Positing that Poe spent the last five days of his life in 1849 helping the police to hunt down a serial killer in Baltimore, “The Raven” is a squawking, silly picture that never takes flight. In the spirit of upcoming historical fantasy “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” helmer James McTeigue’s pic would have been more fun if it were called “Edgar Allan Poe: Drunk Poet Detective,” but that would have implied more entertainment value than this dreary exercise delivers. Leads John Cusack and Luke Evans might generate a little B.O. traction, but it will quickly fade, like a dream within a dream.
Plucking some easily researchable biographical details about Poe, the script by actor-turned-scribe Ben Livingston and Ron Bass protege Hannah Shakespeare constructs an implausible explanation of what happened to the author before he was found on a park bench, raving incoherently about someone named Reynolds, on the last day of his life. Given his notorious dipsomaniac habits and penchant for opium, as well as theories that he had syphilis (a fact the screenplay unsurprisingly doesn’t explore), it’s probable the real Poe simply died from partying too heartily. Not the most cinematic or original story, but then, the standard-issue serial-killer cliches offered up here aren’t much more interesting.
When the police discover two dead femmes in a locked room, Det. Emmett Fields (the ubiquitous Luke Evans) works out that the killer must have made his escape through a locked window with a hidden spring — just like the assailant in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a story by local writer-cum-lush Poe (Cusack). At first making the remarkably stupid assumption that Poe must therefore be the killer, Fields eventually concludes the culprit is someone obsessively conversant with Poe’s fiction and poetry, especially when the author’s archrival, critic Griswold (John Warnaby), turns up dead, sliced in two by pendulum-operated axe. (His desperate cry before he dies, “But I’m only a critic!” may rep the pic’s sole funny line.)
The two are forced to work together when Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), a young heiress to whom Poe has become secretly engaged, is kidnapped at a masked ball held by her father, Col. Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). Poe and Fields must ponder clues planted on yet more corpses in order to deduce where Emily has been hidden; in a “Misery”-style twist, the psychotic fan insists that Poe write up his detective work as an ongoing narrative, to be printed each day in the local paper run by editor Henry Maddox (“Pirates of the Caribbean” regular Kevin McNally, forever playing men with muttonchops).
Anachronistic dialogue like “Shut it, Emily, or I’ll shut it for you” suggests historical verisimilitude isn’t a top priority here, but even so, “The Raven” plays fast and loose with period detail, as when a newspaper headline screams about a “serial killer,” never mind that the term wasn’t coined until nearly 130 years later. Cusack, whose wrinkle-free face looks far too plumped up and healthy to pass for that of a raging alcoholic, tries project erratic temper by shouting a lot and bugging out his eyes, but the script doesn’t feed him a single line that might suggest Poe’s genius, complexity or vaunted verbal dexterity. The completely fictitious characters aren’t saddled with such a heavy burden of history, but they’re never more than stock types. Only Sam Hazeldine impresses with a juicy turn that’s due as much to the way he’s lit as to his actorly skill.
Locations in Serbia and Hungary are passably convincing, although the visual effects used to depict a Parisian street scene at the very end are nearly as awkward as the epilogue itself, while the abrasive rock music over the “Seven”-style end titles proves jarring. At least the costumes are fab, especially the elaborate duds worn in the ball scene, featuring feathered headdresses and intricate masks that would look great on an Alexander McQueen catwalk.