[Screen It]


(2012) (John Cusack, Luke Evans) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: Writer Edgar Allan Poe joins forces with a 19th century Baltimore detective when a serial killer starts copying material from Poe's works.
It's 1849 and Edgar Allan Poe (JOHN CUSACK) is a writer whose best days seem behind him. Having published a number of popular tales of macabre mystery and murder over the years, he now finds it next to impossible to get newspaper editor Henry Maddux (KEVIN McNALLY) to publish his latest works in the local paper. But Poe's attention -- when not objecting to that or keeping his romance with Emily Hamilton (ALICE EVE) secret from her well-to-do father, Captain Hamilton (BRENDAN GLEESON) -- is diverted by a series of murders that appear to be copied from parts of his past works.

The first to figure that out is Baltimore Detective Emmett Fields (LUKE EVANS), who initially casts a suspicious eye on Poe as the culprit. When he realizes that's not the case, he enlists the aid of the writer to figure out when, where and how the killer will strike next. Things then become more complicated when the killer starts toying with Poe, not only leaving him clues about the next murder, but also kidnapping Emily to raise the stakes. From that point on, the writer races against time to figure out who the killer is before it's too late.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
It's not often that one associates the literary names of Poe and Shakespeare with a high-concept Hollywood movie, but that's exactly the case with this week's release of "The Raven." To be completely accurate, we're not exactly talking about the Bard of legend, but rather screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare who, along with co-scribe Ben Livingston, has fashioned a period serial killer thriller featuring none other than good ol' Edgar Allan as the protagonist.

Following in the footsteps of offerings such as "Basic Instinct" and the TV show "Castle," our surly author (John Cusack, seemingly channeling Nic Cage at first) discovers that someone out there is playing copycat to murders and other elements of his popular works beginning with the double homicide in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" through the grisly means of death in "The Pit and the Pendulum" and more.

The detective in charge (a good Luke Evans in an underwritten role) initially believes Poe to be a suspect due to the novel-to-life similarities, but that's quickly dismissed, especially after the local newspaper editor ("Pirates of the Caribbean's Kevin McNally still supporting muttonchops) states that the only thing Poe has ever killed is a bottle of brandy. And it wouldn't make sense for Poe, if truly the killer, to kidnap his fiancée (Alice Eve), especially since her high society father (Brendan Gleeson) seems all too willing to pull out his gun and threaten or wound others.

So, with the young lass now buried somewhere alive, Poe must race against time to figure out the killer's various toying clues, rescue his future wife and stop the killer before he strikes once more in copycat style. Not surprisingly, the writers and director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") take a lot of literary and historical license hypothesizing the last days of Poe's life (the film opens with the dying author on a park bench and the titular critter circling above).

It's not in the same overarching vein as the recent cinematic remakes of the old "Sherlock Holmes" tales, and I don't have a problem with creative types playing loose with reality. But that's only if they do something compelling, engaging and/or novel with their alterations. Sadly, what probably looked interesting on paper (or a computer screen) isn't that compelling in filmed form.

Rather than take the Catherine Tramell route (where Sharon Stone's "Basic Instinct" novelist may or may not be the devious killer using her works to cover her murderous ways), the filmmakers here quickly discard any notion of Poe as the suspect and instead turn him into the usual layman detective trying to solve and stop a serial murder spree.

Granted, copying Joe Eszterhas' early 1990s script clearly wouldn't have been original, but at least it would have been interesting, particularly since Poe wasn't exactly the most upbeat, clean-living person of his mid 19th century era. The way Cusack initially portrays him -- a surly and broke intellectual with a drinking problem -- sets up the potential of fireworks to come. Alas, once the plot mechanisms kick in and the story turns to finding the buried, but still alive girlfriend, most of those characteristics are mostly neutered.

What we're then left with is the same sold, same old serial killer plot, albeit one set in 1849. Beyond being associated with Poe and his works, there's little else new to such offerings, meaning the flick ends up having a hard time holding our interest, even as we try to guess the identity of the killer. The only concrete clue we have is that the perp has large hands (based on strangulation bruise marks), so McTeigue makes sure to feature views of just that in hopes of piquing our interest. It doesn't.

That period placement also creates some credibility issues, especially with the killer recreating the sharp and swinging pendulum murder via a massive, gear-fed device that drops down a notch or two with each pass of the blade. It makes for a grisly murder scene (pretty much in line with any contemporary "torture porn" horror flick), but considering the day and age in which it's portrayed, it takes some suspension of disbelief to buy into.

In the end, and to circle back to Shakespeare's contribution (Will, not Hannah), all of this ends up being much ado about nothing. And let's just hope the "nevermore" part of Poe's original writing applies to any notion of "The Raven 2," "Son of the Raven" or "That's So Raven the Movie." This version rates as a yawn-inducing 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 17, 2012 / Posted April 27, 2012

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