Long before network television began serving up mangled cadavers for our entertainment, there were the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, nasty little mysteries about sick-minded murderers and their victims. It's surprising it took so long for someone to concoct "The Raven," a thriller in which Poe's fiction inspires a real-life copycat killer.
"The Raven" is slightly gorier than a prime-time procedural, though no more inventive -- call it "CSI: Baltimore 1849" -- but it's at least as entertaining.
"The Raven" won't do much to change the common perception of Poe as a sick-souled alcoholic, though John Cusack, a counterintuitive choice for the role, plays him with a twinkle of humor and a springy energy. Cusack's still-boyish charm alleviates the fog and lamplight that director James McTiegue keeps pumping in, and it helps convince us that a sunny-faced beauty like Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) could fall for the author of such unhealthy stories as "The Pit and the Pendulum."
When that and other Poe fictions begin coming to life, Detective Fields (a solid Luke Evans) briefly considers Poe a suspect, but Emily's disappearance rules that out. (The scenes of her begging for her life are a little too intense, even for this macabre film.) Soon, the unknown killer is not only taunting the police but demanding that Poe publish a new story based on each murder. (What, not a single joke about "deadlines"?)
The intersection of art and life is a concept too heady for "The Raven," which is basically a well-researched but formulaic mystery centered on one of those nyah-nyah serial killers we've seen a thousand times. (The movie owes a secret debt to 1979's underrated "Time After Time," in which H.G. Wells tracks Jack the Ripper.) What imagination "The Raven" has comes from the mind of Poe himself. It's a testament to the author that he can still make even modern stomachs lurch.