The Raven - John Cusack and Luke Evans
The Raven - Writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) and Baltimore police detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) join forces to find a serial killer © 2011 Amontillado Productions LLC

A better title for this disappointingly second-rate Sherlock Holmes imitation would have been the short and simple “Shlock.” John Cusack, aping Robert Downey Jr’s egomaniacally irreverent version of the Baker Street sleuth, stars as an awkwardly facetious and bizarrely hyper version of writer Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven also has the bleakly gray 19th-century look of Downey’s two Holmes films.

But where Holmes franchise director Guy Ritchie stylishly incorporated Downey’s over-the-top antics into a similarly outrageous overall environment, Cusack’s clownish hamminess is at odds with everything else about The Raven. Aside from Poe’s verbose insults and supposed-to-be-amusing arrogance, there’s nothing else farcical about this misbegotten mash-up of several Poe horror-fiction plots (along with nods to Seven and, of all things, The Phantom of the Opera).

No Watson

There’s also no exasperated Watson-like straight man here to act as Poe’s appreciative comic foil. Instead, Poe’s partner in crimesolving is grimly serious Baltimore police detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans). Like every other non-Cusack cast member, Fields seems to be living in a much more seriously dramatic world than the one Poe inhabits.

The Raven – Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) and Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) make plans prior to their unexpected parting © 2011 Amontillado Productions LLC

The well-read Fields wants to solve a series of murders committed by a killer who is recreating grisly scenes from Poe’s short stories. The most gruesome is also the most unlikely: a massive pit-and-pendulum contraption that bloodily bisects its bound victim. The elaborately constructed device raises “Batman‘s batcave” questions of who the heck was hired to build this thing, and weren’t they just a little curious about its purpose?

Alice Eve appears as Poe’s fictional fiancée Emily Hamilton, who is so blankly Jessica Simpson-esque it’s hard to get too upset about her being kidnapped and buried alive. It’s also impossible to believe that she and Poe are soulmates by any stretch of the imagination. Her wealthy father (Brendan Gleeson) has a perfectly understandable dislike for the obnoxious Poe, but joins forces with him and Fields to ferret out the fiend responsible for Emily’s abduction.

Lack of Direction?

Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) never is able to mesh Cusack’s ostentatious overacting with the unlikely but humorless police procedural plot. He also seems adamantly opposed to giving even what should have been the movie’s most powerful scenes any convincingly emotional weight. A final-act showdown that should have packed a dramatic wallop is shot as boringly as it is acted.

Screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare slip in some fact-based biographical details about Poe and references to many of his works. But giving the author a pet raccoon named Carl is reason enough to hope they refrain from writing about other historical figures in the future.

Midnight dreary and long enough to make one weary, The Raven is an inconsistent bore.

[Rating: 1.5 stars]

The Raven is released in US and Canada in theatres Friday April 27, 2012. UK release March 9 , 2012. Australia release TBA.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson