If Edgar Allan Poe was alive today, the inspired gothic thriller The Raven is the kind of film he would write. Just as Poe's tales were sensational page turners and garnered thousands of new readers with each story, Australian director James McTeigue delivers an equally commanding scene turner that guarantees to keep you on the edge of your seat.
From the outset, its luring concept is ingenious: an infatuated fanatic who firmly believes in the brilliance and vision of Edgar Allan Poe, and who worships his tales of the macabre (like The Raven, The Pit And The Pendulum and The Masque Of The Red Death), goes to extreme measures to pay justice to the author's genius by killing people gruesomely in the style of the classic tales.
A tortured, real-life American literary genius
The Raven tells a mythical tale of a tortured, real-life American literary genius who is forced to relive the horrors he himself created, at the hands of a madman. As he goes from author to a character trapped in one of his tales, the masterfully executed crimes and ominous killer becomes Poe's crowning masterpiece.
When imagination becomes the inspiration of horrendous crimes, Poe is not only the most qualified to unveil the killer, but becomes a suspect in the bizarre killings inspired by his own writing. The hunter soon becomes the hunted when the young Baltimore detective who takes on the case states that the "only thing Poe has killed is a bottle of brandy!" There is life inside the mystery, as Poe confronts his own demons and is forced to revive his former genius.
Gripping opening to thrilling finale
From its gripping opening to thrilling finale, The Raven is also a brilliant human drama that explores the final days in the bizarre life of mystery master Edgar Allan Poe; his death was as mysterious as his life, and screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare (yes, there is another Shakespeare) and Ben Livingston deliver a well-crafted story that is filled with drama, horror and suspense, and laced with a dark sense of humour.
Director McTeigue, who made his directorial debut with V for Vendetta, and being an assistant director on The Matrix Trilogy and Star Wars: Episode III, delivers a dramatic and visceral cinematic experience. His striking visual style perfectly balances moments of graphic violence and extreme horror, with a shadowy world of deadly buried secrets; his commanding style skilfully draws you into the intimacy of fear and then juxtaposes the stark realism with a phony reality that boggles the mind (to reveal more would be a sin).
A surreal and nightmarish hell
In the style of great Italian expressionists like Fellini and Argento, McTeigue twists perceptions into a surreal and nightmarish hell, and then breaks the fantasy with austere realism that is provocative and results in engaging entertainment. McTeigue astutely captures the world Poe lived in (Baltimore 1848), as well as the world Poe conjured up in his imagination. This contrasting collision is appealing and allows the viewer to feel the story as events happen, as well as trigger the imagination as to what lurks in its menacing gloom.
The Raven has the ingeniousness of Hitchcock and its momentary flirtations with horror never become imposing or graphically overbearing. It is a cunning and smart film that seduces the senses and provokes the imagination in a gentle and unassuming manner.
Blessed with superb performances
It's not only spectacular and intelligent, but also blessed with superb performances. John Cusack is sensational as Poe and truly embodies the author's macabre and witty persona, with Luke Evans making an imposing detective bent on justice.
Riddled with suspicion, twists and turns, the well-paced plot is brilliantly underscored by an imposing and haunting music score from 36-year-old Spanish-born composer Lucal Vidal.
As with great detective and mystery thrillers, it is best to experience The Raven cold so that its surprising and challenging plot twists will draw you deeper into its spiralling abyss and great reveal. If you are one of those film-goers who becomes his own worst enemy by trying to unravel the plot or Google the synopsis while watching the film, don't. You might as well read one of Poe's stories and skip right to the last page. Just let The Raven happen. You won't regret a second of it.
The Raven, an original and intelligent mystery thriller, is indeed a terrifying and chilling exploration of fear that cuts to the bone, and deeper.
Behind the scenes
While McTeigue and his producers would have liked to film The Raven on the very Baltimore streets in which Poe lived his final days, such scenery unfortunately no longer exist, a fire having long ago (in 1914) destroyed a good part of the old city. Aaron Ryder took a detailed tour of whatever Poe sites still stood - such as his burial site and the bar he drank in - but, for the most part, he noted, "It was very hard to find 1849 in 2011 Baltimore. Not only don't you have the architecture of that time, but the city is very gentrified with urban sprawl." Marc Evans concurred: "Most of what you'd want to shoot of Baltimore no longer exists."
Ryder considered other North American cities, such as Montreal and New Orleans, but found similar built-up cities with far too small "old town" areas. So, fairly early on, the team decided that in order to find the look they needed, they would have to film in Europe. "James and I scouted - about a year before we shot - in Prague, Zagreb, Budapest and Belgrade," Ryder said, eventually settling on Budapest as the city that looked closest to the Baltimore of Poe's day.
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