CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE RAVEN (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A park in Baltimore in 1849. There’s some snow on the ground, and a mysterious figure sits on a bench, wearing a large hat. L.L. SOARES approaches)
LS: I got a mysterious message to meet someone here. Is that you, Michael?
MYSTERY MAN: Nope.
LS: Then you’re the great Edgar Allan Poe!
MYSTERY MAN: Uh….nope.
LS: Then who the hell are you?
MYSTERY MAN (holds out box): Uh, have one mister. Life is like a box of chocolates!
LS (pushes box away): Get out of here, Gump! I’m supposed to be meeting someone important here!
FORREST GUMP: D’uh, you are a mean person. I was only offering you a candy.
LS (kicks him off bench): Beat it!
GUMP: I’m gonna go tell my mommy on you.
LS: You do that.
(MICHAEL ARRUDA approaches from behind)
MA: What was all that about?
LS: I came here to meet you, so we could review the new movie THE RAVEN, and that damn Forrest Gump character tried to trick me into thinking he was you!
MA: Gump was pretending to be me? Wow, I’m flattered.
LS: You’re sounding more like Forrest Gump every day.
MA: Real funny. (bends down and picks up the box of chocolates). Hey, he left these.
LS: We’ve got a movie to review!
MA: I’m only going to eat one or two.
(MA sits down on bench and starts eating chocolates)
MA: Why don’t you start? Hey these are delicious! Don’t you want any?
LS: Maybe later.
Okay, so this week’s movie is THE RAVEN, starring John Cusack as the legendary writer, Edgar Allan Poe. As horror writers, Michael and I are both fans of Poe’s pioneering work in the field. It’s pretty safe to say there would be no horror genre if not for Poe.
MA (talks with his mouth full): Yep. Mmmm, these are yummy. You sure you don’t want any?
LS: Nope. So, in THE RAVEN, the police come across violent murders that seem to be patterned after Poe’s story “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” At first, the detective on the case, Inspector Fields (Luke Evans), suspects Poe may have something to do with these grisly goings-on, but soon realizes that whoever the killer is is basing their murders on Poe’s stories. Talk about a “Number One Fan.”
MA (quickly finishing the chocolate he was eating): All right, get these away from me. (pushes box away). Yeah, I thought Fields and the police dismissed Poe as a suspect too quickly. They have these murders based on Poe’s stories, and they have Poe, who’s about as far away from a well-balanced fellow as you can get, plus one of the victims is a fellow critic hated by Poe, and yet the police quickly dismiss Poe as a suspect and then welcome him into their investigation. Honestly, this seemed like a forced plot point to me, just to have the movie, THE RAVEN. These are police officers. Wouldn’t they be highly suspicious of Poe?
LS: Poe aids Fields and the police in trying to guess the killers next move. Meanwhile, at a masked ball, Poe’s fiancée, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) is kidnapped during some confusion (having to do with Poe’s story “The Masque of Red Death”). This scene kind of bugged me. In one scene, Poe is standing right beside Emily, then in the next she has been kidnapped and Emily’s father, Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) reads a note from the criminal. If she was standing right next to Poe, when did someone have the chance to snatch her?
MA: I’m with you. It was an odd scene, and I found myself asking the same question.
LS: It really annoyed me! Because there is no way Poe would be standing next to Emily and let anyone take her away. He would have fought tooth and nail.
And there’s another scene, later on, when Poe kicks over a heavy table that has a lantern on it, yet the lantern doesn’t smash or start a fire. In the next scene, he’s carrying it down into some catacombs. Did they really have Plexiglas in the 1800s?
Sloppy writing. Anyway, poor Emily is soon buried alive in some mysterious location. While they try to track her down, Poe is informed that, unless he writes a new story each night in the paper, Emily will die. So, at the end of each frustrating day that they can’t find her, Poe must spend the whole night writing. Luckily the paper he normally writes for agrees to go along with this, since Poe has been writing for the editor, Maddux (Kevin McNally) for the last 10 years.
MA: I didn’t really like this plot point, but more on that later.
LS: Will Poe find Emily in time, before her air runs out? Who is the mysterious murderer and kidnapper who seems so obsessed with Poe’s life and work? These questions and more are answered in THE RAVEN.
Well, first off, why call it THE RAVEN? We’ve already had a few movies with this title already. According to imdb.com, there have been 23 movies with this title. Including the excellent 1935 film, starring Bela Lugosi as a sadistic plastic surgeon with an obsession with Poe, and Boris Karloff as a criminal on the run whom Lugosi torments. And the more humorous 1963 version, where Karloff and Vincent Price play dueling sorcerers, while poor Peter Lorre gets turned into a raven. Couldn’t the people who made this new movie come up with a more original title?
MA: I agree. I certainly wouldn’t have named it after one of Poe’s poems or stories, because it’s not one of his stories but an entirely new tale. I would have gone with something simpler like POE. But that’s just off the cuff. I’m sure there are a host of better titles.
LS: I have to admit, the concept of this movie seemed an awful lot like the recent SHERLOCK HOLMES movies where Robert Downey Jr. plays Holmes as something of an action star. And the comparison is kind of apt. In THE RAVEN, Edgar Allan Poe, at a point in his life when he was ravaged by alcoholism, somehow finds the energy to search for Emily, match wits with a madman, shoot guns, dig up graves and ride on horseback. It’s all pretty impressive, but not very believable.
MA: You’re right. It’s not very believable, and as a result for me, not all that impressive.
LS: John Cusack is okay as Poe, but not great. At first I thought he was really miscast. There are, however, a few scenes that worked for me, like when Cusack would look at Alice Eve lovingly, or when he takes action, then Cusack is tolerable. In other scenes, where he reads Poe’s poetry or goes off on a rant, he just sounded silly, and I found myself wishing they had cast Jeffrey Combs instead. Combs has played Poe on television (on the “Black Cat” episode of the Showtime series, “Masters Of Horror” in 2007) and on the stage, and he just seems more physically believable as Poe. He also can read Poe’s poetry without sounding goofy. And Cusack just seems way too healthy for the role. It’s impossible to look at him and believe this is a guy battling deep inner demons and an addiction to booze and drugs. I just had a really hard time buying Cusack in the role for most of the film’s running time. However, I realize that Cusack’s name on the marquee probably sells a lot more tickets to mainstream America than Combs’s would.
MA: I didn’t have a problem with Cusack. I thought he made for a dark and brooding Poe, and I didn’t think he sounded all that silly when he read Poe’s poetry. And he looked sufficiently under the weather. He didn’t project images of good health, let’s put it that way. I thought he looked like he was suffering from a head cold throughout the movie, so I didn’t have a problem with him seeming too healthy.
LS: A head cold? The man is weeks away from death! He should have looked a lot worse off than that! I didn’t find this believable at all.
(A man walks by sneezing and coughing, looking as pale as a corpse.)
MA: Is that a better representation of how Poe should have looked?
LS: Nope. Not sick enough.
MA: How about him? (points to a figure staggering in the distance, with maggots crawling out of his eyes, rotting teeth, his left arm missing below the elbow, wearing bloodstained clothes and a knife in his skull.)
LS: Now you’re talking!
MA: However, I did have a problem with his being a hero in the movie. I liked Cusack A LOT early on in the movie, in his scenes in bars and listening to a group of women read their amateur poetry to him, but as soon as he gets involved in the murder plot, I thought his character became much less enjoyable. Poe is a dark and haunted character, but he’s not Sherlock Holmes, and so he’s not the most entertaining hero.
LS: But you can understand why Poe is sucked into this mystery. He did write the first detective story, after all, and created the fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin!
MA: And that’s exactly why I expected him to be more of a detective in this movie. I didn’t find this angle exploited enough.
(Three men show up. Two of them take off their jackets and begin bare-knuckle boxing)
MA: What’s going on here?
MAN WATCHING: It’s Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin, determined to find out who is the tougher detective.
HOLMES: I was first!
DUPIN: No, I was!
(The two men knock each other out, and the WATCHING MAN drags them away by their shit collars)
LS: Wow, a real live boxing match. That was exciting!
MA: Didn’t last very long. Actually, Dupin was first, but no matter. They’re gone now.
LS: I guess they’re not as tough as they seem in these recent movies.
MA: Back to our review. Cusack’s Poe is sadly lacking charisma, which in and of itself is fine since I don’t expect Poe to be the most charismatic character, but as a lead hero in a horror movie, I found him dull.
I would have preferred to see Cusack play Poe in a straight biography rather than in this silly murder mystery.
LS: I actually liked Luke Evans a lot as Detective Fields, and found him to be more dynamic and charismatic than Cusack’s Poe was. In fact, there were times when I found myself wishing the movie was Fields’ story, rather than Poe’s. I wanted to know more about Fields.
MA: Yeah, Evans was good, and his Detective Fields was slightly more interesting than Poe, and since I didn’t find Cusack’s Poe charismatic, I’d agree with you that Evan’s Fields was the more charismatic character. But as detectives go, he wasn’t the most effective. He kinda fails at everything he does.
LS: Exactly! I thought that was actually pretty inspired. He’s this renowned detective and a vibrant force of nature, and yet, he’s pretty much a failure, despite his reputation.
Alice Eve is good as Emily, and Brendan Gleeson—an always reliable actor—is fine as her father.
MA: I agree. I liked Eve a lot, and I wish she had been in the movie more. She spends a bulk of the film buried alive while we wait for Poe and the police to rescue her. What a waste!
I really liked Gleeson as Captain Hamilton, a man who would rather shoot Poe dead on sight than have the author marry his daughter. We just saw Gleeson in SAFE HOUSE (2012).
LS: Gleeson was much better in movies like THE GENERAL (1998) and IN BRUGES (2008)
MA: I also liked Kevin McNally as Maddux, the newspaper editor who publishes the stories Poe has to write each night to placate the murderer. McNally played Gibbs in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, and I remember him from the Kenneth Branagh TV-movie SHACKLETON (2002). McNally provides nice support here.
LS: Strangely, McNally was also in a TV-movie called POE in 2011, playing a character named Kyle Kilpatrick. In that movie, Christopher Egan plays a Poe investigating murders in 19th century Boston. Coincidence?
I thought the script was clever at times, and the murders were suitably gruesome (especially one involving the notorious Pit and the Pendulum). Although I have to admit that CGI gore leaves a lot to be desired and cannot take the place of stage blood just yet. It just looks incredibly fake.
MA: Yes, the murders were gruesome, and I thought the pendulum scene was one of the better parts of the movie. It blows away all the similar pendulum scenes we’ve seen in movies past. Finally, we get to see how truly gruesome and horrible this torture can be.
LS: Not gruesome enough for my tastes. This movie could have tried a little harder to earn its R rating.
MA: On the other hand, the script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, I didn’t like that much. I liked the premise, that Poe would become involved with a murder investigation, trying to hunt down a murderer who’s basing his crimes on Poe’s stories. But I didn’t like how it played out. I didn’t like Poe’s having to write stories to placate the killer and save the woman he loves. On paper, it sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t make for exciting cinema. Scenes of Poe writing words on a paper just didn’t do much for me. They weren’t that exciting.
I would have rather seen Poe trying to solve the crimes. I expected him to be more of a Sherlock Holmes-type character, which would have been apt, since Poe’s stories influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he wrote Sherlock Holmes.
So, when the story heats up, and Poe’s feverishly writing his stories for the killer, and he and the police are furiously trying to find the killer, I just wasn’t going along for the ride.
(EDGAR ALLAN POE staggers toward them, looking disheveled)
POE (holding out hand): Some sheckles for a poor sod? I would gladly recite a poem for your edification, for but a sou.
LS: Beat it, ya bum!
MA: No, no, that’s the real Edgar Allan Poe! Of course we would love to hear you recite poetry. Here’s a dollar (hands it to him, and LS does the same)
(POE opens his mouth to speak, but instead, begins vomiting)
POE (wipes his mouth): Maybe later. I seem to be a bit under the weather right now.
LS: Now that’s the Poe I know and love.
(POE runs away to buy booze)
MA: Well that was depressing.
LS: Yeah, he didn’t look like John Cusack at all! And what was with Cusack having a goatee? Poe didn’t have one of those! He just had a mustache. Whatever happened to historical accuracy?
Anyway, the direction by James McTeigue, who previously gave us V FOR VENDETTA (2005), which I actually liked a lot, and 2009’s NINJA ASSASSIN, is adequate here, but everything didn’t seem quite as atmospheric as it should be. For some reason, the movie just didn’t seem to reach its full potential for me.
MA: I agree that it didn’t reach its full potential, but I don’t think it was because of a lack of atmosphere. I thought this movie looked great. It brought back memories of Hammer’s movies, although this one took place in Baltimore rather than Europe.
But that being said, this movie is lacking, and it’s strange, because it has so much going for it. It has solid acting, strong atmosphere, sufficiently graphic bloody scenes, but I wasn’t into it. Why not? The answer is the story, which I found surprisingly dull, for reasons I’ve already gone into.
I’ll be honest. I was kinda bored throughout the second half of this movie.
I also was disappointed with the killer in this one. I expected someone much more evil and sinister.
LS: Yes, I agree. The identity of the killer is something of a letdown. And you start to think back to the earlier scenes and the whole thing is just very far-fetched, that this guy would be so successful in everything he does to bait and elude the police. The killer’s motive was kind of cool, but the movie is not very believable.
MA: Another problem with the story is it’s simply not as twisted as one of Poe’s stories. To accomplish this, we would have had to really get inside the head of the killer, and since this movie is a mystery, we don’t meet or know the killer until the end.
LS: Oh, I agree with that, too. This movie is pretty wimpy compared to a real Poe story. Not half as dark as it needed to be to truly feel Poe-inspired. Maybe that’s why I questioned the strength of the movie’s atmosphere.
Overall, I liked THE RAVEN more than I thought I would, based on the trailer. I went in with low expectations, thinking it would be awful. It’s not. There are several things about it that I liked, and despite the far-fetched plot, it kept me interested throughout. But I don’t think it was a must-see movie. More of a rental. I give it two and a half knives.
What about you, Michael?
MA: I fully expected to like this movie, and I was very surprised that I didn’t like it. It gets off to a strong start, and really does well at setting the stage for a deliciously macabre murder mystery, but then it drops the ball because later the suspense is sadly lacking when it’s needed most. THE RAVEN isn’t bad, but it’s oddly not that compelling or thrilling, and as a result I give it two knives.
(FORREST GUMP runs up to their bench, laughing)
LS: What’s so funny, Gump?
GUMP: You ate the candy, you ate the candy!
LS: So what?
GUMP: Haha. I put some of that Ex-Lax stuff in it. And you ate it. Gump got you good, you mean man.
LS: Actually, I haven’t had a chance to eat any yet. Thanks for warning me.
MA: What did you say?
GUMP: It was Ex-Lax candy. Gump got you good!
MA: Oh yeah? Well, Gumpy boy, I’ve got news for you. You didn’t get me, because there were two boxes of chocolates left here— (aside to camera) how’s that for an unrealistic plot point? — and I didn’t eat yours. I ate the other one. So, you can take this box and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine! (shoves box into Gump’s hands.)
GUMP: You meanie! (runs away crying)
(A figure is suddenly standing behind them. They turn to see the GRIM REAPER.)
REAPER: Did you eat my chocolates?
MA: Er, your chocolates? (to LS) What are the odds he put something stronger than Ex-Lax in his candy?
LS: It was nice knowing you, man!
REAPER: So, did you eat my chocolates?
MA: Um, yeah. Am I going to—?
REAPER: Hope you liked them. I’m a big fan. (Walks away).
LS: In that case, give me some of those. (helps himself to some chocolate.)
VOICE-OVER NARRATION (sounding sad): Life is like a box of chocolates. You eat ……..and then you die. (violins play)
LS (stops eating): Let’s get the hell out of here.
MA: I’m with you. Let’s go review another movie or something.
(LS and MA run from the park, as a raven flies overhead, cawing)
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives THE RAVEN ~ two knives!
LL Soares gives THE RAVEN ~two and a half knives.