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.
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