“The Raven” should be a lot more entertaining than it actually is. Extrapolating the final days of writer Edgar Allan Poe, the movie turns the author into a detective of sorts, playing up the man’s expertise with macabre situations as he races to save a damsel in distress. After all, who’s more skilled at catching murderers than a man who’s spent his life imagining indescribable horrors? What’s actually committed to the screen is stillborn, poorly arranged by director James McTeigue, who’s too caught up in stiff period details to keep suspense in play. It’s a neat idea for a film, but it doesn’t come alive in this uneventful attempt to refresh the serial killer genre.
McTeigue seems an apt choice to direct “The Raven,” as the story concerns events surrounding a cloaked man with an obscured face tearing around the darkness causing major concern for officials in charge -- a striking similarity to the helmer’s 2005 effort, “V for Vendetta.” McTeigue’s also here because he’s no stranger to meaty slabs of action and violence, offering the production a workmanlike touch to get the story from A to B without the habitual need to introduce surprises.
Sadly, “The Raven” is tremendously iffy material, demanding a more adventurous filmmaker willing to build a bridge between scares and period fantasy, especially with a plot that essentially turns Edgar Allan Poe into an action figure, albeit one with a drinking problem, rage issues, and an extreme distaste for competition. Still, the potential for a feature of great oddball worth is there, establishing a troubled Poe faced with the demands of heroism, saving innocents from traps patterned from sequences yanked from “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” There’s “The Raven” as well, Poe’s most famous work, and a feathered symbol of doom the production obsessively works into most major scenes, as though the producers thought the audience might forget what movie they’ve purchased a ticket for. The Poe universe is well cared for, with numerous references and respect paid the author’s work. There’s just no invention emerging from McTeigue, who submissively satisfies the basic needs of the script, failing to accelerate the funhouse atmosphere of 1840s Baltimore as it’s hit from all sides by a literate lunatic.
As Poe, Cusack goes very theatrical to pump life into “The Raven,” carrying on like a loud, destructive bully, instilling the character with a general distaste for others, especially those unable to match his intellectual capacity. It’s a tiring performance a little too dependent on yelling to introduce tension, but he’s alert. The same can’t be said of the supporting cast, with Gleeson (Irish), Eve (English), and Evans (Welsh) all drowning in terrible American accents, hitting every syllable with observable fear. The cast is also burdened with a script that doesn’t give them much to do besides look frightened or act concerned. The writing dilutes the experience further with its lack of potent red herrings, including Poe himself, who’s removed as a potential suspect right away, dropping potentially thrilling investigative complications begging to be exploited.
The conclusion conjures up a race against time to save Emily, liberally borrowing elements from George Sluizer’s 1988 shocker “The Vanishing” to bring Poe to a place of disorientation that shadowed his actual death on Baltimore streets in 1849. There’s intriguing cleverness sprinkled throughout the finale, but suspense isn’t there. “The Raven” doesn’t provide much excitement or mystery either, electing a more customary route of serial killer analysis. Despite an enticing invitation to mount a rowdy adventure with a legendary figure of horror, the film remains disappointingly conventional.