Raven’s Hollow had its world première at FrightFest 2022
A young woman walks alone through the autumnal woods with a food basket. As a raven caws overhead and the leaves stir strangely behind her in the breeze, the spooked girl strays from the path and runs terrified to her home, only for leaves to pour in through the door and to take her via a death that, while involving nature, is most unnatural. This sequence opening Christopher Hatton’s Raven’s Hollow begins with a scene right out of a classic European fairytale, and ends with something deeply irrational and more localised to its American setting.
Indeed, Raven’s Hollow serves as a diachronic survey of literary forms, as we witness the early emergence not just of several genres (New World romanticism, American gothic, detective fiction), but of the author Edgar Allan Poe himself. Even its very title is a hybrid of Poe’s narrative poem The Raven (1945) and his contemporary Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). Here, in 1830, young Poe (William Moseley) is travelling on horseback with four other Cadets (Callum Woodhouse, Mathis Landwehr, Kyle Rowe, Michael Guest) from the United States Military Academy of West Point, New York, when they chance upon a grisly spectacle. Bound to a rack in a field, a man has been left alive but eviscerated, and manages only to mutter the word ‘raven’ before dying. The body is taken to the nearest village, Raven’s Hollow, where, much to the increasing consternation of his four Cadet colleagues, Poe insists on getting to the bottom of this intrigue.
Clearly the locals – including the doctor Garrett (David Hayman), the innkeeper Elizabet Ingram (Kate Dickie), her pretty daughter Charlotte (Melanie Zanetti) and their help Usher (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), the grave digger Daniel Clay (Callum McGowan) and his scarred, scared father (Juris Strenga) – all know more than what they are saying. Yet as someone – or something – continues to kill, Poe will take on the rôle of investigator (even uttering the line “One more thing, Mr Clay” that places him in a tradition eventually leading to the likes of TV detective Columbo), even as Raven’s Hollow is itself under the shadowy influence of a much more ancient legend.
Poe may, counterintuitively, turn to a mix of alcohol and opium to help solve these crimes, and may hallucinate his way through the evidence as though on a shamanic quest, but then, these substances are also often used by creative people to stimulate their work, and as well as being a monster murder mystery, Hatton’s film is also an author’s origin story, offering the portrait of an artist as a young man. For this po(e)stmodern account of the famous writer’s beginnings is peppered with elements – names like Usher and Lenore, the legendary ‘raven’ and the associated phrase ‘nevermore’, and a dead man’s still beating heart – familiar from Poe’s later works, as though we are witnessing, in this early, entirely invented adventure, the makings of Poe’s subsequent literary career.
“The writing,” as Poe will say to Usher, “is on the wall” – and Hatton and his co-writer Chuck Reeves are also engaging in their own mythmaking about a now iconic figure in America’s literary landscape, while anticipating the enigmatic death of the author. The real Poe was already, immediately after his demise, being mythologised in negative by a literary rival. Raven’s Hollow takes this further, showing a man under the baleful influence not just of drink and drugs, but of another kind of ‘bad medicine’ from the shadowy hinterlands of America’s prehistory, haunting his very word.
strap: Po(e)stmodern prehistory: Christopher Hatton’s mythic murder mystery invents an origin story for an American literary giant
© Anton Bitel