“The Raven” (A Nickell-odeon Review)

May 16, 2012

Baltimore, 1849. First, there is the brutal murder of a woman and her daughter in a fourth-floor apartment that is locked from the inside. Then the body of a man named Griswold is found in a torture chamber, sliced in half by a great curved blade at the end of a pendulum.

We learn that Griswold had had a feud with a local besotted literary figure, Edgar Poe. Moreover, the crimes are obvious imitations of Edgar’s macabre stories, respectively “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (a locked-room mystery with which Poe became the creator of the detective story) and “The Pit and the Pendulum” (one of his quintessential tales of horror).

Although Edgar is at first a suspect, a publisher assures the police that “The only thing he’s ever killed is a bottle of brandy.” The lead detective comes to agree and soon enlists Edgar—for his “expertise”—in the search for what a newspaper calls a “serial killer” (even though that term is of modern vintage). The killer is of course a madman such as Poe himself might have imagined, and the murders continue with reference to the genius’ works—for example, invoking “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” Thus plagiarism is taken to grotesque new heights!

The killer comes even closer to Edgar, kidnapping his girlfriend and keeping her—well, let us just say, in the manner described in “The Cask of Amontillado.” With this, the movie’s suspense is heightened, punctuated by the occasional appearance of a raven (a bird of ill omen) that evokes the movie’s title. (It is taken from Poe’s famous poem, wherein a raven repeatedly croaks—in response to the poet’s tormented musings over his dead love—“nevermore.”)

Despite the references to Poe’s real life (he really did feud with the Rev. Rufus W. Griswold, a literary scavenger who vindictively blackened Poe’s name after his death), and despite the numerous allusions to Poe’s tales (including also “A Descent into the Maelström,” “The facts in the case of M. Valdemar,” “The Premature Burial,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”) as well as his poems (notably “Annabel Lee”), The Raven can scarcely be called an homage. It is rather another Hollywood caricature (this time played by John Cusack) in a long tradition of Poe ripoffs, absurdities, and perversions of history (although it stops well short of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer).

Will such abuse of Poe and his genius reach an end? “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

Rating: two wooden nickels (out of four)

Two Nickels