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Quoth the lowly film critic: 'mediocre, lazy... Nevermore'

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Evidently, director James McTeigue was anticipating negative reviews, judging from a scene in The Raven in which a victim is cut in twain by a razor-sharp pendulum descending remorselessly upon his pot-bellied torso.

"But I'm just a critic!" the man wails just before the swinging blade tastes flesh.

Lest you think a critic might take offence at this pre-emptive strike, let me assure you I've always been a fan of the movie Theatre of Blood, in which hammy Shakespearean actor Vincent Price systematically eliminates his snooty detractors in murders inspired by the Bard. Director Chris Columbus has often claimed to be planning a remake, but alas, nothing has materialized so far.

Speaking of remakes, one should be assured this horror-thriller has nothing to do with the Roger Corman-produced film The Raven, starring those icons of '60s terror Vincent Price and Boris Karloff.

No, this film is as separate an entity as Corman's film was from Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven. It concerns a proto-serial killer at work in mid-19th century Baltimore. And since the killer is inspired by the works of a certain Edgar Allen Poe himself, it falls on the drunken, dissolute author (John Cusack) to help track him down.

It's a nifty idea that allows for recreations of Poe's most lurid scenes from stories including The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Cask of Amontillado, The Premature Burial and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Sadly, the concept is bungled royally.

The movie takes as its starting point Poe's mysterious death in 1849, when he was discovered delirious and ranting on the streets of Baltimore. A feature-length flashback ensues, showing Poe grubbing all over Baltimore seeking money and/or attention.

But soon he gets more attention than he ever wanted as a possible suspect in a double homicide in which a woman and her daughter are discovered murdered in a seemingly impenetrable locked room. The detective in charge of the investigation, Detective Fields (Luke Evans) happens to be a Poe aficionado and recognizes the circumstances as being identical to Poe's proto-detective story Murders in the Rue Morgue. More murders follow, and Poe is himself called in to lend his expertise, even as his beloved would-be fiancée Emily (Alice Eve) is apparently targeted by the madman.

The script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare is necessarily literate (Poe was himself one of the leading literary critics of his time) but perhaps more grisly than clever. Surely an ingenious serial killer challenging Edgar Allen Poe to find him would have referenced his code-breaking story The Gold Bug, not The Cask of Amontillado.

The likable Cusack does what he can, but he is essentially miscast as Poe, lacking the author's obsessive intensity.

Mostly, the film is just lazily directed by McTeigue, If you think a director can't phone it in, watch how McTeigue handles the problem of the heroine being abducted at her own debutante ball while in the presence of Poe, her protective father (Brendan Gleeson) and a full contingent of police. McTeigue's solution is to avoid the issue altogether, cutting from one scene in which Emily is there, to the next in which Emily is not there.

No, The Raven is not a remake. But it actually should be, if you believe that instead of making mediocre remakes of great films, Hollywood should strive to make great films out of promising projects rendered mediocre by incompetence and neglect. In that regard, I would consider The Raven a prime candidate.

But I'm just a critic.

Other Voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of The Raven:

The director who stitched The Raven together has no idea how to frame or compose a scene, let alone "grow" a film organically.

-- Kathleen Murphy, MSN Movies

Cusack, in the most dashing, least introverted role of his career, is a delight, manic one moment, overwhelmed by regret in the next.

-- Roger Moore, McClatchy Tribune Newspapers

[Poe] probably deserved better than this movie, which turns his heritage into a sub Se7en-style serial killer thriller blended with a bit of Scream for not-so-good measure.

-- Graham Young, Birmingham Post

An utterly dreadful attempt at a costume thriller by the flashy, heavy-handed, vacuous director James McTeigue, whose previous crimes against cinema have been V For Vendetta and Ninja Assassin.

-- Christopher Tookey, Daily Mail

Screen hokum gets no hokier.

-- Nigel Andrews, Financial Times

The Raven is a squawking, silly picture that never takes flight.

-- Leslie Felperin, Variety

It's a moderately entertaining thriller that (contrary to the claims of its writers and director) throws little light on Poe's character and none on the mystery surrounding his death.

-- Philip French, Observer

Poe's acidic wit and flair for brevity are both in perilously short supply in this torpid, rackety whodunit.

-- Robbie Collin, Daily Telegraph

Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie review

The Raven

Starring John Cusack and Alice Eve

Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne


110 minutes

1 1/2 stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2012 D4

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