In the 1930s, Universal Studios, which specialized in horror and monster movies, teamed up their two cinematic titans of terror Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a series of films. The Raven (1935) was their second pairing. While the project was inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven”, the plot is actually original, designed for the two leading men. The combination of the stars of Frankenstein (Karloff) and Dracula (Lugosi) could elevate even a mediocre film into something memorable. Sadly, the 2012 remake is totally not memorable.
On the plus side, John Cusack is ideally cast in the remake as literary legend Poe, alternately capturing Poe’s egotism, bitterness, and self-destructive wildness. Unfortunately, he’s let down by a script which tries too hard to be a hybrid of David Fincher’s Se7en and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s an awkward fit, with no real memorable moments, although Cusack does his best to hold the weak material together.
The plot of the 1935 original goes as follows: Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) is a brilliant but eccentric neurological surgeon who has an obsession with Edgar Allen Poe stories. The wealthy Judge Thatcher enlists Vollin to save the life of his daughter Jean, who was a dancer before being crippled and brain damaged in a car accident. Vollin restores her fully to health, but also begins to see her as a replacement for his lost wife (his “Lenore”). When Judge Thatcher doesn’t approve of the relationship, Dr. Vollin flips and hatches a scheme to possess Jean and to torture and kill her father, as well as her fiancé. At the same time, an escaped criminal named Bateman (Karloff) asks for the help of Dr. Vollin in altering his face. Vollin double-crosses Bateman by horribly deforming Bateman’s face and says he’ll only return it to normal if Bateman serves him in his sinister scheme to capture Jean and put her father and boyfriend in deadly traps inspired by Edgar Allan Poe stories, including the ‘Pit & the Pendulum’. Bateman obeys Vollin for a while but ultimately, Bateman turns against him and they kill each other while the Thatcher’s escape.
The remake totally rewrites the story, keeping only the Poe-inspired traps and a few other small details. The fact that the remake has such a potentially clever premise makes its failure to live up to its promise all the more frustrating. The 2012 story purports to explain Poe’s mysterious death at age 40. For the edification of those unfamiliar with the circumstances of the real Poe’s demise…In 1849 he was found after a disappearance of several days, lying on a park bench in Baltimore, semi-conscious and babbling incoherently, repeating the name “Reynolds”. He was taken to the hospital where he died. The Raven offers a fanciful hypothesis to explain how Poe ended up in that sad state.
The plot for the remake follows Poe during the last week of his life. Poe has already published all his great works but has squandered his money and is broke. He tries to get drinks on credit and badgers his boss at the local Baltimore newspaper to publish his literary reviews so he can get paid. The editor, Maddox, (Kevin McNally) tells Poe to write more Gothic horror stories because the public likes the gory stuff, but Poe has writer’s block when it comes to horror stories. The one bright spot in Poe’s troubled life is his romance with cute, blond Emily (Alice Eve), the daughter of rich, pompous Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson), although daddy doesn’t approve of the penniless, undisciplined Poe.
Meanwhile, police detective Fields (Well played by Luke Evans) is investigating a series of serial killings and realizes that the murderer is using the stories written by Poe as inspiration for his grizzly handiwork. (One of the victims is chopped in half by a swinging blade, as in ‘the Pit & the Pendulum‘.) After questioning Poe–since one of the victims is a critic who has savaged Poe’s work–Fields tries to get Poe to help him investigate the murders. Poe cooperates begrudgingly until Alice is kidnapped, motivating Poe to match wits with the mystery villain, in a race to rescue her before time runs out (she’s been buried alive ‘House of Usher’ style.) The bad guy instructs Poe to write the details of the case down as a story. (There’s a reason for this but it’s kind of lame.)
The film has some anachronistic errors, such as the use of the term “serial killer” 100 years before the expression was actually invented, and the dates of some of Poe’s works are wrong. Most of the dialogue is mediocre, especially when contrasted with quotations from some of Poe’s actual stories. (The readings of verses from ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘the Raven’ are the best moments.)
Director James McTeique, who created a stylish dystopian future in V for Vendetta, has a tougher time making 1849 Baltimore into the grand guignol setting it needs to be for a film like this. The Se7en-like gore of the villain’s death traps might appeal to a younger audience, however, a film about Edgar Allen Poe is not likely to attract a youthful demographic. And the ultimate resolution to the mystery is so uninspired and unimaginative, you’ll be wishing the screen writers had some of Poe’s imagination.
John Cusack is a consistently excellent actor, and very under-rated. His name doesn’t often come up when people talk about the great actors of the modern era but it should. He’s the best thing about this film, although Evans offers some strong support as Detective Fields. Gleeson doesn’t get much of a chance to make an impression here. Eve is rather generic and bland as the love interest.
The 1935 film wasn’t exactly a masterpiece and far from the best pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, but it still succeeds better than this one, mostly due to the star power of the two greatest horror stars of all time. Also, Lugosi’s sinister turn as the sadistic villain is tremendous fun to watch. The bad guy in the 2012 remake, when finally revealed, is an underwhelming disappointment.
The remake is a mass of unrealized potential and Cusack’s strong leading performance can’t do much to bring life into it. Both the original film and the literary Poe poem were much more interesting than the 2012 version. There are few literary figures whose lives were more tumultuous and angst-ridden than that gothic master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe. Considering how fascinating his life was, you’d think that a film about him would be equally engrossing as his life. Sadly, The Raven doesn’t live up to the potential of its protagonist. If Poe were alive today, and still writing literary criticism, he’d give The Raven a bad review. Stick with the 1935 version, if only for Lugosi and Karloff.
So that’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood remakes. We’ll be back next week with a good one and until ten, feel free to check out our earlier articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.