I have always been an Edgar Allan Poe fan. I have read all his works, researched his life, and visited his homes in Philadelphia and Baltimore. My interest in Poe knows no bounds. My fascination with the macabre author has even led me to wait on a street corner in Baltimore on his birthday to witness the “Poe Toaster.” What is the Poe Toaster you ask? Just a gentleman who visited Poe's grave in the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground on the corner of West Fayette and Greene streets in Baltimore every January 19 for more than 70 years to toast Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday.
Each year, the shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would arrive in the Burying Ground, pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe's memory. Then, he would vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. In 2009, my family and I stood outside that cemetery in the wee hours of a frigid January morning to see the “Toaster.” We were thrilled when he arrived. The throng of onlookers was respectful as he completed his ritual and departed down West Fayette Street. That was the last time the Poe Toaster visited the grave. The end of an era, it now seems.
Where is all my Poe trivia leading us? To “The Raven,” of course … not the poem but the new movie that opened on April 27. Directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as the tragic writer, the movie takes many liberties with what we know of Poe and glamorizes his life like only Hollywood can.
The film centers on the final days of Poe’s life. Because the precise manner of his demise has always been somewhat mysterious, the makers of “The Raven” are free to speculate, and speculate they do. A serial killer is loose in Baltimore and his methods bear an eerie resemblance to Poe’s stories. In order to catch this killer, a police detective enlists the help of the only person who might understand the mind of this murderer, Edgar Allen Poe himself. What does this film have to do with the epic poem it is named after? In a word, nothing.
Poe devotees will notice scenes and motifs directly related to “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial." We as viewers are led to believe that Poe led an action-packed life when we all know, in reality, he led a tragically sad and quiet life that was entrenched in poverty, illness, and substance abuse.
Filmmakers have always had a fascination with Poe. Probably the best known Poe movies are the low-budget adaptations of his stories directed by Roger Corman between 1960 and 1964. All but one of these movies starred Vincent Price, who was sometimes accompanied by other aging character actors like Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. And, while Corman attempted to stay reasonably close to the plot lines of Poe’s stories, he also never quite got them right. Poe’s stories, which are full of murder, madness, ghosts, and heated passions, are irresistible to filmmakers because of their bold imagery and the powerful emotional impact the author conveys. But despite these sensational qualities, Poe is not nearly as movie-ready as his writing would seem. My advice to the viewer of “The Raven” would be to visit the library, borrow Poe’s works, and re-experience these stories in the way this masterful writer intended.