I thought it was about time for me to chime in and offer something of a contrary point of view in response to all of the critical plucking that The Raven has been getting. (Wow, that sentence almost sounds like free verse, doesn't it? Poe himself would've been...amused And probably drunk.) As a longtime fan of one of the greatest storytellers of all time as well as a tireless defender of director James McTeigue (albeit one who's also quick to point out and admit to his weaknesses), I couldn't help but...kind of like The Raven,every now and then.
But there will be no gentle rapping from this corner of the curious photoplay, "The Raven," which Universal, with amazing effrontery, describes as having been inspired by two classics, "The Raven" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."A hybrid harder to describe than Boris Karloff's newest make-up, the Roxy's current tenant should have no difficulty in gaining the distinction of being the season's worst horror film. Not even the presence of the screen's Number One and Two Bogymen, Mr. Karloff and Bela (Dracula) Lugosi, can make the picture anything but a fatal mistake from beginning to end.If you are as curious as we were to see how the movie makers would combine "The Raven" and "Pit and Pendulum"—using Karloff and Lugosi in the process—you may be interested to learn that what Poe suggested to the script boys was a story about a mad surgeon. The chap—Mr. Lugosi—had read Poe so thoroughly that he had gone whacky, kept a stuffed raven (no, Mr. Karloff does not play the raven) on his desk for luck and built a torture room in his cellar.
When the father of the young woman he would espouse refuses to give his blessing, the surgeon invites all the principals to a house party and then, cackling ghoulishly the while, tries out his torture machines. If it had not been for Mr. Karloff—this time with a dead eye, a slack mouth and few other cute touches—the death rate would have been terrific.Of course, it must be said that Lugosi and Karloff try hard, even though, both being cultured men, they must have suffered at the indignity being visited upon the helpless Edgar Allan. But if "The Raven" is the best that Universal can do with one of the greatest horror story writers of all time, then it had better toss away the other two books in its library and stick to the pulpies for plot material.The stage show presents Herman Timberg, Tip, Tap and Toe, a dancing trio; the Digatanos, the Gae Foster girls and Freddie Mack's orchestra.
The whole thing is ridiculous and at times almost laughably melodramatic ("theatrical" doesn't even begin to describe some of the heated histrionics and swooshing capes on display here), but The Raven nonetheless makes for a fitfully entertaining piece of meta-fiction. Not surprisingly, the film is especially enjoyable for Poe fans, presenting its elaborately staged murder scenes (many of which are reminiscent of the "punishments" of Se7en and the "lessons" of Saw) in a teasing and playful manner, almost as if the killer -- and the filmmakers -- are asking you, "Guess which Poe story this nasty bit of work is from?" Sure, the entire narrative rests on the thin foundation of a gimmick, but it's a good gimmick, one that goes a long way in forgiving -- or at least giving a hall pass to -- some of the film's shortcomings with things like, oh, logic and dramatic credibility. Movie in HD
Cusack's work is commendable here. An underrated genre actor (he was terrific in Stephen King's Man vs. CGI chamber piece, 1408), the all-grown-up Better Off Dead star brings his natural likability and soulful Droopy the Dog features in creating a Poe as charming as he is haunted. Whether he's drunkenly wallowing in self-loathing or racing through the sewers in pursuit of his Number One Fan, Cusack's Poe makes for an unlikely but completely convincing pulp hero. Meanwhile, Alice Eve is hot and does well with the damsel-in-distress thing, turns cranky and choleric into high thespian art and Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle threatens to steal the show as Reagan, the long-suffering and wise bartender. Also particularly excellent is Luke Evans, whose underplayed performance as the hardworking and wily Detective Fields keeps things classy even when the film occasionally indulges in over-the-top grand guignol gore (if you remember from Ninja Assassin, director James McTeigue isn't one to shy away from blood).
Ah, James McTeigue. The Wachowskis' second unit director on the Matrix films and Speed Racer is certainly a capable director in his own right, having previously delivered the flawed but reasonably entertaining Assassin and V For Vendetta. However, he has an inexplicable knack for making genre movies with decent-sized budgets look Syfy Channel cheap. He goes for shadowy, gritty atmosphere in The Raven -- indeed, attempting to turn it into a 19-century variation on Se7en -- but the whole thing sometimes (but, to be fair, not always) looks like it was shot on video with duct-taped sets, flat lighting and dull colors (except for red, of course). Perhaps "theatrical" is the appropriate term for describing The Raven's aesthetic; it often looks more like a community theatre adaptation of one of Poe's stories (though I mean that in the most endearing way possible) than a movie with an albeit modest but still respectable budget of $26 million.
Ultimately, though, McTeigue and his merry macabre players might have the last laugh on those who would point out the faults in their creation. One of the film's most gruesome death scenes is an ode to "The Pit and the Pendulum," in which the literary victim exclaims, "But I'm only a critic!" It's a much more good-natured ribbing than M. Night Shyamalan's violent dispatching of Bob Balaban's film critic character in Lady in the Water, and one that suggests that perhaps, in time, we'll all learn to appreciate The Raven for the work of genius it is, just as it sometimes took a while to realize just how damn good Poe's writings really were.