The celebrated works of Edgar Allan Poe have long proved fertile ground for horror movies, from The Raven to Sleepy Hollow. But Raven’s Hollow employs a different tack by featuring Poe as a character himself, while utilizing one of his most famous stories – the aforementioned Raven – and telling a bit of his life story too. It sounds like a lot, but the movie is impressively streamlined so everything fits together quite snugly. It helps that Poe, as played by William Moseley (not to be confused with the iconic Bill Moseley) doesn’t look like the man we know, or at least not at first. He’s young and fresh-faced, eager to impress as part of a group of military cadets who make a gruesome discovery during a training exercise, setting them on a course they immediately wish they hadn’t embarked upon.
The titular town is home to a whole bunch of hostile natives, including the wonderful Kate Dickie (The Witch) as a perma-scowling matriarch whose daughter Charlotte (Melanie Zanetti) catches Poe’s eye. It’s fall of 1830 and the setting is upstate New York, so their day-to-day life is hard but it’s immediately clear the residents of Raven’s Hollow aren’t particularly welcoming to outsiders regardless. Poe is eager to figure out what happened to the poor guy they found strung up on a wooden rack, his ripped-out innards exposed, who muttered just one word before passing: raven. But the townspeople are strangely reticent to provide any further details, even those that might exonerate them, so it’s up to Poe to find out the truth before it’s too late and anyone else is lost.
Raven’s Hollow’s cold open is hugely intriguing, with a young girl chased through the woods by an unseen entity and hideously falling victim to what amounts to some leaves carried swiftly on the breeze, and it eloquently sets the stage for what’s to come. The film’s color palette is richly autumnal, and leaves and wind feature heavily, charging every moment with danger. Never mind the fact the group is forced to stay the night in what looks to be the literal Haunted Mansion. The period trappings are strong, from the costumes to the well-appointed sets and spooky tone, with several scenes lit predominantly by candlelight. Director Christopher Hatton, who co-wrote the script with Chuck Reeves, has a terrific handle on the mood of the piece, injecting dark, gothic imagery into otherwise mundane settings.
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The threat here is supernatural, and Hatton takes his sweet time teasing what it is – with otherworldly noises, and claws or wings glimpsed here and there – but the big reveal is let down by some unconvincing, though by no means shoddy, CGI. Thankfully, Raven’s Hollow doesn’t linger too long on the monster and instead focuses on building the character of Poe and the people around him as they desperately fight for survival. Moseley plays the conflicted soon-to-be icon confidently, hinting that what happens in the town is going to haunt him for the rest of his life without trying to emulate any kind of mustache-twirling idea of Poe we might have in our heads. There are tons of references to the writer scattered throughout the movie, but Hatton doesn’t lay it on too thick. The fact the sole Black character is named Usher will cause some to raise their eyebrows, but Oberon K.A. Adjepong brings grace and sensibility to a character who knows more than he’s letting on.
By mixing history and fiction together, Hatton has more freedom to play around with established ideas of Poe without risking alienating either diehard fans or newcomers. Without any prior understanding of the man’s work, you might get less out of Raven’s Hollow on an intellectual basis, but the movie is an entertaining and spooky slice of supernatural horror in its own right, too. The old-timey accents, from a mixture of British and American actors, are initially tough to get used to–they fall on the ear slightly weirdly–but they’re certainly not terrible and, thankfully, the performers weren’t tasked with sounding Irish for no apparent reason, as they have been made to do elsewhere. The inherent tactility of being dropped down in this foreign environment, alongside the army cadets themselves, gives the movie another layer of authenticity that prevents Raven’s Hollow from feeling like a stiff costume drama, even if Robert Ellis-Geiger’s score is a little video-gamey at times–looping is more obvious without gameplay, and the atmosphere is strong enough without it.
Thanks to some gruesome imagery, which is crucially practical–the strewn viscera resulting from each murder is brilliantly done–Raven’s Hollow is also nastier than its contemporaries. Whether the film would’ve worked without the Poe connection will depend on how attached the viewer is to his history. For my money, it helps set the scene and anchor the proceedings in a stylish and considered way, rather than feeling tacked-on. Much of that is down to Moseley’s committed performance in the lead role, though Dickie, as usual, almost steals the movie out from under him just by brimming with contempt the whole time, while the great David Hayman has fun in the role of local medical examiner. It’s light entertainment thickly slathered with lashings of fall spirit and gothic regalia, ideally suited to those looking to snuggle under a blanket with a mug of piping hot tea and be transported to a world where writing with a fountain pen, by candlelight, was still considered the height of elegance.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Christopher Hatton
Writer(s): Christopher Hatton, Chuck Reeves
Stars: William Moseley, Kate Dickie, David Hayman, Melanie Zanetti
Release date: September 22, 2022 (Shudder)
Run Time: 98 minutes