At the height of his literary fame, Edgar Allan Poe, who popularized cryptography in his story "The Gold Bug," was so renowned as a code-breaker that his public would eagerly submit encoded messages for the writer to cipher. The Raven, which stars John Cusack as Poe, his goatee the least of the film's historical liberties, imagines a variation on this reader-meet-author game of wits. In Baltimore, 1849—the place and time of Poe's death—a serial killer puts out a challenge to the dissipated Poe, committing murders copycatted from his Tales, each crime scene containing a clue to string the author along to the next fresh atrocity. Poe's tenuous social position is glossed over—the screenplay, by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, insists on making Poe just a regular lusty all-American fella at heart, overfond of a drink, perhaps, but committed to his pet raccoon, Carl (!), and to winning fair Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), the belle of Baltimore, away from her wealthy but philistine father (Brendan Gleeson). All trace of Poe or his time is quickly lost. Director James McTeigue might have salvaged something by taking the trashiness of the material at face value, but instead delivers a film wedged uncomfortably between self-serious period-piece solemnity—Cusack is clearly committed to the part, but working in a vacuum—and slavering sadism.