Kevin Bacon is alone in the room of a killer, investigating. The walls are covered with rubber Edgar Allan Poe masks.
The scene is well-directed. It is quiet and unrushed as Bacon thoughtfully registers the sheer number of Poe masks, all of which could be donned by indentured individual members of a serial killing cult. The soundtrack, for instance, is not jammed to the hilt with terror music to soup up our emotional responses. We’re allowed to register quiet horror, right along with Bacon.
Until one of the rubber masks suddenly sprouts a body and lunges savagely at Bacon.
An altogether brilliant TV fright, after which a fight obviously ensues with the predictable eventual winner. Bacon, after all, is the star of the show, and he, to understate considerably, is not an actor we see all the time on television.
It’s splendid to see Kevin Bacon starring in a TV series. On that almost all of us can agree. After that, forget it. Kevin Williamson’s “The Following,” on Mondays at 9 p.m. after “Bones,” has become eminently watchable television despite being as deeply preposterous and annoying as any good TV show has any right to be.
The premise of “The Following” is simultaneously chilling and appallingly bad.
It seems there is a wicked serial killer named Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), who is a professor of literature specializing in Poe. We have learned, in just two episodes thus far on Fox, that he has amassed a mysteriously sized cult of blindly obedient killers-in-waiting, ready to do his bidding at any moment and dispatch ordinary citizens from Kennebunkport to Cuernavaca.
Somehow, they’ve all been convened by Professor Evil around the Romantic malevolence of Poe’s imagination.
Let me cede that my passionate revulsion is not likely to be shared by a majority of TV watchers. No college-level professor of literature – no matter how malevolent in his off-hours– would use Poe as a springboard for the serial murder of young women. Poe, in life, was racked by the sufferings of young women – especially his dying wife. Even the most marginal understanding of Poe would convey his tortured sensitivity to the tale of all those lost Lenores and Annabel Lees. Quite beyond that, Poe was – most importantly – a ferociously intellectual American writer whose essays are full of eviscerations of other writers from the standpoint of an obscure artist whose fame, in life, never came close to matching his genius.
The terrible darkness of his “imagination” is almost always tragic. He is a victim’s writer. Or, he is a horrified onlooker’s writer. He is not a killer’s writer. Wrong POV, as the film folks might put it.
Such hostile bitterness, then, as Poe contained within him was well-exercised in his often savage essays, which remain of uncommon brilliance. He has been, for a couple centuries now, an inspiration for those in the critics’ and scholars’ trades, not those of homicidal bent.
Only a film-besotted screenwriter such as Williamson – with an understanding of Poe so cursory and defective that it could fly in his series “Dawson’s Creek” – would invent a cold cult of murders around a writer of such hot miseries and intellectual aggressions as Poe.
On top of that, in “The Following,” we have the most elementary implausibility: The minute it was suspected that our imprisoned serial killer was recruiting admirers outside prison walls to do his nefarious bidding, why wouldn’t authorities shut him down immediately and cut him off entirely from all contact with the outside world, other than necessary medical and/or legal consultation?
The premise, as the show presents it, seems to imply visitation as populous as an audience for a rock concert and Internet traffic as clotted as spam entreaties purporting to be from Nigeria. (And just how, again, are active serial killers recruited online? Can we not elide past that plot point so quickly? Some details would, no doubt, allay the horselaughs of us literalists.) So what we have is a malevolent fantasy on the shakiest possible foundation.
Nevertheless, despite the pathetically juvenile nature of the premise, it touches on a nightmare clever enough to keep us watching and even enthralled for years.
And that is, it takes to terrifying extremes an idea floated by the dark master of the modern pulp imagination, Thomas Harris, a man whose works may have far more of a horrifying relationship to real world terrors than Poe’s 19th century fantasies ever did.
It was Harris, whose 1981 invention of Hannibal Lecter in “Red Dragon” and later “The Silence of the Lambs,” who first gave us a serial killer who was almost a diabolical “hero” – in any case, one simultaneously so monstrous and so fiendishly attractive in his wit that he could drum up acolytes though apparent innocent mail.
What Williamson did in “The Following” that works is this: He asks us to imagine a serial killing monster so charismatic in his furtive communications and so powerful in evil message that a cult approaching Scientology’s population has sprung up around him, a cult so large and diverse that it could, at any moment, include just about anyone.
At the end of this week’s episode, we seemed to have discovered that one of those in that cult may be the FBI’s own specialist in, uh, cult behavior. A nice chill that, right up there with the rubber Poe mask that suddenly came to life.
“The Following,” then, is a TV show that works stacked on top of a godawful premise.
What always needs to be pondered, though, by all of us is the degree to which the dark imagination of Thomas Harris has commandeered our world, at the very least the televised part of it.
Before Harris, we didn’t really have serial killers on TV every night. But the offshoots of his books and the movies made from them – most notably “The Silence of the Lambs” – have included “Profiler,” “Criminal Minds” and, in a sense, all the “CSI’s” and “Law and Orders,” too, as well as countless series that have come and gone, replete with criminal monsters.
We see descendants of Harris’ gargoyles on TV every night. An argument could be made that Harris’ horrifying Super Bowl terror fantasy “Black Sunday” was the first intimation between covers of the kind of truly horrifying terror malevolence that was involved in 9/11.
The mind of Edgar Allan Poe, I’d offer, is one that will, in its way, heal and humanize those appalled at reality’s horrors. The incredibly influential mind of Thomas Harris, quite frankly, scares the hell out of me.