So. Back, back in the long ago, there were Blockbuster Video stores. And in those stores, you could buy a monthly pass to watch unlimited movies. There was a Blockbuster less than a mile from my house. I think you see where this is going.
During the months I had access to unlimited Blockbuster rentals, I gorged myself on B-movie horror films, an incoherent ramble of low-budget gems juxtaposed with Asylum flicks and dreadful, painful oddities that comprised the singular vision of sad, desperate creators.
One of those movies was Dead End Road.
Let me be perfectly clear about two things before I go on:
- You can watch this movie for free with an Amazon Prime membership.
- Don’t do it.
a. It’s so bad.
Dead End Road is a movie about the FBI’s attempt to track down “The Poe Killer,” a serial killer inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. If you’ve been watching TV this winter, that premise might sound familiar. Early in the film, one of the investigators barks “KNOW YOUR POE!” at another cop, and that is one of the only things I remember about this movie all these years later.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Following is derivative of a little-seen film that has a 1.8 star rating on IMDB. I point it out only to illustrate that the ‘appeal to Poe’ has been done before (see also John Cusack’s 2012 film The Raven for another one), and that every time it’s invoked, the results are awful. Of course, The Following is no exception.
Created by Kevin “Cursed” Williamson (as opposed to Kevin “Scream” Williamson), The Following takes an interesting central conceit, ‘what if a charismatic serial killer used the Internet to indoctrinate a bunch of pliable outsiders as his apprentices?’, and welds it onto a cliched cat and mouse game between said charismatic serial killer (James Purefoy, who unfortunately struggles with the proper blend of menace and enigma) and the grizzled, bad-luck federal agent who apprehended him (Kevin Bacon, turning in the show’s best performance). There are other characters: the killer’s ex-wife, who is also the FBI agent’s ex, the killer’s kidnapped son, some FBI people who sometimes talk and possibly have names and a truly laughable array of secret murder apprentices, which include a murderous bisexual love triangle* that appears to be transplanted from an awkward faux-edgy CBS sitcom from an alternate universe, a simpleton prison guard, a shrewish wife and her husband, a dude who puts on a rubber Edgar Allan Poe mask and lights a book critic on fire in broad daylight.
Why a Poe mask? Partly because his sunken-eyed, laconic visage is catnip for sad outsiders, and partly because Purefoy’s serial killer Joe Carroll was a well-respected Poe scholar (and ill-respected novelist) prior to going all knife happy on his conventionally attractive students. Despite this, The Following and Carroll himself seem to have only the shallowest possible grasp of Poe as a literary figure, eschewing both the author’s biography, critical theory and philosophy in exchange for an endless parade of attestations that Poe was obsessed with death and murder.
But one thing that should be abundantly clear to Joe Carroll, as someone who has presumably spent several years studying the author, is that much of Poe’s fascination with the macabre came from pragmatism. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Poe was a professional author – he made his living writing. As a result, he wrote what he could sell to periodicals, and what people wanted to read was sensationalist horror fiction. So Poe wrote a bunch of it. And also detective stories, when they were in vogue, and adventure stories, when they were popular, too. He even wrote a problematically racist maritime novel that I guarantee you will never be discussed on The Following.
From his prison cell, Carroll orders the immolation of a critic who reviewed his novel (the groan-inducingly titled The Gothic Sea) poorly. But, of course, Poe was a critic, and a famously sarcastic and acidic critic at that. In his time, Poe was much more highly regarded as a critic than he was as an author or poet.
Up above, I claimed that works like The Following were using an ‘appeal to Poe’. Wrapping the most violent show on network television in the trappings of one of the canon’s Great American Authors legitimizes the violence. Evoking the trappings of a Poe story means less time and effort spent storytelling. Basically, it’s a quick and lazy tactic to make something trite seem inspired. It’s not always successful.
Instead of telling me that Poe loved death every five seconds, The Following could be doing more with the ‘what if 4Chan were a serial killer?’ bit of its premise. And it is a strong premise, even though it strains credulity that the poor schlubs we’ve seen aggregate into Joe Carroll’s Homicidal Flash Mob could gather online and talk about their grand project without attracting some kind of righteous outrage from some weird, niche, totally unrelated fandom, to which they’d retaliate with badly produced YouTube rants, end up being whiteknighted by the furry community and then get mocked on the front page of BuzzFeed all before knife meets victim, let alone get themselves watchlisted when they Google ‘how I murder?’ one thousand times. The dichotomy between selling the threat of a motivated, faceless cult and its desire to play the bad guys as rudderless pathetics is one more reason why it can’t commit to its ideas beyond just ‘Poe liked death and now I like it, too, so lets kill some guys!’ Apiece with the immolation of the critic, the show’s purposeful tandem demonization/defanging of ‘The Internet’ scans like an entitled swipe at fans who hate Scream 3 or think that the shocking twist in last season’s finale “ruined The Vampire Diaries forever!”
It’s a shame that The Following won’t let us forget about Poe, because it makes it that much easier to remember that Poe would have hated the show and dismissed it as artless because it’s so guileless, confused, and on the nose.
*up until this note, I’ve successfully resisted the temptation to make ‘murderamorous’ a portmanteau word.