So you have to imagine the pitch meeting where these top-notch movie moguls sit around the table in their favoured LA watering hole and sell the next blockbuster. “It’s about this deranged psycho killer. . . he’s doing his thing, recreating the murders invented by that Poe guy. You know the kinda thing. “Pit and the Pendulum” will cut one guy down to size, we can shove bodies up chimneys and brick people up behind cellar walls. It’ll be a bloodfest, assuming you don’t mind an R-rating. Why’s he doing it? Well, the deranged psycho killer wants to teach Poe a lesson he’ll never forget. No, he’s not going to kill Poe. At least not until the end and, perhaps, not even then. We’re paying this John Cusack guy a sackful of dough and want our money’s worth. The killer’s just gonna torture our Poe knowing his work is the inspiration for all this death.” At this point, there’s a deferential whispering from a minion.” Yes I know Poe was an alcoholic who spent most of his time spaced out on hard drugs, but this Cusack guy can do sympathetic, can’t he, even if we have to slaughter everyone in Baltimore in front of him. He’s gonna be the tortured artist, lotsa angst dripping off the screen like blood.” And, of course, the project was green-lighted.
So what’s good about The Raven (2012)? There’s a quite remarkable amount of detail about Poe’s life that’s accurately reproduced here. Shakespeare (it’s Hannah so I suppose it has to be the great man’s daughter) and Ben Livingston have done a lot of research and weren’t going to let any of it go to waste. Unfortunately, that’s it for the good stuff. The fundamental problem with this film is that it’s trying to do two very different things at the same time. The first is deliver all the blood and gore those “horror” people enjoy and so justify the R-rating. The second is to give the geeks a period mystery in which Poe and a local detective track down the fiendish psycho killer before he strikes again (and again). Unfortunately, all this detective work requires talk and in a level of language that the average horror fan is going to find off-putting. Poe, in this version of reality, doesn’t tolerate fools gladly and, when he’s not obviously insulting them, he’s patronising them in a less obvious way. Although some of the invective is quite witty, he’s a really unlikeable “hero”, prone to outbursts of senseless physical violence when he’s not getting his own way, i.e. people are not giving him alcohol or money with which to buy his next drink. Indeed, I cannot recall anyone else quite so unsympathetic as the hero in a film for at least twelve months.
So what about the violence? The pendulum sequence is quite an eye-opener. The camera never flinches as the mean lean slicing machine gently separates the victim into two relatively equal parts. Even Poe is moved to comment on the size of the counterweight installed to keep the blade moving until it gouged too deeply into the table. But it’s at this point we get into the real problem with the film. This is a major piece of engineering kit with massive gearing to slowly lower the blade as it swings. Only one or two machine shops in Baltimore at that time could have made such a machine. Even installing it would have required many workers with pulleys to lift everything into place and build the gearing. Designing, building and installing this machine could not have been done without many people being aware of it. Yet neither Poe nor the ace detective make any effort to track down designers and engineers who might have helped. Indeed, if anyone did assist in the installation, they must have been curious. “I get how it works. Nice design, by the way. Are these restraints for a big goat?” At more or less every turn, there are comparable difficulties making the entire plot wholly incredible. For example, we’re supposed to believe our deranged killer could track down a man with exactly the right tattoo on his back who would come into Baltimore harbour on the right day on a ship with the right name. This is 1849 and, unless you can find the ship and physically examine all the crew until you find exactly what you’re looking for or pay for someone to have the tattoo added, this whole element of the plot dies.
I’m quite happy to sit through blood and gore if the film is made in a classic way to build up tension and engage our interest in the characters at risk of being chopped or sliced into little pieces. Equally, I enjoy a good puzzle with competent detectives on the case, seeing clues for what they are and tracking down the killer(s). But this has nothing to make it even halfway likeable. None of the characters are presented in a way that engages our interest and it’s obvious within fifteen minutes that one of two people must be the killer. You pick between these two depending on the motive you think is driving the entire plot. However, once we get past the Red Masque sequence, it’s obvious one of the two would not be responsible. The psychology, even for a deranged psycho killer, is all wrong. We therefore have to drag through the rest of the film with the killer appearing in darkly lit passages and riding through misty woods as if he’s in one of Tim Burton’s gothic films, until he can finally be unmasked.
So there you have it, James McTeigue does his best with appallingly thin material, but there’s nothing to be done. The entire concept of the film, written down on the back of an envelope in the pitching session all those months ago, cannot be saved. Emily (Alice Eve) breaks with social convention to love our loopy poet, while her clichéd father (Brendan Gleeson) is the local lord of the manor who threatens to horsewhip anyone coming in range. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) tries to be the action man to counterbalance Poe’s erratic behaviour as an artist, but he’s not given anything to do which even remotely suggests he’s a competent detective. It’s a great shame. If only the pitch has been to buy the rights to Nevermore by William Hjortsberg, we could have had Poe’s crimes dealt with in a more intelligent context. As an indication of how riveting this film is, a man several rows behind me snored loudly after about half an hour. You should only go and see The Raven if it’s a slow afternoon and you want to catch up on your sleep in a dark place — note to producers: more explosions are required if you want to keep people awake.
William Hjortsberg: now there’s a name to conjure with. Even David Copperfield has finally abandoned abracadabra and shazam. When top magicians walk on stage, waving their arms impressively over their assistant’s hypnotised body, intoning Hjortsberg as the pendulum begins to swing would always get an audience expecting some heavy duty magic — assuming you knew how to pronounce it, of course. Checking back in my records, yes I am that obsessive, I see I read Gray Matters when it first came out but, honestly, I’ve no recollection of it. That’s neither good nor bad. In my defence, I’ve read thousands of books and can’t possibly remember all of them. Alternatively, it must be Alzheimer’s. So Nevermore (first published in 1994 and now reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media) is one of the most appropriate books for someone like me to read. Although I’m not quite old enough to have been around when the action is set, I misspent most of my youth demolishing American fiction, both pulp and mainstream from this era.
William Hjortsberg is playing the same type of game as Peter Lovesey in Keystone which examines what Fatty Arbuckle might have done in the real-world film studios of 1916. William Hjortsberg has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle investigate murders committed in the style of Edgar Allan Poe in the New York of 1923. Better still, it’s written in a pitch-perfect prose style of the day which makes it great fun to read. William Hjortsberg is blessed with a sure ear and is obviously enjoying himself with the more pulpy vocabulary and syntax of the 1920s. Ironically, in the cast of characters, we meet Damon Runyon whose style is adjacent to this. Given the chance, he could have written much of this book — with a little prompting from our William to introduce the more supernatural and macabre elements.
Before looking at the plot, we must celebrate the appearance of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as investigators. This use of real people is growing more common as historical fiction is popularised through mashups and steampunk. Today, all manner of real and fictional characters parade through the pages of novels for our entertainment. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, appears alongside Oscar Wilde in the mystery series by Giles Brandreth and in one of the Murdoch Mysteries based on the characters created by Maureen Jennings, as well as having his own short television series called Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. The nice thing about this book is that, historically, we see the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini portrayed with some degree of accuracy. It starts us off at the fragile stage before the rather public “falling out”. As an irrelevant note, I see I’ve almost managed to publish this review on Houdini’s birthday — such is the spooky power of coincidence pretending to be a supernatural event.
So into action with spirits, ghosts, mediums and Halloween to the fore. As befits anyone who so fervently believes in spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle is visited by Edgar Allan Poe except it’s presented as real-time conversations, Poe characterising Doyle as “. . .a traveler from the future. . .” or a ghost emitting a spectral light. Harry Houdini gets to talk with his mother and engage in a little extramarital excitement. For once, both our heroes are on the same page (pun intended) on the reality of spiritual experiences, although not on whether the spirits are real. As the master of illusion should know, not everything you experience is real. So there are a series of deaths that recreate some of the scenes from Poe’s short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s initial impression is that these are random, probably the work of a madman. He opines it will be impossible to track down the killer. Except Harry Houdini slowly comes to see a link between the victims and, when he shares it with Arthur Conan Doyle, they conclude everyone in Harry Houdini’s circle may be at risk. The problem, as always in these situations, is how to guard against the unknown attacker.
Put all this together and what do we have? It’s probably fair to classify this as a pure mystery. For all there are possible supernatural elements and some references to Poe’s work suggesting a veneer of horror, Nevermore is actually a wonderful piece of literary flim-flam which, for these purposes, I will define as wit skating over the thin ice of parody and emerging with a triple lutz (one of those miraculous jumps Olympic skaters make look effortless). I was hooked from the first page and found myself irresistibly propelled to the end. Based on this, I should go back and reread Gray Matters to see what I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, this is now possible, courtesy of Open Road Media which, in addition to Nevermore, is republishing Gray Matters, Falling Angel and Symbiography as e-books. Yet more spooky coincidences.
A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.