John Cusack's new Gothic thriller is a fictionalized account of Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious final days told in extended flashback that finally devolves from its ebullient, acerbic tone.
The Raven (which could be a cross between Cusack's f/x-fest 1408 where he played a hyper ghost writer and The Hughes Bros' From Hell) mirthfully engages its lurid, macabre stylings from its accomplished production under the helming of James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin) without really intimating what stimulated a horror writer like Poe. One who is hardly likable at the outset when he lashes out at others in his profession.
In the period leading up to his death in 1849, the crestfallen, hard-drinking author is caught up in the web of horrific murders plaguing Baltimore because the culprit has apparently been using Poe's stories as a template. A hotshot detective (Luke Evans of Immortals) needs Edgar to assist with his investigation. The tormented writer has to deal with fiancee Emily (Alice Eve of X-Men: First Class) whose tough-minded father Col. Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson of "Safe House") isn't keen on the two entering matrimony. Though he won't mind having a big masquerade go on as the homicidal results become more intimate for Edgar as Emily is kidnapped (with clues to her whereabouts left and the writer is forced to write a daily account for the local paper that could return him to past success.
With the more publicized interests of Poe (it may not matter to many seeing it who the protagonist really is) at heart, the screenplay works around the mind of a cunningly fiendish killer to increasingly grim, grotesque returns letting Cusack's aghast characterization abut with humor and cynicism. Nonetheless, the potboiler unfolds in less spectacular fashion than how it enlivens the set pieces through some murky chasing and rampaging. One is reminded of David Fincher's Se7en which subverted a popular genre with sickening sights to a darker, striking conclusion to a whodunit as opposed to how the excessive antagonism works against the gleeful way with the premise.
Yes, McTeigue (who capably fashioned the more compelling V For Vendetta) works hard with his capable craftspeople, including production and art designers, to bring flavor to mid-19th Century (noticeably through Poe's pet raccoon). But, more do diligence seems to be exacted for the aftermath of such violent displays. Even knowing the outcome, Cusack (after the crude, goofy divergence that was Hot Tub Time Machine) shows a bit of what makes him continue to grind through unimaginative projects in his early middle-age as he tries to spark his own creative process.
Ultimately though, the filmmakers and the cast with a voluble Baltimore seem to have more fun with material more distracting than convincing, tautly rendered too infrequently at times but too familiar to make a similar impact as the titular Poe poem read to chilling effect by Cusack.