“The Following” takes Kevin Bacon to the Nth degree of terror

There’s a famous line Al Pacino delivers in the 1995 crime drama Heat that comes to mind when describing Kevin Bacon’s character in The Following.

“All I am is what I’m going after.”

Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent whose pursuit and capture of serial killer Joe Carroll was both his greatest triumph and the beginning of his downward spiral.

Kevin Bacon pursues James Purefoy in FOX's "The Following"When we meet Hardy, he is “kind of a mess,” Bacon says, a man who drinks too much and is seemingly without purpose. It was an attitude the actor saw firsthand while researching the role.

“I was sitting with an FBI guy who told me that he had actually tracked and put away a serial killer,” he says. “I could tell that the highlight of his life was when he was waking up every day and trying to bust this killer, and that things hadn’t been as interesting to him since then. That’s part of what the arc is in terms of my character is that I will now get my life back, in a strange way. The focus of my life, the most exciting point in my life, was when I was hunting this guy.”

Hardy gets that strange reprieve when Carroll (James Purefoy) makes a bloody escape from prison, and the bureau calls him in to help with the search. Things get increasingly twisted and grisly until it’s discovered that the biggest danger is not Carroll himself, but the army of devoted followers he has cultivated while behind bars. Through social media, the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed killer has manipulated countless people into trying to emulate him and do his bidding.

It’s a quest that will take Hardy to some dark, horrible places, including revisiting his complicated relationship with Carroll’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea) and having to get back into the mind of a psychopath dedicated to ruining him in every way possible.

The Following, which airs at 9pm Mondays beginning Jan. 21, is the brainchild of Kevin Williamson, who has left the tongue-in-cheek aspect of his biggest hits (The Vampire Diaries, Scream) far behind. The body count is high, the deaths are graphic and absolutely no one is winking at the audience.

But for Williamson, the terror comes more from a psychological place than from blood and guts.

“It’s visceral,” Williamson says. “This could really happen, if you think it through. I’m not interested in seeing a lot of blood. Gore is not really my thing, but I do like the intense horror of it. … I don’t need to see carved-out eyeballs. The fact that I know someone’s out there carving out eyeballs, that’s what scares me.”

Purefoy also did his homework, watching hours of serial killers on tape, and brushing up on his Poe. He was able to learn that Carroll’s horrible power comes from his superior intellect and sheer charisma.

“It’s about people who are disempowered themselves, people who have low self-esteem, and he makes them feel fantastically powerful,” Purefoy says. “If you feel like @#$% about yourself and you have somebody come along who tells you that you’re great [that person can] get you to do stuff. It’s exactly what Charlie Manson used to do — make people who are small and sad feel enormous, like Superman.”

Photo: © 2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Patrick Ecclesine/FOX