Edgar Allan Poe's place in American literature would have been secure even if his death hadn't been completely bizarre and mysterious ... just like his stories. But to be found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious, ill, and wearing someone else's clothes — well, that's the stuff legends are made of. Many theories have been presented over the years, and “The Raven” — directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack — comes up with another.
This theory is presumably new, given that it barely matches any of the historical record of Poe's last days. To the filmmakers' credit, they are completely upfront about cherry-picking a few true details and constructing a fictional story around them. So Poe buffs should be prepared to drop any expectation of fidelity to the facts. Cusack's Poe mentions never having written about sailors, apparently forgetting his single longest work (“The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym”). He identifies the corpse of Rufus Griswold, a minor figure whose main claim to fame in the real world was as Poe's literary executor, despite the fact that Griswold loathed him and did everything he could to besmirch his memory. (Maybe this scene is a kind of payback by the filmmakers in Poe's name.)
Like the popular image (not all of which is hooey), Cusack's Poe is both penurious and a drunk. But he also has a sunny side: He is planning to marry Emily Harrison (Alice Eve), who loves him right back, despite the strenuous objections of her father (Brendan Gleeson), one of the city's most powerful figures.
But everything — including compatibility with history — is disrupted when people start turning up dead, in murders that appear to be patterned after Poe's stories. Naturally, no-nonsense police detective Field (Luke Evans) enlists Poe's aid in tracking down this “serial killer.”
Now wait a doggoned minute: They actually refer to him as a “serial killer,” as does a large newspaper headline, despite the fact that the term was coined during the Reagan administration. It's one thing to mess with the facts; it's another to include anachronisms that should set off an alarm for all but the tin-eared. In a similar manner, Poe derides someone as an “overgrown mouth breather,” which instantly pulls you back into the 21st century. There are a number of such obvious anachronisms in the speech, and, even if no single one pops out at you, together they interfere with suspension of disbelief.
As for the plot, I don't want to spoil things, so let me vaguely suggest that the killer's identity is tough to guess, because the character — in the grandest tradition of mendacious plotting — has barely been in the movie. In essence, he may as well have been the carriage driver who had one line in the third scene. It's hardly sportsmanlike of McTeigue — both annoying and not that interesting.
Let me recommend another film, which is more in keeping with the mood of Poe and uses a better variation on the same idea: A murder appears to have been inspired by a suspense story — an unpublished story, at that — and the author, loosely based on a real-life figure, becomes obsessed with tracking down the perp. Behold the terrific 1994 Japanese film “The Mystery of Rampo,” which has more in common with David Lynch than with James McTeigue. Ironically, in the real world, the writer at its center used the pseudonym Edogawa Rampo, a rough Japanese equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun