The trope of using a mystery writer's work as the inspiration for a series of killings isn't a new idea; it formed the pilot episode of Castle, for instance. Now the Grand Guignol stories of Edgar Allan Poe are given a grisly lease of life on the big screen in The Raven. John Cusack slices the ham thick in places as Poe but makes for an engaging lead in a solid if slightly unspectacular thriller.
Screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare have cannily chosen some of the well-known Poe stories (such as 'The Murders In The Rue Morgue' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart') and a few less well-known ones (for example, 'The Mystery Of Marie Roget' and 'The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar') to construct a bleak and bleached world in which Poe and the killer operate. However, the Saw-esque splatter of the 'Pit and The Pendulum' murder is grossly at odds with the surrounding killings, in which the bodies are discovered already dead in quite an atmospheric setting. It is the only murder shown explicitly on screen and jars with the overall mood.
Cusack inhabits the role of Poe with a mix of desperation, mania and melancholy, aptly showing the many sides of the character. However, having since learned that both Ewan McGregor and Joaquin Phoenix were in negotiations to play Poe, I can't help but feel that either would have made a stronger and longer-lasting impression. The rest of the cast are decent enough; Luke Evans plays Baltimore police Inspector Fields as a dogged and decent man even if sometimes he's a little wooden. Brendan Gleeson, surely a frontrunner to replace Kevin Bacon as the epicentre of Hollywood (the man is in everything!), turns in a suitably gruff and solid performance as the disapproving father of Poe's love interest Emily (Alice Eve) who is snatched by the killer and used to draw Poe into the mystery still further. Eve's performance is good, eschewing a lot of the damsel-in-distress stereotypes, which is good.
James McTeigue (who previously directed V For Vendetta) shows less of the flair he did in that film but still makes a decent fist out of it. The action set-pieces are quite thrilling (the chase through the theatre and its catacombs stands out) and the masked ball (which echoes 'The Masque Of The Red Death') looks beautiful - even more so for the fact that it's a rare scene of colour. The palette of the film is quite dark and bleak.
Ultimately, in any whodunit, the identity of the killer and their motivation is paramount. And that's where The Raven falls flat. The identity of the killer is an interesting choice if a little Scooby-Doo-ish but the motivation is flimsy (I don't think its too much of a spoiler to say that it comes down to a twisted form of hero-worship) and the denouement where Poe meets said killer has an interesting energy about it which peters out too soon.
For fans of Poe, this might be a diverting curio. As a thriller, it's by no means the worst I've ever seen but is nonetheless distinctly average.
Rating: 2/5 out of 5