Before there was black eyeliner-ed youths rocking out to death rock, there was Edgar Allan Poe, the Godfather of Goth. But John Cusack — who plays the thirsty scribe in his wild horror flick The Raven — wants you to know that this angry (and very broke) poet is responsible for so much more. Everyone stole from Poe. Sherlock Holmes, War of the Worlds — Poe did it all first.
In a roundtable interview with Cusack, the actor told us about the allure of Poe's dark writing. And find out why he believes his super-graphic horror flick, full of bisected bodies, corpses and buckets of blood is totally accurate.
How did you find this version of Poe?
John Cusack: I don't think you can ever do a definitive version of somebody. Certainly not in one book or one movie or one song. I don't think we've ever seen the writer Edgar Allan Poe. I think we've seen "The Raven," or his stories, "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher," some of those types of things.
But what I read about him from his letters and from his biographies, there's some surprising things about him.The movie is sort of a blend of fact and fiction and legend. But the conceit of the movie is very Poe-like, in that it's Poe getting wrapped up in one of his own stories. He's trapped in one of his own creations. It's the meta-Poe version of his own life, where he's always trying to figure out the difference between waking and dreaming, living and dying, sanity and insanity. He's trying to get into that place beyond him. I thought that, that allowed him to deconstruct his own work in that way. And then you have all of the stuff you can actually use. Because you know what he thinks of his own stories, he wrote about his stories. We know what he thought about Wordsworth and Longfellow and other writers. We know how much he loved Virginia. We know what he talked to his editors like. So we put them all together. It's a mix of the real Poe, and fantasy Poe. But so is Poe.
As a producer of this film you can probably relate to Poe's need for money (which is constant in the movie).
Totally — most of his letters he's always saying that he's in desperate circumstances and he needs help. He was scrounging for money his whole life. Literally saying he's going to eat a dandelion salad. Food, drink, necessities, it seemed as if he was always on the break of ruin. And he was world-famous. There were no copyrights. So he wrote The Raven and it went all over the world and he actually got invited to the White House. He was a well known poet and intellectual. It's just that nobody could make a living as a writer.
Would you say he's the most damaged character you've ever played?
Aaaaaaaaaah. Yeah. Probably... He's the godfather of Goth, for sure.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Poe while you were researching him?
I'd forgotten that he actually invented. You can see the seeds of his influence in so many different places. In so many different genres and music, culture, literature, you can see the origins of him and it branches out into so many different directions. When you look into you can really sense it.
Like he created forensics and the detective genre, before Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on "Murders In The Rue Morgue." He did hoaxes, journalistic hoaxes where he would write stories that didn't happen balloons that would go into outer space and it was sort of like a War of the Worlds thing. He would put them out there as punks, pranks, super science fictiony. Then Jules Verne kind of got up on that. He would do burlesques of other people's writing styles. Obviously, he started the gothic horror genre. He did these first-person confessionals about the beast within him, which hadn't been done. He made a romantic version of his own destruction. He would talk about death and beauty.
And he was completely brazen, a whole tradition of writers are where they would tell the whole world that they're the best and they were better than anyone else. They would destructively put it all out there. He would say that he couldn't believe in a god, because his whole being revolted in the idea that there was anything in the universe superior to himself. And he said that in print, when it was really difficult to print things. It's not like an off-hand remark. He's crazy provocative and nuts.
People take Poe very seriously. What do you think people are going to think of Poe the action hero?
I think people are going to like it, some of them maybe not. Roger Corman certainly took the burlesque side of him and turned it into these camp movies in the 60s. This takes its terror much more seriously than those. But there is a element of vaudeville, mashing up genres and mind fucking that goes into this. You know there could be a straight bio-pic that could be a good version of the movie as well, but I thought this was a horror movie... this was our best version of a dream of Poe.
What story were you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?
"The Pit and the Pendulum" I thought that was hard core. [Poe] would be laughing about Saw, like "I'll show you saw." I always like the mystical side of his work. The undead, I like Supernatural Poe. I like "Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death," "Hop-Frog" that's my sweet spot.