By STEVE PERSALL
Times Movie Critic
This much we know: In 1849, noted author and poet Edgar Allan Poe was discovered on a Baltimore park bench, incoherent and days away from death. How he got that way and what he babbled about is a mystery, with theories concentrating on Poe's personal torment and addiction to opiates and alcohol.
This much is hypothesized by James McTeigue's stuffy slasher flick The Raven: Poe was the first criminal profiler, assisting in the pursuit of a murderer copycatting his gruesome stories. It's a revisionist stroke that might work, if McTeigue approached the idea less sensationally, or displayed a Sherlock Holmes cheekiness about it. The Raven isn't nearly as much fun as it should be.
Much of the problem lies in casting John Cusack as Poe, appearing more robust than a deteriorating substance addict should. His occasional bug-eyed rants aren't fitted with the poetic insanity we'd expect. Cusack is less interesting than the grisly tableaus, from gashed throats and a bladed pendulum, to a premature burial that isn't bloody but so botched that it's unintentionally amusing.
The role of Poe played straight begs for an actor with less meat on his bones and more absinthe in his eyes. Someone like John Hawkes, in an urbane twist on his creepily heroic Uncle Teardrop role in Winter's Bone. Or you could go classily irreverent, but Robert Downey Jr. was busy and the screenwriters uninterested. The Raven is essentially a tamer Se7en, with Cusack drowsily playing a famously named yet ordinary detective.
McTeigue dotes on 19th century details of flowing cloaks and rumbling carriages, while the dialogue sometimes slips into contemporary vernacular; a headline blares the phrase "serial killer," which wasn't coined until Ted Bundy. The mystery concocted by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (a descendant of William, but wordplay isn't hereditary) doesn't pass the look-back test: Try tracing the solution backward to see if it truly makes sense. You'll wonder why the culprit isn't a prime suspect from the start.
Viewers can be easily distracted by logistical mysteries, such as how the giant cogs and gears of a slashing pendulum are installed without raising suspicion. The size of the project would require a work crew, and what else could it be used for besides torture? And don't get me started on the buried alive sequence, when a victim lying on her back pokes a hole in the crypt's lid, resulting in a horizontal view of her surroundings. Is there a periscope I'm missing, or are those bookshelves on the ceiling?
It's okay for movies to include such gaps of logic, but mediocre ones make you notice them. The Raven should be as mad and macabre as its hero, yet winds up flat-toned and shrill like its avian namesake. There are plenty of "nevermore" jokes to drop in here, but that would disrespect Poe's legacy. Cusack and McTeigue have already made that mistake.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.