A curiosity, nothing more

Novelty of Edgar Allan Poe as a character makes disappointing script bearable

John Cusack: weak, weary, pondering other roles.

John Cusack: weak, weary, pondering other roles.

The Raven
Starring John Cusack, Alice Eve and Luke Evans. Directed by James McTeigue. Cinemark 14 and Feather River Cinemas. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

The Raven is a murder mystery/horror film with some intriguing literary and period-piece trappings. It’s got Edgar Allan Poe as its doomed protagonist doing battle with an elaborately fiendish serial killer whose crimes emulate aspects of Poe’s best-known tales of horror—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” etc.

John Cusack plays Poe, and director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) lays it all out in a pulpy, erratically lavish frenzy. The script by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston plays mainly as a series of spasmodically spectacular set-pieces with only a cursory interest in narrative coherence. Psychological credibility always takes a back seat to sensational and intermittently gory display.

The Poe angle and the period setting (Baltimore, 1849) were enough to keep me interested most of the time. Plus there’s the offbeat sort of amusement provided by the kind of film that lurches back and forth between kinda smart and really dumb.

This morbidly fanciful bit of speculative pulp fiction actually has two protagonists. Poe, who has a surfeit of reasons for taking this luridly gruesome story personally, is also a frenzied sort of amateur detective in this cinematic phantasm, albeit one who frequently acts against his own interests. Thus it falls to another detective figure, Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans), to bring some professional order and efficiency to the solving of these wildly overwrought mysteries and the unlikely crimes that go with them.

Evans does, by far, the best acting in the film. Cusack might be too nice a guy for his role here. He seems to zone out on the more convulsive and contradictory aspects of the character, and I found myself wondering if this might have worked out a little bit better with someone else (Willem Dafoe? Nicolas Cage?) playing this movie’s version of Poe.

But the cast is not the problem here. Cusack and Alice Eve (who gamely serves time as Poe’s rather improbable love interest) are both stuck in the kinds of movie roles that actors can only try to endure with whatever face-saving dignity they can muster. Her part is formulaic and his is “high-concept,” but both are at the mercy of this production’s outlandish story dynamics.

The villain gets caught, but his character makes little credible sense, and by that point neither does the movie. Still, the fiend’s crimes seem so much like the feverish dreams of a half-crazed hack screenwriter that the filmmakers might include themselves among the villains of the tale.