The Raven casts Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as a P.I. of sorts, a not entirely surprising role for the writer credited with inventing detective fiction. During the final week of his life, the down-and-out writer teams up with the Baltimore police to hunt down a killer who copycats grisly homicides based on Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
It’s possible to glimpse the skeleton of a meaty plot-that-might-have-been, had a real filmmaker gifted with dark wit and intelligence taken on this story. Instead of a meandering mess bereft of suspense or significance, The Raven might have been a smart, Cronenbergian horror movie about the unwholesome, even fatal, umbilical connections among writers, critics, muses and rabid fans. Fertile ground for perversity, murder and madness, if only director James McTeigue and company had been able to see further than a low-rent mash-up of Seven and Saw.
The director who stitched The Raven together has no idea how to frame or compose a scene, let alone “grow” a film organically. Always MIA in McTeigue’s movies (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) are visual logic, coherence and any sense of cinematic grace, though noisy pretensions abound. Take this especially egregious example of klutzy cutting, pacing and continuity: A black-clad, skull-masked figure on horseback surges into the middle of a masquerade ball where Poe, clad in the colors of the night, waltzes with his pastel lady love. In one fell swoop, McTeigue blows the kinetic power of the huge, ebon animal exploding into space reserved for civilized dress-up and play, a variation on the terror Poe mines in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Maybe the jackrabbit camerawork is meant to give Poe and Emily time to just … disappear. Because, cut, it’s next morning, and our hero’s announcing that Emily was kidnapped at the ball. Excuse me, how and when did that happen? Did Poe decide he needed a potty break after the Grim Reaper steeplechase?