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Non-Review Review: The Raven

The Raven is one of those concepts that might have been interesting to follow from the pitch phase. It seems almost impossible that anybody thought the movie, in the condition that it was released, was a good idea – so I’m curious at how various people were convinced to sign on and to help shepherd it to the screen. Of course, my inner cynic suggests that money was a prime motivating factor, but it’s very hard to imagine anybody being convinced that “Edgar Allan Poe lives through se7en in 1849 Baltimore” would prove the basis of a massive cash windfall.

There must have been something of interest here, something worthy of attention at some point in the process, rather than just the half-hearted attempt to knock-off one of those nineties serial killer knock-offs with a slight change of scenery.

A shadowy figure...

A shadowy figure…

Edgar Allan Poe really is an author who has been poorly served by Hollywood. Stephen King might protest about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, but King’s authorial intent has received the highest degree of respect when measured against the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is one of the most respected American authors of all time, and one of the best-loved horror writers in the history of the medium. His grim tales and grotesque scenarios have become part of the cultural lexicon, and Poe has become something of a mythological figure.

There’s an early scene in The Raven where Poe tries to get any patron of the bar to finish one of his most iconic poems. “Quoth the raven…” he begins. Nobody gets it, except for some French officers in the background. Of course, the bitter joke here is that Poe would achieve more fame and respect dead than he ever held alive. It’s hard not to finish that line, so firmly has that poem been drilled into the collective consciousness. And yet, despite his iconic status and the popular appeal of his work, Poe has never received too much luck when it came to Hollywood.

A bit of a hack...

A bit of a hack…

The Roger Corman adaptations of his work, generally starring Vincent Price, made for relatively entertaining pulpy gothic melodrama, but fidelity or respect for Poe was never too high among their aspirations. The best adaptation of Poe’s most famous poem I have seen in American popular media comes from The Simpsons, of all things – curiously respectful despite the show’s comedy leanings. Although Christopher Walken reads an amazing version.

And that lack of any respect for Poe as a writer can be seen in The Raven. The life of Edgar Allan Poe, after all, was not uneventful. It was bleak, it was brutal, it was tragic. It’s not too hard to imagine a version of the life of Edgar Allan Pow, possibly starring John Cusack, that would stand out as an exploration of the author’s life – his obsession with death, the shadow cast by the loss of those he deeply loved. However, when dealing with one of the giants of American literature, The Raven opts instead to insert him into a rather bland serial killer film.

Dead pretty...

Dead pretty…

To be fair, The Raven feels about fifteen years too late. I actually have a reasonable fondness for all the serial killer thriller films that flooded the market in the late nineties, propelled by the success of se7en and The Silence of the Lambs. Sure, very few were masterpieces, but quite a few were solid pulpy entertainment in an era before prime time television had discovered that the American public would tune in weekly to watch police procedurals about gruesome murders and psychotic killers.

Now, in the era of CSI and Criminal Minds, these pulpy cinematic thrillers seem quite outdated. Why would you pay to watch this sort of stuff when television can do this sort of story in a relatively cinematic fashion for free, quite a few nights a week? It made the genre somewhat redundant, and I imagine that is part of the reason that the genre has become so redundant. Mediocre and generic serial killer films are coming into a market saturated with that sort of fare.

The reviews are scathing...

The reviews are scathing…

So the premise of The Raven feels tired, lacking even the pulpy excitement that it might have teased a decade-and-a-half ago. The setting is nothing more than window dressing for the most conventional of movie clichés. The set design and costume work is nice, but the script makes little acknowledgement of the time period in question. The dialogue could have been lifted from an Alex Cross film. “Try not to sh!t yourself,” Poe advises a bartender after paying his tab. His partner, an investigator, is warned, “The mayor wants results this time, inspector!” Later on, the same investigator advises Poe, “The town is angry, the mayor wants results!”

Director James McTeigue isn’t really that interested in the material, and it’s hard to blame him. Instead, he tries to film it as a glossy action-adventure, something the lifeless script really isn’t up to. So we get lots of shots that try to be stylish – the killer leaping from the roof of a church – but fall rather flat. After all, nothing quite undermines “gothic” like the slow motion shot of a razor-shape pendulum throwing blood across a room in a way that seems to beg of 3D post-conversion.

Dissecting Poe's work...

Dissecting Poe’s work…

There’s a sense that The Raven isn’t really too fond of Poe. Of course, any movie that seeks to reduce the output of such a notable author to a series or grotesque set-pieces probably doesn’t harbour too much affection for its subject, but The Raven takes it all a bit too far. It suggests that Poe’s popularity is based purely on the gore that he writes. When Poe complains about his lack of money, the editor offers, “Then try writing another Tell-Tale Heart! People love blood! They love death!” Later on, he exclaims, “People love the gory ones!”

And, here, the film makes its most significant misstep. The movie tries to somehow link Poe’s work to the sort of gory exploitation that flourishes in modern horror. With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the killer suggests that the real reason that Poe is a financial failure is that he is simply ahead of the curve – audiences of the time apparently weren’t depraved enough to appreciate Poe’s schlock. “I still believed in your vision,” the killer offers, “and a future where people would stand in lines to see the kind of things that only people like you or I could see.”

Horse play...

Horse play…

It’s not the most nuanced of lines, and it’s quite clear he’s talking about trashy horror films, like the one we’re watching now. Indeed, the entire scene seems to turn the movie into a double-pronged insult, aimed squarely at the audience for watching this trashy exploitation and at Poe for somehow being the grandfather of the genre. That’s a massively dismissive way of looking at Poe, and it seems ill-advised to base an entire movie around it.

The Raven is just pure nonsense. It doesn’t even have the same pulpy charm of the movies it is trying to emulate, let alone the literary skill of the author it has incorporated. It reduces Poe to another one of those generically troubled lead detective (bonus points for allowing the character a Jack Bauer moment as he demands “where is she?!”). It features a weird detour involving a stage production of Macbeth, as if trying to demonstrate its literary bona fides. It’s just a mess and a waste of a movie.

8 Responses

  1. This movie seemed interesting, especially with Cusack in the lead, but nothing came of it. It was just stupid, campy fun which wasn’t terrible, but nothing spectacular either. Nice review.

    • I don’t know. I really disliked it. I would have liked stupid campy fun. I actually – despite what my harsh words about their treatment of Poe might have you think – quite enjoy the Price/Cormon films. (“Love” would be far too strong a word, but they are silly fun.) This… I don’t know. It just seemed so serious about it all.

  2. I totally agree with your terrific review in that I couldn’t even blog on it and admire you for doing so. I hate being utterly negative and I adore John Cusack, but poor Mr Poe continues to be doomed to have bad adaptations of his work “evermore”.

    • Thanks.

      I love Poe. I’m not a massive fan of poetry, and I have no natural rhythm, but reading The Raven or Annabel Lee, it’s almost impossible not to find a rhythm that sounds like you’re talking music, if that makes sense. It’s remarkable.

      Given his influence, I’m stunned he hasn’t had more direct adaptations, although – looking at John Carter – perhaps direct adaptations of classic genre pieces isn’t the best way forward. After all, we’ve all encountered his plot devices and twists imitated countless times (both fantastic and terrible) across film and television. So doing a direct adaptation might seem anticlimactic.

  3. A solid bit of analysis and a much needed reminder of the cinematic abuse taken by America’s most original short story writer.

    • Thanks Chandler! It’s just ridiculous that he doesn’t get more respect, given how often film and television have “borrowed” (liberally) from him.

  4. I completely missed that the killer was alluding to modern horror films, which makes me feel a bit dim. But in my defence, it comes near the end — I think I had been numbed into some kind of stupor by that point.

    • Hi Bob. I was kinda the same way. I was at the point where I really just wanted to let the film “wash over me”, and to stop fighting it – a grim and passive “it’ll be over soon” siege mentality. But I’m also a big fan of films as commentary on films, and the remark was practiclaly gift-wrapped.

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