Directed by James McTeigue. Starring John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kevin McNally. (2012, R, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 4, 2012
Baltimore's favorite son – sorry, John Waters – gets a revisionist and historically imaginative makeover in this frankly dull and frequently off-putting Sherlock Holmes-ian take on the final days of Edgar Allan Poe. It's neither grotesque nor arabesque enough to befit Poe's legacy as 1) the creator of the consulting detective genre as we know it, and 2) a chemically overstimulated poet of the lurid and profane. It is, in a word or two, everything that Poe's tales and poems were not: interminable and picayune. And John Cusack is simply an awful casting choice for the role of Poe. He twitches and rails his way through the story, slugging down snifters of brandy and giving the hairy eyeball to everyone and anyone who denies him a dram, excepting his beloved Emily Hamilton (Eve, altogether too fluttery, although she does have an exceptional premature-burial scene). It's Poe in love, and he woos her with, of all things, “Annabel Lee.”
Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare's script is the real culprit here. It's a mishmash of Se7en-style serial killings – based on Poe's own stories – and a ponderous, wandering storyline that attempts to cram as much of the writer's known escapades into a shopworn framework of historical fiction. It poses Poe as Holmes, except there's no Moriarty to speak of. Indeed, the final revelation regarding the identity of the serial killer is such a un-Poe-like letdown that I could only sigh and wonder: Wouldn't it have been a hoot if it turned out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Poe's longtime critical nemesis) had committed these foul acts of bloodthirsty plagiarism in a fit of poetic pique? No such luck. The maniac on the loose i less Jack the Ripper than a literarily inclined nobody, and not even a butler, to boot.
It's here that I must recommend Roger Corman's series of Poe-flavored films from the mid-Sixties, shot for American International Pictures. They're so much more adept at purloining the spirit and the atmosphere, if not the actual narratives, of Poe's work than this dull debasement. Vincent Price stars in nearly all of them, and he thrillingly captures the soaring madness at the heart of Poe's most startling works. It's there and only there, insofar as I'm concerned, that you'll find the true cinematic essence of Poe … evermore.