Stories in the Rue Morgue

Two thrill-offering movies are being released this week, but they are being marketed in very different ways. The one is Battleship, a big fantasy action movie based on the game, and the other is The Raven, a serial-killer mystery that dragoons Edgar Allen Poe himself into the lead role.

Battleship is, of course, the mainstream entry, and that means it barely needs marketing beyond the usual posters and so forth.

It has no competition for the big action slot over the next few weekends, so it doesn’t even have to try very hard. It will catch every (male?) teenager who wants to go to the movies but has already seen The Avengers and is not quite ready to see it again.

The Raven, on the other hand, is going as the “art movie” release of the week. Or at least that’s what its distributors would have us believe, angling it at “movie connoisseurs” in the Cinema Nouveau market.

Obviously this has to do with the fact that The Raven can’t really compete against Battleship for the hearts and minds of the young, but it’s no “art movie”—if that category has any meaning any more. The Cinema Nouveau chain, first launched as a “quality” film space, has gradually evacuated that concept of any meaning.

As my colleague Philip Altbeker recently noted in Business Day, Cinema Nouveau will not be showing any of the movies that were up for the best “foreign-language” (meaning not in English) Oscar.

Prettily realised mishmash
“Art movie” or not, The Raven is hardly something special for the “movie connoisseur”. The only vaguely fancy thing about it is that it features Poe himself as protagonist, trying to solve a series of murders that imitate his own stories, and it has been written by someone who has actually read the stories, or at least the comic book.

Apart from that, it’s a prettily realised mishmash of horror and murder mystery that, in the end, doesn’t have the script or the narrative nous to do much with the (rather good) idea of Detective Poe. In fact, it seems to have abandoned any artiness and tried to go helterskelter for the blood-and-gore demographic, while at the same time hanging on to the notion that if it is all done glossily and jumpily enough it will be able to mainstream itself a little too. It should have been called Poe between Stools.

Poor John Cusack, lumbered with facial hair, nogal, does his damndest to give us a full-blooded Poe on the eve of his death. He’s the wild drug addict, filled with murderous visions (yet touchingly devoted to his great love), yet also able to see through the devious designs of a serial killer—and I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler. But then the movie makes no play of the inherent ambiguity of the Poe figure, let alone his obviously tenuous grip on reality; if he’d truly been a suspect for more than 30 seconds, it would have been a much more interesting movie.

The Raven won’t get the blood-and-gore crowd any more than it will get the “connoisseurs”, despite its enthusiasm for splatter (big hanging axe-knife-pendulum-thing slicing through a big fat stomach, anyone?). Splat, splat, screech, all to no avail. Perhaps it should have gone the bloodless route, of which Battleship, conscious of age restrictions, is an example.

Any number of people get blown up in Battleship, or presumably drowned, while a courageous team led by Taylor Kitsch fights off an alien invasion; there is a car-smashing scene in which at least tens of people must theoretically have been mashed up in ways much more gruesome than any of the stylised splatfests of The Raven, but you don’t see a single one of them. Boom, smash, crunch, smash, and not a mangled corpse in sight.

Conjuring up nonsense
Blood, in Battleship, has only one purpose. It is there to be smeared on the faces of the heroes and heroines, just a little smudge here or there, to indicate that a scene or two ago they had a battle with a cyborgy creature that should have killed them outright but, in fact, they survived. Blood, in Battleship, is a tiny little realistic gesture in a fantasy world otherwise no more real or plausible than that of Tom and Jerry.

The best moment, for laughs at least, is when the narrative has to justify its connection to the Battleship game, the product sold by Hasbro, co-producer of the movie. It’s surely not played on paper any more, as it was when I was a kid, and Hasbro probably realises it’s redundant in a world of satellite surveillance and the like. So Battleship the movie has to conjure up some nonsense about buoys and waves, and take it with po-faced urgency, all to let us catch a glimpse of what the game does and/or how it looks. It’s about the toy, stoopid.

Pity Hasbro didn’t spend all that money on The Raven. They may not have ended up with a better script, but at least we’d have an Edgar Allen Poe action figure to play with.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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