The Raven (15)

3.00

Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson

If you are making tongue-in-cheek Grand Guignol horror films, you don't need to be subtle. One of the pleasures of James McTeigue's thriller is how deliriously overcooked it is.

Set in 19th-century Baltimore during the last few days of Edgar Allan Poe's life, it's a bloody hotchpotch of a movie into which the director and his screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare have thrown every conceivable ingredient. The Raven has the look of old Freddie Francis or Roger Corman horror films. The film-makers include serial-killer movie motifs, some elements of Eli Roth-style torture porn and even a few satirical sideswipes at the press. At the same time, they have literary pretensions. Poe's is not the only name bandied about. So are those of Longfellow and Emerson.

As Edgar Allan Poe, John Cusack's tongue seems very firmly in his cheek. He plays Poe as a down-at-heel literary flaneur, convinced of his own genius and very touchy when publicans or fellow drinkers don't acknowledge it or can't remember the "Nevermore" refrain from his poem "The Raven". He's a dapper dresser who likes to wear black. He has such a sardonic and witty turn of phrase that he continually confuses his many antagonists, who range from his creditors to Brendan Gleeson's blustering patriarch, the father of the woman Poe wants to marry. It's a comic performance tinged with melancholy – a more weather-beaten counterpart to the young writer he played in Woody Allen's 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway.

Cusack, though, is too skilful an actor to let his Poe slide entirely into the realm of pastiche. He picks up on the character's unlikely stubborness as well as his vanity. Somehow, by the final reel, when the self-pitying alcoholic is turned into a heroic detective, we accept the transformation.

Early in the movie, as the hapless critic of a Baltimore newspaper is split in half by a scythe-like pendulum, you begin to wonder if the film-makers themselves (like the murderer they depict) have scores to settle. McTeigue, a protégé of the Wachowskis, received less than flattering reviews for his equally overblown V for Vendetta. You sense he is getting his blows in early.

The plot of The Raven is the sheerest hokum. A serial killer is on the prowl in Baltimore. Inspector Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) realises that his murders are inspired by Poe's most macabre stories. The killer is clearly a die-hard Poe fan and the only man whose imagination is perverse and fertile enough to catch him is, of course, Poe himself. The stakes are raised when the killer kidnaps someone very close to Poe. All too predictably, the mystery murderer buries her alive. His inspiration – or that of McTeigue – seems to come in equal measure from Poe's story "The Premature Burial", Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol 2 and from the accounts, fictional and real-life, of the grisly things that Austrians do in their cellars.

The film-makers are absolutely shameless in their borrowings. This may be a 19th-century costume drama but that doesn't stop them from throwing in a hunt through the sewers cribbed all too directly from The Third Man. The setting may be Baltimore but the film itself was largely shot in eastern Europe. The production designers manage to make the American city look uncannily like Victorian London as depicted in countless penny dreadfuls about Jack the Ripper. We even have wet, misty cobblestone streets. At the same time, the villain shares certain traits with H H Holmes, the American serial killer whose story was told in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Conveniently, there are rural churchyards and deep-set forests at spitting distance of the city centre. Supernatural elements are included in a storyline that – at least part of the time – seems to be based on psychological realism and rational deduction.

McTeigue takes a sadistic pleasure in juxtaposing scenes of genteel Baltimore society folk listening to piano music or reading their poetry at literary gatherings with footage of garrottings, severed limbs and cut-off tongues. Sometimes, the film lurches into the self-parody and winking humour you find in episodes of TV's The Simpsons. When we see jets of blood spurting out of a torso or arms dangling down into fireplaces, we don't know whether we're supposed to laugh or grimace. The film-makers ratchet up the tempo of the storytelling in the hope that the relentless narrative drive will blind us to the fact that nothing here really makes much sense.

Inevitably, Poe's character is the most baffling of all. As shown here, he's a romantic hero. At the same time as the corpses are mounting around him, he is wooing and trying to protect the beautiful Emily (Alice Eve.) We know that he is not set for a happy, married life. The film unfolds at the end of Poe's life – a period still shrouded in mystery. (In October 1849, the writer was discovered wandering dishevelled on the streets of Baltimore, reportedly in someone else's clothes, and died a few days later.) The film-makers aren't bold enough to explore the contradictions that they themselves broach. For all the bloodshed they show on screen, they're certainly not keen to venture too far into the psychological realm Poe wrote about in "William Wilson" in which the horror lurks within.

Ultimately, The Raven is theme-park film-making: a horror thriller which tries to include as many grisly "attractions" as its creators can think of, even as they undermine the coherence of the story being told. This is not a nuanced movie. It isn't even one that makes a great deal of sense. What it does have is chutzpah and imagination. In its lurid and far-fetched way, this is a surprisingly invigorating ride.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project