Directed by: James McTeigue
Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson
Rated: R for bloody violence and grisly images
“The Raven” is one of those movies that never quite seems to figure out what it wants to be. Is it a gothic thriller, all period costumes and hushed terror? Is it a splatter movie, like so many modern horror films? Is it a black comedy? A silly, over-the-top piece of camp? Sure, plenty of movies manage to be more than one thing at a time, but “The Raven” tries to be things that are incompatible, and winds up being nothing at all, just a jumbled mess of a film. I suspect the reason can be found in one simple fact: it was directed by James McTeigue, whose last film was the trainwreck “Ninja Assassin” — a flick with the same problems.
It’s a shame, really. The plot is ripe with possibility: famed author Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) is in Baltimore when a serial killer obviously inspired by Poe’s own macabre tales begins cutting a bloody swath across the town. Poe must work with gifted Baltimore Police Detective Fields (Luke Evans) to catch the killer — a mission made even more urgent when Poe’s beloved Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped by the murderer.
“The Raven” fails in attempting to have something for everyone. There are scenes of the sort of existential terror so familiar to Poe fans everywhere (there’s a long, lovingly-shot sequence of a terrified young woman being buried alive that is shot with the kind of sadism Poe brought to tales like “The Cask of Amontillado”). There are also impressively gory, disgusting sequences — if you’ve ever wondered what “The Pit and the Pendulum” would look like in real life, if it were set up by someone impatient (the blade drops entirely too quickly between swings), prepare yourself for fountains of CGI blood.
At times, the film almost feels like there were two versions of it made, and sometimes the editor grabbed the wrong reels of film. The version that is all spatter and horror and gore is handicapped by the long, slow interludes from the version that has witty dialog, a well-crafted and slowly-developed rapport between Poe and Fields. The slow, thoughtful version is handicapped by the fact there is no character development for Emily (she and Poe have absolutely no chemistry, and it’s impossible to tell what they see in each other except that her father hates him and she’s beautiful).
You can’t have a thoughtful, interesting thriller in which the camera lingers lovingly on someone being slowly sliced in half by a clockwork mechanism. You also can’t have an effective splatter-flick in which there are long, slow interludes of period drama. It’s jarring, hopping back and forth between the two. There are even moments that almost seem spliced in from yet other versions. A campy flick in which Poe is a widely-reviled drunk with delusions of grandeur (Cusack really looked like he was having a blast in those scenes, it’s a pity there weren’t more). A beautiful costume piece that includes a masked ball in which everyone wears gorgeous period costumes.
Worse, the mishmash of genres isn’t even edited together well. The pacing is incredibly uneven, to the point that the film seemed to be racing toward its climax several times, and the ultimate showdown is so anticlimactic that even one of the characters comments on it. The running time is about an hour and forty minutes, but it feels a lot longer.
“The Raven” could have succeeded just fine had it picked one path and stuck with it. Instead, it almost seems to be trying to have something for everyone — and it winds up being enjoyable for nobody. It’s too gory for the audience that would have liked the thoughtful thriller. It’s too dull for the splatter fans. It doesn’t even succeed as an enjoyably terrible movie. It’s just bad.