Quoth this: "The Raven" enjoyably macabre but uneven Grand Guignol

The Raven (2012)
111 min., rated R.
Roger Corman made "The Raven" in 1963 with Vincent Price and it was loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name. 2012's "The Raven" takes the same creative liberties, only its narrative has no resemblance of that film or the poem. Rather, director James McTeigue (2005's "V for Vendetta") and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (probably a descendant of Will) use some of the real-life mysteries from Poe's final days and spin a fictional murder-mystery yarn around it. An influential poet of mysteries and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, with the cause of his death remaining unknown but apparently attributed to cholera, alcoholism, heart disease, suicide, tuberculosis, and more. Opening with Poe near death on a park bench, "The Raven" doesn't try to rewrite history; it's just a lusciously made, delightfully macabre, if unevenly scripted, Grand Guignol.

John Cusack, fun to watch here in a goatee, plays Poe as a penniless drunk who likes to kill a bottle of brandy and buy drinks to pub "mouth-breathers" that can complete the line of poetry ("Quoth the raven…") from his latest work. He's initially oblivious when a serial murderer begins modeling his crimes after Poe's methods of torture and execution from his own grim short stories such as "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt." A mother and daughter are found butchered in a room locked from the inside. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) immediately finds the killer's magic-like escape familiar of one of Poe's stories, making the author a suspect. Soon, the killer strikes again when a portly man (Poe's number one critic, actually) meets his doom to a scythe-like pendulum. After Fields clears Poe from suspicion and start working together to crack the case, a red mask found at the last murder scene points to the killer's next move at the masquerade ball hosted by Poe's secret fiancee, Emily (Alice Eve), and her disapproving father Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). Sure enough, Emily is kidnapped, but for Poe, finding the killer and the whereabouts of the woman he loves will be like finding two needles in a haystack.

From the grisly first murder to the title card of blood dripping down the 'v,' "The Raven" gets you in the mood for a darkly tasty Poe tale. With tops art direction, costume design, and make-up, the film looks great. Full of gothic atmosphere, the cobblestone streets of 1849, Baltimore, actually recall the Hughes brothers' 2001 horror drama "From Hell" about Jack the Ripper. Even the end credit sequence, almost reminiscent of 2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is pretty nifty on the way out. Then, there are the murders. In this day and age, you'd expect any story of Edgar Allan Poe to be gored up to the nth degree. Except for the queasily tense, gruesome but not gratuitous "Pit and the Pendulum"-inspired set-piece that might be a la mode of a "Saw" movie, the murders are mostly off-screen. Bloodied-up bodies are either found or shown like Elizabeth Short-esque corpses on a slab during the procedural scenes. Poe's editor, Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally), even goes on about how the public likes his gory tales, so it's only appropriate that the film delivers some blood. CG blood, but blood nonetheless. 

Livingston and Shakespeare's hook is sickly clever, and "Poe-heads" will catch all the literary references, but save for the murders being patterned after Poe's literary works, the whodunit is rather uninspired and half-cooked once revealed. The best whodunits (even episodes of Scooby-Doo!) give audiences a roster of red herrings and suspects to choose from, but to quote Jamie Kennedy's Randy from "Scream," "Everybody's a suspect!" Come the 11th hour unmasking of the murderer, the real question on our minds is "Who's that?" as if the screenwriters placed a character in at random. With that said, the film still has enough suspense in its arsenal, leading up to the disappointing payoff. Emily being buried alive in the killer's lair à la Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" raises the stakes, and two chase sequences, one backstage of a theater during a mid-performance of "Macbeth" and another in the city sewers, are well-handled.

Casting an actor more prone to hamming, like Nicolas Cage, would've careened the film into camp. It also would've been a mistake since this story calls for Poe to be more sane than the maniac he's trying to catch. So as the dour, subdued Poe, Cusack is just fine. He has that Everyman quality, making the alcoholic writer a tortured soul with a sardonic mouth and an eccentric look. Heck, he even has a pet raccoon. Also, his flippant, snarky remarks ("I only drink occasionally, to be social" and "If I'd known my work would have such a morbid effect on people, I would've devoted more time to eroticism") are a hoot. The lovely Eve, in period dress, is a little stiff as Emily, but once confined in a buried box, her distress is palpable and her resourcefulness credible. Evans holds his own, doing most of the work as the police investigator, and proves he has more personality than just looking like a Sam Worthington type.

Though excelling in its aesthetically sumptuous design, "The Raven" might've made a better film were the screenplay more developed and less rushed. Poe was such an interesting figure that more focus on him as a person in his final days might've lifted the whodunit stuff out of the perfunctory. While Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies revised Arthur Conan Doyle's egghead sleuth's adventures into hollow but slickly diverting action pics, "The Raven" remains faithful to the tone of Poe's fictitious tales, while reenvisioning his life and spinning a gripping-enough tale out of the artist's control. Quoth this critic, "Watchable!"

Grade: B -