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.