Many of us know Edgar Allen Poe as the gothic writer and visionary poet of great works like The Pit and the Pendulum, The Telltale Heart and The Raven. Each of his stories has influenced authors and filmmakers alike for over a hundred years. Poe’s real life was not unlike the fiction that he wrote and is the basis for the upcoming film The Raven starring John Cusack, due out at the end of this month. We were lucky enough to catch an advance screening at LACMA! Born to traveling actors in 1809 his life was marred by tragedy almost from the very beginning. Within three years of his birth, both his parents had died and although he always dreamed of being a poet like his hero Lord Byron, he oftentimes lacked the funds to stay in one place. The death of his mother, brother, and wife to tuberculosis gave him an oftentimes-morbid outlook on life that translated into his work.
A writer, teacher, gambler and journalist, Poe’s life is rife for interpretation and the exact cause of his death remains a mystery. That fact becomes the basis for James McTeigue’s curious film The Raven, set to release April 27th. Mixing fact and fantasy, the film presents Edgar Allen Poe, played masterfully by John Cusack, an anti-hero of his age. Truth be told, a simple biographical film would have sufficed but McTeigue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare give the audience so much more, they give Poe a reason.
The idea of giving the author a nemesis is not only intriguing but a great excuse to delve deeper into Poe’s inner psyche. The plot of The Raven is not unlike that of Se7en, and just dark and twisted enough to attract viewers that have never even heard of the author. Dark and surprisingly gory, the film wraps Poe’s greatest honor and his greatest nightmare into a single, mysterious character. On the brink of total poverty Poe, a literary critic in 1800s Baltimore, is desperate for some form notoriety and fame. What he gets is a madman so enthralled by his stories of death and torture that he starts killing those close to him as a tribute.
“He always went against the grain and I think that’s part of the attraction of getting to play him,” said Cusack after the screening. “He was such a unique character. I think he looked down on any writer that wasn’t him. Poe’s work really helped to capture the zeitgeist of the day and bring it front and center in his stories. I don’t think everyone liked that but that is what eventually made him so popular. I like playing people like that, they are nuts and that’s’ fun.“
“When they came to me with the script I sat down with McTiegue and told him I wanted to try and put as much of Poe’s actual words in there as possible to make it sound real,” he notes.
Though the film itself may strike viewers as a Sherlock Holmes knockoff, don’t be fooled, it raises the stakes quite a bit. Not only does it take a unique approach to the genre but it doesn’t sugar coat anything. The violence shown in the movie can get gruesome and some scenes will make you squirm.
The script itself could use a bit of work. While Poe is written as a fully formed character, almost everyone else is seen as a caricature, especially Detective Fields. Luke Evans plays him as a gritty, no-nonsense detective, but the lines he is given are so cliché they could have been pulled from anywhere. Despite all that, the plot moves the story forward in a natural enough way that it overcomes that folly. While the film is filled with hits and misses throughout, Cusack’s performance and the unique storyline ultimately help save the movie.