John Cusack burst into the movies with the one-two punch of The Sure Thing and Say Anything, or at least that's the convenient narrative; the ugly reality is that between those two movies, he did a bunch of really-dumb-even-by-80s-standards teenage comedies. At the time I was inclined to shrug that off under the heading of "He was young, and he needed the money", but as I look back over the 30 odd years since the Sure Thing, there's a scary number of "Oh, yeah, and he was in THAT." moments. Cusack really can't pick 'em. He's one of the most charming actors alive, and I've seen him save some woeful stuff from utter desolation, but man, Cusack seems to say yes to everything. Having said that, I've seen War Inc, which was his own idea, so I'm thinking that Cusack might not be able to tell the difference between good and bad any more.
In The Raven, Cusack is playing Edgar Allan Poe. There's casting against type, and there's an actor trying to extend their range, and there's even Tom Cruise playing a 6'5" superman. And then there's the guy who brought us Lloyd Dobler playing Edgar Allan Poe. I bought the DVD to see how bad it could be, and ….
Well, Cusack isn't that bad. He plays Poe with what we'd now call a goatee, but at the time would have been a van dyke. It's less unflattering to Cusack's face than Poe's actual face hair, which was a small moustache that - in the pictures I've seen - just makes his chin look even smaller than it would have if he'd shaved. And in a way, that's the whole movie; don't go with the unimpressive reality of a tortured soul but with something over the top and wrong which will look exciting to the modern eye.
Poe led a miserable life, and died in circumstances which are mysterious only if you've never met a miserable drunk who can't keep his act together, but I can see how Hollywood didn't see a movie in that. So instead Poe's last days are a serial killer plot where Poe is hounded by an insane genius who copies a bunch of Poe's most famous murder scenes so as to provoke Poe into writing some more murder scenes. I appreciate that this was an era before television and people would have had to make their own entertainment, but it all seems just a bit arduous. Possibly the killer might have tried reading a wider selection of authors; he does after all end the movie expressing an interest in tormenting the then practically unknown Jules Verne.
The Raven is a bit of a mess. Most of the killings are swiftly nicked out of Poe stories, logically enough, but where that didn't suffice, they nicked bits from all over the place; a good bit of the drive in the plot is stolen lock stock and barrel from the genuinely gripping The Vanishing (either one, I suppose, but it felt more like they'd nicked it from the objectively worse American remake), and the ending seems completely purloined (Poe would approve) from The Silence of the Lambs, right up to the moment when it turns out to be lifted from The Departed.
Thrown into it, almost at random, are all kinds of people. Brendan Gleeson is there, and so is Brendan Coyle from Downton Abbey, briefly playing a horrible barman. Luke Evans, looking a bit less like the Canadian Orlando Bloom than usual, is there in the role of Johnny Depp from Sleepy Hollow. And in fairness, they all do their best. This is that ugly movie where all you can do is blame the writer. The acting's fine, the director blocks everything in as well as he can, and the muddy look is generic to bad serial killer movies. But the story … yup, I hate to do this, but it's time to point the finger at the ten fingers of whoever the heck typed this thing. Which is, I suppose, as near as I'm going to get to a nice irony for this commentary; The Raven all about the writer as villain, but not the way the writer thought it would be….