Author: Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare
Writer’s Potential: 5
In 1840s Baltimore, a police inspector enlists the help of Edgar Allan Poe when a serial killer starts murdering people in ways resembling Poe’s stories.
A title card announces that Edgar Allan Poe was found, near death, on a park bench on October 7, 1849, and that the last five days of his life were a mystery. On October 2, Chief Inspector ELDERIDGE of the Baltimore Police leads his men into an abandoned tenement. They think they have a murderer cornered in the house, but after inspecting every room, they realize the building’s empty save for a woman’s corpse. Meanwhile, EDGAR ALLAN POE (40) shows up in a tavern. He wants to drink, but he’s penniless and owes a tab to the unsympathetic bartender. He insults some sailors, who attempt to beat him up. He steals their beer and flees the tavern. Elderidge brings his nephew, Inspector EMMETT FIELDS (30s) to examine the corpse, which has been stuffed up a chimney with some odd hairs and oddly magnetic soot surrounding the body. Fields is puzzled, more so because the crime scene is strangely familiar to him.
The next morning, Poe obnoxiously leaps into the carriage of Captain CHARLES HAMILTON, a retired naval officer whose daughter, EMILY, is the object of Poe’s affection. He flirts with her, to both Hamilton and Emily’s annoyance. Their driver physically throws Poe out of the carriage. At the magazine where Poe works, he tries to convince the typesetters (IVAN and PATRICK) to indulge in some morning drinking. They both refuse. Poe discovers his review has been removed from the latest issue in favor of a Longfellow poem. Enraged, he confronts HENRY, the magazine’s editor, who tells him Longfellow’s more popular. Desperate for money, Poe pleads with him, but Henry tells Poe to write something he can sell. Inspector CANTRELL discovers the source of their murder scene: it’s copied from “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” one of Poe’s short stories. Meanwhile, Elderidge is kidnapped and brought to a warehouse. A shadowy figure kills him with a giant, razor-sharp pendulum.
Poe lives in a house he’s renting from his uncle. Emily shows up, revealing that she and Poe are secretly lovers, and she was putting up a front in front of her disapproving father. She wants Poe to marry him. He agrees to propose on her birthday, at the costume ball her father is throwing for her. Fields brings Henry to the scene of Elderidge’s murder, asking him all sorts of questions about Poe’s stories and personality. He also subtly accuses Henry of causing these murders. The pendulum reactivates and nearly kills them both, but Fields shoves Henry out of the way at the last possible second. Poe reads “The Raven” to the excited women of a ladies’ poetry club. The ladies start reading their own poetry, which is awful, but Poe strokes their egos. Police show up to take Poe down to the station. Field explains the two murders based on “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Pit and the Pendulum” and needles Poe suspiciously, but he quickly makes the decision that Poe wasn’t involved, aside from writing a “how-to” manual for murder. Fields shows Poe Elderidge’s corpse, which is covered with a red mask. Poe identifies this as a reference to his story, “Mask of the Red Death,” and it’s an indication that the killer plans to strike again. In the story, the protagonist throws a masquerade ball where Death comes in disguise to kill him. Poe tells Fields about Hamilton’s masquerade ball. Fields explains this information to Hamilton, who is not enthusiastic about a police presence at his ball. He insists they come in costume and stick to the shadows. Meanwhile, Poe explains everything to Emily and reluctantly tells her they need to cancel their proposal plans. She accuses him of fearing commitment. Poe quietly visits the grave of his deceased wife.
At the ball, Fields tells his men (and Hamilton’s private security) to look for a man in a costume that seems to symbolize death. Hamilton eyes a strange-looking man in a costume very similar to the one the character in Poe’s story wore. He follows the man but loses him in the crowd. Eventually, he finds the man, who removes his costume and reveals himself to be a doddering elderly man. Poe shows up dressed entirely in black. He insists on dancing with Emily, who doesn’t recognize him at first. Suddenly, a man wearing a skeleton mask bursts into the ball on horseback. The crowd panics, and in the chaos, nobody realizes Emily has been kidnapped until it’s too late. Fields tries to seal the building, but the killer escapes with Emily. He leaves a note behind, challenging Poe to write a series of stories based on the killer’s murders, which are to be published as a serial in Henry’s magazine. The note further explains that the killer will have more victims, and on these victims he will provide clues that lead to Emily’s location, hopefully before she dies. Poe feels guilty, but Fields tries to shake him out of it—Poe must stay involved in the case, because the killer is obsessed with him and will only keep Emily alive as long as Poe “plays.”
At a college medical lab, students study corpses. They’re surprised to hear scratching coming from a sealed casket. Upon opening it, they discover a live raven, which has picked away at the corpse of a young woman. When Fields and Poe are brought in, they notice a black smudge on the lock. She was murdered in the same manner as the victim in “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Fields notes she was strangled with a wire tied in a sailing knot, and that her hands are covered in blood—stage blood. This leads Fields to conclude she’s an actress, and he soon realizes the blood on her hands is from Macbeth. There’s a production playing in Baltimore, so Fields, Poe, and several officers stake out the play. The production uses sailors for their stage crew, so Fields forces the stage manager to gather them (while the play is going on), and they realize one man is missing. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself trapped in a casket in the killer’s lair. The killer begins shoveling dirt over it, burying her alive as in “The Premature Burial.”
Fields has his men seal the exit while they search for the missing stagehand. Poe searches the catwalks while Fields searches the shadowy basement. He sees movement and orders the source of it to come out. It’s a terrified little boy. Meanwhile, Poe accidentally drops his gun off the catwalk. It lands on the stage and goes off, causing a panic. The officers can’t hold the patrons in. Disappointed (especially Poe) that the stagehand likely got away, they try to search for whatever clues they can in the theatre. They find the stagehand’s locker. It’s empty save for a box, inside of which is a human tongue pierced by a quill pen. Poe comes home to find his uncle’s house has been burned down, as a result of the newspapers’ implication that Poe’s immoral stories have caused all these murders. Sadly, Poe shows up at Fields’ house and asks to room with him for awhile. Fields tells Poe that they have learned several more things about the stagehand: of French origin, he was indentured to a ship, and he has been working at theatres during stops in order to earn more to buy his way out of servitude. Tellingly, he never showed up for work today, so he didn’t “escape” among the crowd. Fields pores over documents from the ship, looking for more clues to unlock the puzzle. Poe reasons that this man is motivated by his inconsequentiality and kills to express his superiority. Therefore, the killers mean nothing to him personally—he will strike when he feels the people who do matter (such as Poe) “dishonor” him in some way or another. When Poe learns the stagehand’s ship is Fortunado, he reasons this refers to Fortunato from “The Cask of Amontillado” and decides they must search the Baltimore waterworks—the only place in the city that resembles the palazzo catacombs described in his story. In the tunnels, they discover an ill-fitting brick wall, just as the story describes. Poe comes at it with a pick ax, hoping to find Emily. Instead, the killer shoves a corpse at them and runs off. Fields gives chase through the tunnels, but the killer gets away.
The corpse, dressed up in women’s clothes and a blonde wig to make Poe think it’s Emily, is actually their sailor/stagehand. On his back is a sextant with a distinctive, intentional nick at a latitudinal coordinate. In his mouth is a pocket watch, frozen at a specific time. In the police lab, Poe pores over maps and sailing charts (revealing himself to be ex-military, to the surprise of Fields and the other officers). They identify the coordinates as the island of St. Croix, which leads Fields to reason Emily is being held in the Holy Cross Church in Baltimore. The killer’s there, waiting on the roof, looking eerily like a giant raven. He shoots Fields and several of his officers before fleeing on a horse. Poe chases him through a park. They shoot at each other, but the killer escapes. Despite doctor’s orders, Fields refuses to leave until he’s examined the scene. Fields notices a freshly dug grave and a brand new headstone—with Emily’s name on it. The date of death has been engraved: October 7, 1849. Today is October 6th.
Poe and Hamilton commiserate about Emily. Fields, who has been shot in the chest, orders the doctor to work fast to patch him up so he can get back to work and find Emily before the killer lets her die. Poe writes a story to comply with the killer’s demand. Ivan refuses to print it, because it’s terrible. Henry asks to read it, but he actually likes the writing. Poe is enraged, accusing Henry of exploiting the crimes to sell more magazines. Emily manages to escape from her pine casket and shallow grave. She struggles to get out of the killer’s lair, but the killer is there, waiting for her. He forces her back into the tomb. The next morning, Fields’ maid gives him the paper and a letter that was dropped on the porch. Poe immediately notices that the letter is wet from last night’s rain, but the paper is dry—meaning the killer wrote the note before the papers were sent out. He realizes this means Henry or someone from his office is the culprit.
Meanwhile, Fields stumbles around the doctor’s lab and accidentally spills some mercury-based ink onto the magnet the doctor used to remove the musket ball. He realizes the soot from the first crime scene must have had the same mercury-based ink and rushes to Henry’s office, as well. Poe storms into the office and confronts Henry, only to realize he’s dead, and his hands have been chopped off. Poe finds Ivan in the printing room and holds a gun to his neck, demanding to know where Emily is. Ivan refuses to tell her until he writes the “final chapter” of Ivan’s story. Poe demands to know why Ivan is doing this to him. Ivan explains that he wants to be immortalize, but the world doesn’t listen to poor typesetters, so his only option was to torment and blackmail a famous author. Poe begs to trade his life for Emily’s, a condition Ivan agrees to. He jabs Poe with a needle filled with nightshade, then tells him he’ll have exactly enough time to write the final chapter before death befalls him. Poe writes what Ivan asks and begs to know where Emily is. Ivan cryptically quotes “The Tell-Tale Heart,” then leaves on a carriage, where the driver identifies him as “Mr. Reynolds.” Poe is baffled by the name, but Ivan explains he’s moving to a new city, with a new name, to find another author to play games with. When Fields leaves, Poe realizes the heart in the story came from underneath the floorboards. He breaks them apart and finds Ivan’s lair beneath the printing press. Poe digs and tears open her tomb, tearfully reuniting and declaring their love for each other.
Fields sends a message to Hamilton, instructing him to come to Henry’s office. They arrive at the same time and tend to Emily, but they’re surprised to find Poe is gone. Poe stumbles onto a park bench, where he’s recognized by an old man. Poe is raving about Fields and the name Reynolds. The old man brings Poe to a hospital, where he dies, still raving. When Fields arrives, the doctor passes along Poe’s cryptic messages, wondering what they mean. Ivan arrives on a train in Charlottesville, Virginia. A porter transfers his luggage to a carriage. When Ivan steps inside, he finds Fields aiming a gun at him.
The Raven attempts to reinvent Edgar Allan Poe and his stories for modern audiences, à la Sherlock Holmes. Although this alone may be enough draw in audiences, the story is an over-the-top, lame-brained mystery that has too many odd leaps in logic to really succeed. As written, it merits a pass.
In the first act, the writers make a valiant attempt to present this as a character-driven drama rather than a boisterous, mostly goofy mystery. Unfortunately, they miss the mark. Fields is extremely bland, existing mainly to give Poe someone to explain his conclusions to, and to give Poe access to places and evidence that would normally be restricted to civilians. Poe, on the other hand, gets a bit of nuance, but the writers fail to explain one of the most pertinent details of the character: why a world-renowned, well-respected author would be living like a pauper and treated like dirt by someone like Hamilton. A bit of historical context regarding the way Poe made his living would have benefited the script and the character greatly.
As the story starts to build momentum, the writers also leave out pertinent story details, such as how Elderidge managed to quickly locate the killer and become his second victim, or how a low-paid typesetter financed his elaborate crimes, or why it is that “the last five days in Poe’s life remain a mystery” (as the script opens) when newspapers throughout the city not only write about murders inspired by his stories—they explain that he is helping the police find the killer. Fields and Poe have similar lapses in logic (notably their inexplicable conclusion that the killer could not have taken Emily out of Baltimore), which wouldn’t be a problem except they’re both supposed to be sharp detectives with keen reasoning skills. Despite these flaws, the story is reasonably engaging throughout the second act. The proceedings are quite ridiculous, but in a briskly paced, mindlessly entertaining way.
The third act ruins everything, however. Once the killer is reveal and his motive is explained, the story immediately goes from “silly entertaining” to mind-numbingly stupid. Like the plot holes that pile up in the first and second acts, Ivan’s proclamation that the only way to immortalize himself is through a famous author is glossed over. The script barrels past it so quickly, as if the logic is so airtight, that maybe audiences will believe it is—at first. In hindsight, however, too many questions pop up: what is the function of Ivan’s desire for immortality? If he’s jealous of Poe and his success, wouldn’t the fact that his murders simply imitate Poe’s popular works undermine that desire? Maybe in a script where the killer starts telling people the name of his new identity before he leaves the city where everyone knows him by a different name, questions like that aren’t supposed to be considered. However, the whole story is building to the revelation of this killer, and it’s deeply unsatisfying. Similarly unsatisfying is the resolution, in which Poe dies offscreen, Fields is given the necessary information secondhand, and it simply ends with Fields aiming a gun at Ivan. Overall, the script is so raucous, goofy, and fast-paced that the fact that it just sort of peters out without any rousing action sequences or even some well-justified vigilante justice doesn’t fit the tone.
The supporting characters are typical for a mystery procedural: suspects who are intentionally left undeveloped, a bland love interest who’s not really necessary to drive the story forward (though Emily’s kidnapping does raise the stakes), and a cavalcade of expendable police officers whose deaths exist to create theoretical jeopardy for the main characters.
The script’s oddly low-key ending is its biggest hurdle. As mindless entertainment, the script works. If audiences don’t care that nothing about the story makes much sense, they’ll turn out in droves—but the fact that it peters out in the most unsatisfying possible way will kill word-of-mouth. Even with well-known actors playing Poe and Fields, and a director who maintains the breezy pace of the script, the last 10 pages of the script are too bland to believe audiences will recommend it to their friends.