Search This Blog

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fallen (1998)

Denzel Washington:  John Hobbes
John Goodman:  Jonesy
Donald Sutherland:  Lt. Stanton
Embeth Davidtz:  Gretta Milano
Elias Koteas:  Edgar Reese

"I want to tell you about the time I almost died" is a great voiceover to get someone's attention. Play it over jittery POV camerawork and longer shots of Denzel Washington running and stumbling through snowy woods in the night while in a state of utter blind panic and you've neatly got my attention. The voiceover continues, making the usual cinematic promise that you get from beginnings like this--how did this all start? How did a character the viewer met fifteen seconds ago wind up desperate, alone and fleeing for his life?

I'm glad you asked, and so is the movie. Here goes:

On another night, some time prior to the panicky scramble in the woods, there's an execution taking place at a prison; there are sign-bearing chanters outside but they don't appear to be protesting the execution. Instead, it sounds like they're out there to approve of it. Detective John Hobbes, flipping a coin in his fingers as a nervous tic, goes inside the prison to talk to the condemned man. Edgar Reese turns out to be a shaven-headed white dude who shakes the police officer's hand prior to getting sent to the electric chair; after a one-sided conversation where he extols the virtues of the ACLU videotaping his execution as a way to stay famous he mutter-whispers something in what sounds like a melange of foreign languages. Then he asks Hobbes a riddle--"Why is there a space between Lyons and Spakowsky?", and you got me. I only two two characters' names in the movie so far and they're Hobbes and Reese.

The credits play over the Rolling Stones' version of "Time is On My Side", which is a strange musical choice to play over someone walking (or, in Reese's case, dancing as best he can in restraints) to a gas chamber. A few more tasteless jokes and a quick a capella rendition of the opening credits song follow, then the hydrogen cyanide gets released and Reese exits the film. Which is too bad, because Elias Koteas appeared to be having a whole lot of fun playing a weird creepy murderer that likes to mess with people's minds. The shots from Reese's point of view are off-balance, tinted yellow and in slow motion during this sequence. That probably means something. It probably means more that we get a crane shot filmed in the same manner, and that whatever it is that we're sharing the point of view of can pass through walls.

At a dingy bar (the only kind Movie Cops drink in), two of Hobbes' colleagues are working their way through every import beer the bar has to offer. Hobbes goes in for a proletarian American Budweiser instead. He also lays out his ethical code--he doesn't use his authority to scrape up a little extra money on the side, and he doesn't judge the police who do--which appears to be nearly all of them, I guess, from the way that Lou keeps needling him about being some kind of saint. Also, Lou's moustache has to be seen to be believed. And it looks to me like Hobbes is chewing gum and drinking beer at the same time in this scene. I guess that's a neat talent or something, but I can't imagine it tasting good at all.

Meanwhile, the prison guard who operated the death machinery at Reese's execution drives up to a greasy-spoon takeaway joint and bumps into someone that the camera follows. They brush up against someone else, who collides with another person, and so on. Each time the camera picks a new person to follow there's an ominous rumble on the soundtrack as well, so something's up. There doesn't seem to be any restriction to the effect when it happens--white, black and Asian men and women appear to be susceptible to it. The final person to have whatever it is happening to him quits his no doubt challenging and rewarding job fetching sandwiches for the owner of a mini golf course and the scene ends.

Back at Casa Hobbes, we get a little bit of information about our protagonist. He's got a brother who's living in his house along with his nephew. Art, his brother, blames himself for Hobbes' wife leaving him and Hobbes won't have any of it. He says that if his ex-wife really loved him she wouldn't have left even though he's got relatives underfoot in his house and that family is important enough to him that his relatives can stay even if they're a problem from time to time. It's nice to see that even though Hobbes is undoubtedly going to turn into a Cop On The Edge at some point in the film, he's got a loving family and a stable home. I think Michael Nouri in The Hidden was the only police officer in a movie in the entire decade of the 80s to be happily married.

And in a brief interjected scene, the last person in the body-touching scene earlier has breakfast and then brushes his teeth with a body about three feet away in the bathtub. He's also stalking Hobbes at the precinct house where he works. It's probably significant that whoever it is gets shown standing by a pay phone right before Hobbes gets a call telling him a clue is in a certain apartment. That clue is, of course, the body from one scene earlier. While Jonesy and Hobbes are walking around trying not to contaminate any evidence they find a handwritten message on the wall behind a door:


So we have the first appearance one of my favorite things in horror fiction. I hope there's a really cool French or German term for it, but I tend to call it "the impossible that is happening". Watch Them! some time, or Blacula, or any other horror movie with a hard-nosed and practical protagonist. That character sees things that cannot be true (according to a rational universe that does not have, say, vampires in it) that they are forced to accept even though they fly in the face of everything the hero has learned to expect about their existence. Any time you have someone slowly putting the pieces together and coming to face with the existence of something monstrous you've got me interested.

And, since Hobbes has no idea he's in a horror movie, his first thoughts on this make a lot of sense:  Reese had some kind of accomplice or copycat that's carrying on his work from beyond the grave. Since the only characters Hobbes has talked to so far are a killer on death row, some cops, his brother and the filmmakers from the ACLU he suspects the guys with the camera and boom mike first. While he's coming up with a plan to investigate, some more evidence comes in--fingerprints from the murder scene, and a toxicology report that shows the Russian immigrant dead in his bathtub was poisoned with something rare and that Reese had used for previous killings.

It turns out that Lou of the immense moustache knows something about Spakowsky and Lyons; there's an old police plaque commemorating an officer every year. Lyons is the one for 1964 and Spakowsky for 1966, but an empty place where a nameplate has been removed is in between them. The police HR department doesn't have any information, so Hobbes goes to the finest information source available in 1998:  WebCrawler for America Online. Stop chuckling. Okay, go ahead. You're right. Anyway, Hobbes is enough of a research badass to dig up old newspaper articles about the citations for valor every year. The newspaper is just called "The Chronicle", without a city mentioned, which is a pretty neat touch. I wonder if they'll mention where the movie takes place by the end of it.

Hobbes finds the 1965 officer of the year; it's someone named Robert Milano, who shot himself the year after he was awarded his citation. Hobbes, not one to mince words, believes Milano killed himself either over an affair that ended badly or because he was a dirty cop about to be exposed. His lieutenant tells him to keep a tight lid on whatever he turns up looking into Milano's past and openly tells Hobbes that he won't be any help in the investigation. When the fingerprints found at the murder scene don't show up in any of the police records, Hobbes gets a secondary theory--cops have access to all the files on Reese's killings, and it's at least possible that the copycat is a police officer.

Watching the documentary on Reese, Jonesy has a flash of insight--the killer spoke Dutch at one point, but neither he nor Hobbes knows what language he's mumbling in at the start of the tape. Hobbes thinks it's just word salad but his partner wants to be sure. Another avenue of investigation opens up when Hobbes tracks down Gretta Milano, the daughter of the Cop of the Year who killed himself in a deserted cabin two decades earlier. When he mentions who told him her father's name, she asks him if Reese liked to sing and tried to touch Hobbes before the execution; those are pretty specific questions to ask of someone you just met two minutes earlier. And Gretta's insistence that everything she says to Hobbes is to be kept secret and out of the case files makes the detective realize that something out of the ordinary is coming up.

And it's a doozy. Apparently Robert Milano was an exceptionally good cop, but after catching a serial killer he wound up committing copycat murders and was eventually tracked down. He killed himself before he could be arrested or tried and the authority figures of the day hushed everything up and tried to sweep the whole affair under the rug. Gretta says she knows her father was innocent, but is too scared of winding up on some lunatic's hit list if she gets involved in Hobbes' investigation. She asks Hobbes if he believes in God as he leaves; it turns out being a homicide detective in Undisclosed City isn't a really good way to retain faith in a divine force for good.

During one of those walk-around-while-the-voiceover-gets-metaphysical scenes, Hobbes walks right past the character that we the audience know as the copycat murderer and we get another shaky yellow tinted shot. Whatever's going on with that guy, it's not normal. And a scene or two later he's shown jostling an older, beefier white guy getting off a train and the significant noise shows up on the soundtrack. And the audience learns what's up with that (and that the man's name is Charles) when he calls the mini golf place claiming to have blacked out for a few days and wondering if he's scheduled for that night. His distress at finding out he was fired pales in comparison to his shock at answering the door and the beefy guy forcing his way into the apartment and stabbing him with a syringe. The new killer makes a series of late night calls to Hobbes and stages the murder scene to look identical to the previous one where Charles killed the Russian.

The next day, the linguist that Jonesy called in is there to drop some more exposition off. It turns out that the gibberish that Reese was spouting in his cell is a near-extinct Syrian dialect of Aramaic. The professor can recognize the language but doesn't have the slightest idea what Reese is saying, but offers to try and transcribe it if the detectives will give him a copy of the tape. In a cinematic world made up of scandal, secrets, fear, and death it's kinda neat to see a happy academic who's willing to help the police out.

Hobbes pays attention to the details, too--when Reese the maniacal killer was on his high school baseball team, he was right-handed but all of his killings were done with his left. Something changed at some point, or (to go with a less unlikely explanation) he was ambidextrous. And while Hobbes is mulling this over he gets another phone call out of nowhere with the location of another body, another staged crime scene with a bowl of cereal, and with  ? ? ? = LOOK IN MIRROR written on the wall behind a mirror. Both Hobbes and Jonesy confide in each other that they're out of their depth on this one, and it really doesn't make any rational sense. Even less so when Hobbes recognizes the murder victim as someone he'd seen a day or two before on the street.

And even less so when the fingerprints come back from processing the victim of scene number two and identify the body as the killer from scene number one. Hobbes thinks--sensibly, especially for a genre film--that there's a third person staging the murder scenes and planting fingerprints. The next thing he can think of is to visit the cabin where Milano shot himself (although it's been abandoned for at least a decade by the looks of things). Hobbes goes poking around and finds cobwebs, dirt, a couple old books in remarkably good condition and a pretty cheap jump scare. He also isn't wearing rubber gloves when he handles the books, so he'd better hope they aren't really important to his investigation. While he's in the basement he wipes years of grime off a mirror and sees the name AZAZEL written on it. He's lucky he didn't wind up with blank white eyeballs or Ted Raimi promising to consume his soul. Basements in deserted cabins in the woods with occult words written anywhere inside him are bad news.

That discovery sends him back to Gretta Milano, and drops the name Azazel on her as well as the circumstances under which he discovered it. He used a dictionary (I'm guessing it was actually Tobin's Spirit Guide) to look it up and says it's the evil spirit of the wilderness, and that it moves from person to person through physical contact. I knew it! He's gonna wind up a Deadite by the end of this. And Gretta refuses to give him any information at all, instead telling him to drop the matter if there's anyone at all that he cares about, then drives off. And Embeth Davidtz knows about dealing with demons, human or otherwise. At any rate, Hobbes refuses to drop things. It's his duty, and it's also his job, to see this through.

Back at the station, phone company records show that the irritating late-night calls to Hobbes' apartment were made from the murder scenes, right around the time the victims were killed. Hobbes is thinking copycat (or copycats) at this point more than ever. His lieutenant points out that every time he changes his phone number and gets the calls anyway, it looks more and more like someone inside the police department is circulating information to the caller(s). The translation of the Aramaic arrives, and we get to hear John Goodman say--reading from it--"I'll fuck you up and down, left and right--that's in the Bible." Goodman, like Denzel Washington and Elias Koteas, work overtime to elevate the screenplay without apparent effort. It's a neat trick.

At a bar while the climax of Freaks plays on the TV (I usually just see sportsball on the television when I'm anywhere that serves booze myself) Hobbes is spending his evening reading up on demonology and sipping domestic beer. He's being followed by the yellow POV Dutch tilt camera. He seems to notice that he's being followed, but when he turns around there's nobody there. Turns out it's the beefy guy from earlier, and there's no way that dude could hide easily. During a research session back at his apartment, it looks like Azazel is possessing a cat to stalk him, which makes me wonder where the chunky dude is while the demon's out attending to business.

And Azazel's got something up his sleeve, because he transfers himself from the cat to a chain of people at the precinct house in a demonic game of Button, Button. While possessing Lou the friendly jerk cop he pumps Hobbes for information, and then hops from person to person singing "Time is On My Side" to let the detective know exactly what's going on. It's a pretty damned good suspense scene. Hobbes tips his hand by telling Azazel he knows who the demon is (in Syrian Aramaic, no less) and we get a scene where the fiend shows its power by hopping between a dozen or so hosts in under a minute.

Back at the station, Hobbes starts to figure out the rules of demonic possession--asking Lou why he decided to start singing gives him a clue when Lou says he remembers two other people doing it but he wasn't involved in the ominous singalong. So whatever people are doing when Azazel takes the wheel, they won't remember it (we know this because of previous scenes, but now Hobbes has that information as well). He goes back to Gretta Milano for information, and after a little bit of rigamarole she tells him flat-out that Azazel is a demon that exists without a body and that all the fiend's killings and possessions are attempts for it to strike back at a creation that it hates.

Hobbes isn't having any of it, claiming skepticism and facts hold sway over him more than superstition and nonsense. But everything that Milano tells him fits the evidence he's already seen with his own eyes, and the next information he gets makes him feel even worse. Azazel tried to possess him, but wasn't able to (I'm assuming at this point due to Hobbes' inherent goodness). So, robbed of the easy way to ruin Hobbes' life the demon will be trying for a more complicated scheme. And the person telling him this is on the way is one whose father shot himself as the final act in the demon's plan.

But Gretta has a powerful grudge, and she's been learning everything she can about demons for decades. And she might have figured out circumstances in which they could be killed. Unfortunately for her she's been observed, and Azazel thinks she looks a little familiar. Her attempt to flee could have been a fantastic scene but the shaky-yellow-camera shots intrude as a chain of people all reach forward to tap someone else in a massive line in an urban crowd. At this point, the audience should be trusted to understand what's going on, honestly. She hides out in a church and Hobbes finds her; they talk about the task ahead of them if they're going to try and actually destroy Azazel and the detective says that they shouldn't talk again if they're being monitored by a body-hopping evil spirit.

The lieutenant, back at the cop shop, lets Hobbes know that one of the coins he's been fidgeting with at various points in the narrative has been found at a murder scene, with plenty of his fingerprints on it. Hobbes points out that it's impossible for him to be at an apartment, kill someone, call his own phone and then pick up the phone in his own home at that point. He and the lieutenant know that it's a frame job but don't know what to do about it (and Hobbes knows that if he tells his superior officer about body-hopping demons that are connected to the Milano suicide from twenty years before he's looking at a psychiatric hearing at best).

Hobbes gets the afternoon off and through a chain of misdirections confronts his nephew's friend Toby, possessed by Azazel and leafing through his address book outside the apartment. The demon says he'll be going after Hobbes' friends, family and acquaintances in retaliation for the detective poking his nose into infernal business. During the foot chase, Toby smacks into someone else and this time Azazel lucks out--that guy has a gun in his car and opens fire on Hobbes in broad daylight. As an absolute last resort Hobbes shoots the possessed gunman, and finds out that the demon can leave a dying host and go to another person at will, even without touching them. The new possession victim says that the demon's having too much fun to just kill Hobbes at this point.

And the news gets worse for Hobbes when it turns out the guy he shot was firing blanks at him, and stole the gun before pointing it at the detective. Lieutenant Stanton is deeply concerned about how this will look for the department (and when he finds out the shooter was happily married and just got a raise at work, he rules out suicide by cop conclusively). He turns his gun in for the internal affairs team's examination and goes home after a brief existentialist conversation with Jonesy.

And at home he calls Gretta again; they share information. It turns out that Ms. Milano didn't know that Azazel or other demons could hop to another body when their current vehicle dies but consulting old texts gives them a limitation on Azazel's power. When his current victim dies he will fade into nothingness if he doesn't find someone else to possess within 500 cubits. Which is quite easy to do on a crowded urban street but up to this point neither Hobbes or Milano has spotted any flaws in Azazel's armor. It's better than nothing. And besides, all the best monsters have some kind of weakness.

And Hobbes is going to need that knowledge. Azazel causes his brother Art to be poisoned somehow or other (the detective finds the syringe in his brother's bed along with his body). At the same time, the morning news reports feature "witnesses" to the shooting that report seeing Hobbes shoot the teacher first and often; forensics would clear his name eventually but the court of public opinion would want him buried under the jail. Hobbes and his nephew escape out a back (second-floor) window while Lou comes to bring him back to the police station at the front door.

While trying to make some kind of a poorly thought out break for it, Hobbes gets made by a beat cop, punches the dude out and runs. While hiding in a homeless encampment Hobbes has to break the news to his nephew that his father is dead and the kid takes it pretty well, all things considered. They wind up at Gretta's as the snow falls outside, for lack of any other alternatives. Hobbes does some research and there's some pans across Bible pages and notepads. He comes up with a plan based on what he knows about Azazel's powers and weaknesses, and even some of the demon's strengths. He knows that for whatever reason he couldn't be possessed when Reese shook his hand way the hell back in the first act, but whenever Azazel leaves a dying host he can possess anyone.

Which makes it really significant that he says goodbye to Gretta and his nephew before he goes off to do whatever his plan is. Which involves going to the deserted cabin with a pack of cigarettes, and throwing his car keys into the snow. Later that night another car shows up; it's going to have Azazel's latest victim in it. Hobbes doesn't know who it is, so he throws a little trash talk out in Aramaic and sees Lieutenant Stanton walk away from the newly arrived car. A brief conversation between the superior officer and the detective reveal that Stanton has absolutely no idea what Hobbes is alluding to when he's asking what the fun is in just shooting him at this point. And then Jonesy walks up as well, and Hobbes realizes he doesn't know which man is the possessed one, or if either of them is.

He figures it out when his partner shoots his shift commander in the temple, and the audience is treated to some vintage John Goodman yelling and eventually Jonesy's got a bullet in his gut and bleeding out while the demon hears the full plan--Hobbes is smoking a poisoned cigarette so that he'll die after he gets possessed. And with nobody else around for 500 cubits it looks like Azazel is well and truly fucked.

But, when all is said and done, this is a horror movie and not an action one. There's one more trick that the audience knows Azazel can do that Hobbes doesn't know anything about. It's a little bit of a cheat to use Denzel Washington as the narrator when he's not going to make it to the end credits, but the movie established exactly how the final situation was going to be set up and it plays fair with the resolution.

Which is really, really bad news for Gretta Milano when Azazel makes his way back to the city.

I've often joked that every actor needs a horror movie somewhere on their resume (you can see Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, for example, although I wouldn't expect a review of that one on the Checkpoint any time soon if I were you). And by and large everyone acquits themselves quite well in this flick. It's about fifteen or twenty minutes too long, but it plays exceptionally fair with the characters as well as the audience. It could stand to play the "crazy tilted yellow camera" card a few less times and I'm not entirely sure what the deal was with Hobbes' brother Art and why he's always wearing a bathrobe in his scenes.

But there's something really cool about good actors giving a well-crafted script their all. Nobody phones it in during this one and it does have one really great chilling moment that hit me partway through the film. If people don't remember what they're doing when the demon is running the show inside their skull, Edgar Reese woke up after a five year long blackout and was in a gas chamber taking his last breath. No idea if the screenwriter thought of that or not but it sure did make my blood run cold.


  1. Ever read "The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers? Given what happened to Edgar Reese, you might appreciate it.

  2. The only Powers I've read so far are "On Stranger Tides" and "Last Call"; I tried getting through "Declare" but gave up halfway through. But now you've got me intrigued and I'll put that book on my look-for-this-at-used-book-stores list...