For background, I might start my stating that I don’t know a lot about Poe – his writing or his life. I read what I had to in literature classes in high school and college. There was a time when I found his stories and poetry fascinating with the way he turned macabre into beauty, but I never fell in love with him the way I felt maybe I should’ve.
Without giving away any spoilers – The Following stars Kevin Bacon as a washed-up former FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer (James Purefoy) he had previously put behind bars who is now roaming free. Sounds very generic, right? How many washed-up former FBI agent movies are already out there? How many where the tragic hero has a personal connection with the killer? Well, with our fascinations with both murder and redemption, there won’t be any end to them soon.
On a side-note, perhaps one of the best shows in recent memory of a killer connected to the hero is the BBC One short series, Jekyll (2005), with James Nesbitt fantastic in dual-personalities. He makes Mr. Hyde equally sexy and repulsive while Dr. Jackman (this shows Dr. Jekyll) is pitiful while also admirable for his sacrifices. In the end, Mr. Hyde becomes almost reasonable in his madness.
Where they try to make The Following different is that the killer first has a fascination with Edgar Allen Poe and that he doesn’t commit most of the murders himself but has his followers do them for him. It’s not only a interpretation of Charles Manson’s story but uses Poe’s dark imagery as justification.
It’s moody, gritty, tries to disarm you with flashbacks peppered into the story, and attempts to pull you in both with Bacon’s character’s pitiful state and by quickly bringing the life of a child into the balance.
On the nearly opposite end of the spectrum is the not-as-recent movie, The Raven, set in the past – though hardly considerable as a “period piece” – and starting John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe himself on the trail of a serial murderer committing his crimes in the fashion of deaths in Poe’s stories. Unfortunately, where director James McTeigue scored with V For Vendetta (2005), he misses greatly with The Raven.
Where it should be gritty it just tries to be grisly. When you should be drawn into Poe’s character you’re left bored by him and wondering if the real Poe could’ve been as big a dud. Perhaps the failure is that it takes only the popular beliefs about Poe – a drunk, depressed, murder-obsessed man who mysteriously dies after being found incoherent on a park bench – and tries to use that to create a real man. That’s a start, but just enough for a supporting character and not one of literature’s greatest heroes and biggest mysteries.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer, Mick LaSalle, probably said it best simply with, “there is something about this tale… that doesn’t completely satisfy.”
Why? Because the audience (I) wanted to know more. To know the real details of Poe’s life leading up to the mysterious death. Not fiction devoid of fact.
And that is why The Following leads against The Raven.
What do they have in common? Serial murders done in homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s stories.
For The Following, simply by only comparing itself to the stories of Poe and not trying to compete with the real man (however little truth might be known now), the story is far superior to The Raven.
Perhaps, too, there is something to be said for a TV series with no definitive ending vs. a film which tells you from the start that the lead character will die by the end. There is only one film I’ve ever loved which did that well – D.O.A. (film 1988) starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. But that might be a case of a movie which lives in memory better than reality.
Watch it and tell me what you think.
The good thing about The Raven is that it left me with the desire to get to know Edgar Allen Poe better. Just the Wikipedia article alone is a great read about the man.
The odd thing about The Following (after finishing episode 2) is that it left me with the need for some Doctor Who (Matt Smith). Who knows why.
For exciting period-based fiction set around serial murder and real historical authors, pick-up The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl or check out the audiobook from your library.