“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” The incantatory language of Edgar Allan Poe, as in his poem The Raven, is touched and tortured by nightmares; it haunts itself as much as it does the reader. Poe’s fantastic fiction reads like fevered autobiography — screams written in blood on torn bed sheets thrown from the high, barred window of an institution for the brilliantly deranged. Since Poe’s death in 1849 he has been the patron saint of paranoia, the poet laureate of the young, lonely and morbidly romantic, who see this world and the next as one seamless, fearful pageant. “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague,” he wrote in “The Premature Burial.” “Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
The verse and short stories of “the divine Edgar” — as Humbert Humbert calls him in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita — have inspired more movies than the works of any writer but Shakespeare. And because Poe’s writing reflects the psychic turmoil of his life (his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Virginia, who succumbed to consumption at the age of 20) and especially his own death (in Baltimore at 42, of “congestion of the brain,” in a delirium whose single coherent word was the repeated name “Reynolds”), the writer has often been a screen subject, from D.W. Griffith’s 1909 short Edgar Allan Poe to Francis Coppola’s 3-D Gothic tale Twixt last year. Now he is the star character of the suitably creepy, fitfully diverting The Raven. Directed by James McTeigue, this faux biopic presses elements from a half-dozen Poe stories into the service of a modern serial-killer plot.
(MORE: Read TIME’s review of Francis Coppola’s Poe-etic Twixt)
When Edgar (John Cusack) isn’t lurching across Baltimore like a shabby-genteel species of Poe white trash — drunkenly picking fights with bartenders and newspaper editors — he is courting Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the healthy blond daughter of a choleric Army officer and burgher (Brendan Gleeson) who disapproves of their union. Poe, though, is not the craziest man in town. Someone has been committing gruesome murders of young women, their manner of death similar to aspects of Poe stories: a slaughter scene in a sealed room, from “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a slicing in half of Poe’s literary rival, inspired by “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Other assaults are elaborate restagings of “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tomb of Ligeia,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Police Inspector Fields (Luke Evans) engages the author in the quest for the murderer, while Poe’s paper stokes municipal panic with headlines about “The Serial Killer.”
“Serial killer” is both a dreadful and soothing concept: horrifying in its revelation of the most diseased, sadistic and cunning minds, reassuring in attaching a series of atrocities to one lunatic. Serial-killer fiction pleases the audience’s taste for sensation — young women brutalized by a clever psychopath — and its need to tie loose narrative strands into a carnographic denouement. The device has become a sprawling genre: it’s possible there are more serial killers in novels and films than are documented in criminal files. But, as Bill James writes in Popular Crime, his quirky, unputdownable survey of the most notorious American murders, police as recently as 50 years ago “did not believe in serial murders. The term ‘serial murders’ did not exist….[E]xperienced policeman all ‘knew’ that almost all ‘real’ crimes were committed by persons who knew the victim.”
Yes, yes, The Raven is only a movie. And Poe was a prime progenitor of detective fiction — though rather than inspiring actual murder cases, he took his cue from them. (“The Mystery of Marie Roget” retold, and attempted to solve, the 1841 Manhattan killing of Mary Rogers; and Poe’s only play, Politian, was based on the Beauchamp-Stark case of a love affair, murder and suicide in Kentucky in 1825.) The film’s screenwriters, Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, have a little fun fitting some particulars of Poe’s life and the more lurid aspects of his writing into a genre almost as prevalent as serial-killer stories: “faction,” which drops historical personalities into fanciful tales. (E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was the template, but examples abound. The new movie The Pirates! Band of Misfits makes free and irreverent use of Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin.)
(MORE: TIME’s review of The Pirates! Band of Misfits)
“The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” Poe wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (published six years after Virginia’s death and a year before his own). The movie pins Edgar’s bizarre temperament, and his overuse of alcohol and opium, on the loss of his child bride. “Every woman he ever loved,” a friend of Poe’s says, “has died in his arms.” The role should be perfect for Cusack, who set some unofficial record a few years back when he appeared in four consecutive films (The Contract, Grace Is Gone, 1408 and Martian Child) playing a man haunted by his dead wife or daughter. But the actor depends too much on the declamatory-hysteric mode for which he is poorly suited; he’s better at withering, whispered barbs, often directed inward. Beset by “the melancholy that has followed me like a black dog all my life,” Edgar should smolder, not bluster.
McTeigue, the Australian protégé of the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) and director of the spiffy, borderline-treasonous V for Vendetta, slams home the period atmosphere; those dank Baltimore dens have an almost olfactory impact. He gets appealing performances from Evans, Eve, Gleeson, Sam Hazeldine as Poe’s No. 1 fan at the newspaper and, in the small role of a bartender, Brendan Coyle, cherished by PBS viewers as the valet John Bates on Downton Abbey. Until The Raven almost literally loses itself during a chase in the city sewers, it nicely balances its literary gamesmanship with a R-rated thriller’s mandatory gross-out tableaux.
(MORE: Read TIME’s review of James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta)
But the movie remains a spectacle — a coroner’s dispassionate report on a troubled soul — rather than the anguished confession that is the hallmark of true Poe fiction. For first-hand banshee testimony, go back to the stories, and hear the voice of an artist who speaks to us not just from nearly 200 years ago but from beyond the grave, or inside it.