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Saturday, April 28, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: THE RAVEN

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary..." Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven is one of the most famous poems ever written. While it is also one of Poe's most popular poems, it did not bring him much financial success during his lifetime. There have been many adaptations of Poe's work in films; most notably in the form of Universals horror adaptations starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karlof in the 1930's and 40's also  Roger Corman's Poe films in the 1960's starring Vincent Price, and more recently in the "Masters of Horror" series episode "The Black Cat", directed by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) and starring Jeffrey Combs. The latest Poe adaptation is this year's The Raven directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as Poe himself in this fictionalized, murder-mystery about the last days of his life.
In October 1849, Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) finds himself in Baltimore, Maryland. Drunk and penniless, he attempts to collect payment from a recent review in the local newspaper and to win the hand of Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), despite the protest of her father Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). Meanwhile, the police investigate a series of brutal murders which bears resemblance to events in Poe's fiction as Detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) enlists the aid of the reluctant author to track down the killer. As Poe gets more involved in the case, the fanatical murderer then kidnaps Emily and buries her alive, leaving clues as to her whereabouts. It becomes a race against time as Poe and Fields try to find Emily and the killer while Poe is forced to write and publish the story of the killers exploits per his request or else Emily will die!
With the recent popularity of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., it seems that the old-fashioned detective story has reemerged in Hollywood. While Edgar Allan Poe remains the originator of the fictional detective story with his The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) which predates Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories by almost 50 years. It is Poe's detective fiction which introduced the concept of ratiocination or logical reasoning, with his own detective: Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. (although unfortunately, the French inspector does not make an appearance in The Raven.) Although The Raven is based much more on literary themes with strong elements of horror and suspense than the Sherlock Holmes movies ,which rely more on action and the relationship between Holmes and Dawson. The Raven brilliantly incorporates many themes and story elements from several of Poe's stories including: The Raven, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and The Tell-Tale Heart. In the case of Emily being buried alive is reminiscent of The Premature Burial. Also the Masque of the Red Death ballroom scene is particularly exciting. The most impressive scene visually is the elaborate Pit and the Pendulum-style murder, while very bloody and gory, it loosely references the Saw movies to which Poe's torture story is also an inspiration. The whole movie's atmosphere is full of Gothic "Poe-esque" imagery, such as the cobbled streets, rain, fog, graveyards, blood and darkness.
As far as Cusack's depiction of Poe, it seems very sincere as he portrays the broad complexity of Poe's intense personality. From his very serious, and often highly egotistical literary self, to a very gentlemanly and passionate lover but also a very eccentric, almost manic drunk with a severe temper. While the real personality of Poe is often misconstrued as a drunkard, his bizarre eccentricities are nonetheless characteristics of Poe's unique genius. While many actors have played Poe on both the stage and screen, Cusack makes him very believable, at times a little over-the-top, but for the most part very convincing, particularly in one scene where he gives a sort of emotional soliloquy to his plight. While the character of Emily Hamilton (Eve) is introduced as a love interest for Poe, she is completely fictional! While it is known that Poe pursued many women in his lifetime, they often always ended in tragedy, particularly with his wife (and first cousin, who he married at the age of 13) Virginia Clemm Poe (1822-1847), who died young from Tuberculosis. (In reality, Poe was briefly engaged to Helen Whitman of Richmond, Virginia and then courted Sarah Royster of Rhode Island towards the end of his life.)
The Raven
may not be entirely historically accurate of Poe's life, particularly his untimely end. He did die in Baltimore, although under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He was found on the streets of Baltimore, "delirious" and "in great distress, and in need of immediate assistance...wearing clothes that were not his own." he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849 apparently from "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation". It is said that he repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death, although it is unclear to who he was referring to. His alleged last words were: "Lord help my poor soul." The actual cause of his death has been attributed to many ailments including: heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, cholera and even rabies, but nothing was ever proven. As a Poe aficionado, I was both excited and reluctant to see this movie, fearing Hollywood would butcher the writer's life and his work. But after seeing it, I was very impressed with Cusack's portrayal of my favorite author and poet and with the director James McTeigue, who also directed V for Vendetta (2005). Although much of the story is fictionalized, I believe it to be a successful homage to Poe. "Quoth the Raven, Nevermore'..."
The Raven Official Website: http://www.imdb.com/theraven