Shrouds of mystery fill the screen. Murder after murder, this macabre scene feels like a poet’s dream. A girl’s life and writer’s legend at stake, the unwinding minutes of despair are almost too much to take. But viewers beware, those seeking quality fare will find little haven in this dark Raven.

In vein of last year’s Anonymous, a film which questions the original source of William Shakespeare’s work, comes The Raven, a fictionalized theory on how famous poet Edgar Allan Poe spent his final days before his untimely death.

Set in 19th-century Maryland, Poe (John Cusack) has returned to Baltimore, a washed up drunkard unable to produce any new content beyond scathing reviews of other poets’ work. Though struggling to make a living, the egotistical and infamous writer has found love in the beautiful, young Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve). After an engagement, brought forth after Emily learns that Poe’s newest poem Annabel Lee was drafted in her image, the couple’s biggest dilemma appears only to be having to break the news to the bride-to-be’s stubbornly single-minded father, Captain Hamilton (Brendon Gleason). That is until Poe is called in by Detective Fields (Luke Evans) to discuss a double homicide in which the murderer recreated a scene from the writer’s short story, The Murders in Rue Morgue. Days later, another person has been slain in a manner fitting of a death found in another one of the poet’s stories, focused on the pains suffered by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, The Pit and the Pendulum. It isn’t long before the serial killer makes things personal and kidnaps Emily, forcing Poe to play along with the criminal’s demands if he wishes to see his fiancé again. As the duty-driven Fields uses every investigative trick in the book to catch this baleful fiend, Poe must once again channel his inner demons to write a fitting conclusion to this grim story before it can come to life.

In his third outing as director, James McTeigue further proves his love for films of a very theatrical nature. In 2005, all the pieces fit together for V for Vendetta; a remarkable directorial debut featuring one of the most intriguing comic book characters delivering poignant dialogue about society and the government’s role in it. The grand nature of the adaptation was something that all could remember.

In The Raven, McTeigue once again ups the theatricality to make his new film feel like one of his main character’s harrowing tales of mystery and murder. Take Poe and Fields arguing in a dimly lit room. Each convinced that the other is on the wrong track and at the climax of their fight; a sonic crashing sound reverberates in the small area. Lightning strikes right outside the window, briefly revealing a tall, shadowed figure — apparently the villain the two are chasing — in the background, followed by an ominous roar of thunder. In this case, what may read well on page comes off as amusingly clichéd and cheesy. Overall, the antics feel more staged and the plot are much less meaningful than V for Vendetta.

Penned by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, the film’s screenplay actually feels like a story ripped from a Dan Brown novel, only set 150 years ago. Poe is your old-century Robert Langdon, a man with such a specific knowledge, only he can solve the seemingly endless set of clues set before him. While it’s not quite the fate of the world at stake, the urgent pace of the film heightens a sense of importance in the chase to solve the mystery. McTeigue keeps viewers constantly engaged in the mystery and occasionally inserts a bit of Saw-like gore sequences to spice things up. Even if a mechanized slice-and-dice pendulum device feels out of place for this century, the bloody, cringe-worthy moments compliment the film’s growing tension and its dreary, grey-cast cinematography quite nicely.

The more this thriller plays out though, the more it becomes obvious that the screenplay is trying to act smarter than it actually is. Historical accounts state that shortly before Poe’s death he was found on a Baltimore park bench shouting hysterically and repeating the name “Reynolds.” His cause of death remains a mystery as all medical reports and death certificate have been lost. It is here that Livingston and Shakespeare use their dramatic license to fill in the missing information and create a scenario in which the villain’s reveal ties directly to Poe’s death. Needless to say, all the pieces fit together too perfectly to be believable, and our hero’s tale takes a dramatic turn for the worse. And though the film is clever in its incorporation of facts surrounding the actual death of the writer, it is not a conclusion fitting of the writer’s legacy.

Bringing Poe to life, Cusack, who prior to the release of the film received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gives one of the more sporadic performances of his career. Wearing a flowing black overcoat and sporting a perfectly trimmed goatee, his menacing looks hardly match his unstable nature. First seen as a man in need of an ego check, Cusack’s performance ranges from his frustrated persona seen in the psychological thriller 1408 to the calm and collected hit man he played in Grosse Pointe Blank. Even stranger is the dead look that is found in his eyes — whether it was an intentional look for his character or a lack of enthusiasm for the role is left unknown.

As the detective who seems incapable of solving any important cases, Evans plays the same committed authority character every mystery-thriller features. Bringing logic to the fictional situations, his cool demeanor and strikingly handsome looks make his one-dimensional characterization one heck of a cliché. Even Eve, looking as gorgeous as ever, is given little screen-time or much of a chance to bring more depth to the typical damsel in distress role.

Rather than an adept homage of one of literature’s greatest narrative poems, The Raven feels more like a B-Flick that acts cleverer than it actually is. And for as exciting as it is at times, the film should have certainly been more satisfactory than it ends up being.

2 out of 4 stars

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