The Raven takes a solid foundation (the works of Edgar Allan Poe) gives it an interesting twist (a Se7en-esque crime riff on Poe's existing works) and squanders the opportunity into an unwatchable 111-minute film fit for no audience. One part CSI one part Saw the thriller plods its way through bloody setup after bloody setup as Poe (John Cusack) accompanies Detective Fields (Luke Evans) in search of the author's fiancee Emily (Alice Eve). She's been kidnapped by a murderous literary-inclined madman prompting Poe to put on his Sherlock hat and scream a lot.
Turns out the inventive demises of Poe's characters recreated by the faceless serial killer aren't that exciting — at least in the hands of director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta Ninja Assassin). The Raven is a straightforward procedural souped up with Victorian era production design but the unique setting doesn't forgive any of the ineptitude on display in the other aspects of the film. Poe is forced by the murder to chronicle his villainous exploits for the Baltimore newspaper — the perfect way to torture an entitled author and a dramatic hook to draw us into the antics. But McTeigue abandons the slow burn quality that could have been in favor of buckets of blood. The grisliness of the killings is one of the film's obsession red splashing across the screen as a pendulum guts a random victim. The Raven's gore earns the film's R but it's out of place.
Cusack's performance as Poe is befuddling. At times he's an egomaniac a wise thinker an action hero — he's completely in flux and every ounce of the movie's attempted seriousness vanishes. Never before has a part cried out for Nicolas Cage's signature brand of crazy-eyed manic heightened realism. Late in the film Poe and a team of police frantically search for his wife-to-be in a crypt. He calls out "EMILLLLLLLLYYYYYYY" in what sounds like the actor's best Ron Burgandy impression. Cusack doesn't know what movie he's in and there's no one around to help him.
There's little to enjoy in The Raven even on the surface. The muddy and dull cinematography looks like it was shot with a pea soup filter drab period-costuming and production design making squinting even more imperative. There's a strong core idea that dimly flickers under the bland mess of ideas flopping around in the movie — one Cusack and McTeigue even seem capable of pulling off. But The Raven is a spilled quill of ink sopped up with scare tactics and over-the-top performances. Less nevermore than never began.
Adapted from a King short story 1408 centers on renowned author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) who writes books about haunted places—houses hotels graveyards etc. He doesn’t believe in any of the mumbo jumbo since he hasn’t ever seen anything paranormal but he is happy to cash the checks anyway. When Enslin finds out about a haunted suite number 1408 at the notorious Dolphin Hotel in New York he does some research and discovers it indeed has had a grisly past. He decides he just has to stay there much to the chagrin of the hotel’s manager (Samuel L. Jackson) who hasn’t let anyone near the room in years. Anyone whose been in the room for more than an hour kills themselves you see. The manager tells Mike it isn’t necessarily because he cares about him he just doesn’t want to clean up the mess afterwards. But Mike is undeterred—and so sets out on the longest journey of what could be his short life. Save for the tense exposition scene between him and the always-good Jackson it’s mostly Cusack’s show—and he nails it. He displays that certain affability we’ve loved in films such as Serendipity but then demonstrates some real chops when it gets down to the nitty gritty adeptly alternating between jaded cynicism bewilderment bereavement and finally full-blown terror. See the room isn’t just a place where ghosts materialize and de-materialize. Its pure evil and manifests itself into whatever personal turmoil the occupant is going through at the time. For Mike this means reliving the death of his young daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and his further estrangement from his wife played convincingly by Mary McCormack (The West Wing). In Cusack’s capable hands Mike is one tortured soul but can he be strong enough to survive the odds? It’s not an easy thing to turn a Stephen King story into a movie. John Cusack aptly puts it in the production notes “I don’t know how he knows how to scare people so intensely or where those impulses come from but King is definitely channeling some spirits and demons.” Boy does he ever but as his loyal readers know his horror doesn’t necessarily mean gore (although his books do have that stuff in spades). In fact much of the terror King’s characters experience happen right inside their own heads which is frightening to read but really hard to translate to film—and many filmmakers have failed at it with exception to Rob Reiner who got it right with Misery. Now along with Reiner there’s Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) who understands how to take King’s internalizations in 1408 and bring them chillingly to the forefront with little to no CG effects or gimmicks. Rather the director plays with the audience making them guess whether they are watching real ghosts or just what’s happening inside Mike’s psyche. Hafstrom says he hopes viewers will wonder “What would happen to me in 1408?” I wouldn’t want to find out that’s for sure.