to explain his crimes. The thing is, we’ve been down this road so many times before with the thematic and theatrical serial killer — from modern exemplars like Se7en and Saw, all the way back to The Abominable Dr. Phibes or even Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — that any movie wanting to go here again has its work cut out for it. The Raven isn’t up to the task.
*. Add to this a downbeat ending — these are the final days of Poe’s life — and you have a movie that didn’t satisfy critics or audiences. Cusack is actually quite good, but this is one that just left me wondering why they even bothered when they had so little that was new to bring to the table.