Horror fan or not, TV and film expose us to countless murders on a regular basis. A bullet to the head here, a severed limb there; what’s the big deal? However, as it becomes increasingly difficult to shock in an industry oversaturated with senseless, flashy killings, we’re about to get a nice surprise from an unexpected place – FOX’s The Following.
The promotional campaign for the midseason starter suggests it veers more towards the police procedural side, but while The Following does involve the need to solve a case, it’s the killings and the murderer’s methods that have the most profound effect. Think you’ve seen it all? Just wait until you get a taste of what Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and his cohorts are capable of.
The pilot opens with the college professor-turned-notorious serial killer making his stealthy escape from a high security prison. The next morning, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) wakes up to the disturbing news – the man he dedicated years of his life to taking down is back on the loose. As the guy who knows Carroll best, the FBI insists Hardy come in to assist in the effort to bring him back in. Vodka-filled water bottle in hand, Hardy goes back to work with his top priority being protecting Carroll’s last victim, Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace).
It is quite tidy and even tacky to need to bring back the former hotshot with a now stained reputation, but The Following goes on to earn it enough through Joe Carroll. Carroll isn’t just some axe murderer on the loose, eager to hack victims up at random; he’s a literary genius and, it turns out, intellectual prowess of that sort makes for a particularly disturbing breed of killer. As a man obsessed with the romantic period and specifically the work of Edgar Allen Poe, Carroll adopted the belief that art had to be felt and applied that theory to his own “art,” the murder of 14 female students. Not painful enough yet? Carroll took a liking to removing his victims’ eyes because Poe believed our eyes are our identity. So now not only is Carroll inflicting a nauseating amount of pain on his victims, he’s ultimately destroying who they are, an eerily more thoughtful form of mutilation.
Further turning Carroll into an escapee vital to get back behind bars is his captivating persona. Carroll is strikingly akin to Hannibal Lecter. He doesn’t have a thing for chowing down on victims, but he’s brilliant, dangerous and, most disconcerting of all, a smooth talker. At the heart of The Following is Carroll’s effect on others and episode writer and show creator Kevin Williamson sells Carroll’s powers of persuasion so well that the show goes on to earn every act of outrageous violence while also suggesting the wrath of Carroll knows no bounds.
But, of course, we do have Ryan and while he isn’t a particularly inventive main man after episode one, Bacon offers up a solid enough performance to make him feel like a real person, albeit a very washed out and tired looking one. The ease with which Ryan tracks all of Carroll’s moves is eye roll-worthy, no pun intended, but Williamson’s knack for slipping in additional exposition via exceptionally well-placed flashbacks helps open Hardy up just enough to suggest there could be loads more to explore in the coming episodes.
Unfortunately that same tactic doesn’t work as well for Natalie Zea who plays Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire Matthews. Even with the opportunity to get a peek at Claire’s life with Carroll pre-killing spree, current Claire functions more as a set piece, specifically a fairly forced attempt at infusing the show with a little romance. Having seen the first four episodes, I can confirm that Claire’s situation does heat up down the line, but still, the character remains reduced by the far more profound things happening around her.
The more striking leading lady of the pilot episode is Grace’s Sarah who makes for an ideal victim #1 for the show. Again, Williamson’s flashbacks come in handy to give a notably well-rounded view of Sarah for just a single episode. After showing us her reaction to the news of Carroll’s escape, Williamson goes on to both justify why Maggie was once a fan of her professor and then why she’s so horrified he’s back on the loose, and boy does she have a good reason to be.
On the police front it’s just more of the same all around - a slew of nameless cops walking around in uniforms or suits blathering average procedural jargon. The only one who stands out is Shawn Ashmore’s Mike Weston, but it’s only because he’s very clearly meant to stand out. He’s one of the youngest of the bunch and a big fan of Ryan’s so Mike follows him around like a puppy dog. Like Zea, the character doesn’t really amount to much in the premiere episode, but unlike Zea, Ashmore is charming enough to get you to cut poor Mike some slack until the character develops more in upcoming episodes.
But again, it still all comes back to the violence. Every element of the show, successful or not, coalesces around the slew of grueling imagery and wildly inventive kills. The carnage is so well done, it steals the spotlight with ease, making certain unoriginal characters and dialogue passable. Cinematographer David S. Tuttman nails the tone, heightening unease with the ideal implementation of handheld work. He uses the technique just enough to put you in the room with Ryan, but keeps it stable enough to highlight plot points with a degree of control, giving those kills more weight. The editing department takes it from there, amplifying the terror through pitch perfect cuts and a few especially unsettling jumps to commercial breaks.
Clearly the big draw is the show’s power to give you the creeps. As someone who’s devastated over her waning interest in the once beloved American Horror Story, The Following is slipping in at the opportune time to encroach on that territory. Should the show bring its run-of-the-mill good guys up to the level of its serial killer, we could wind up with a dark, enthralling duel - but until then, the sampling of freaky vicious scenarios is more than enough for me.
The Following airs Monday nights at 9/8c on FOX.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.