Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.
The direct-to-video end of the Hellraiser franchise has not yielded very admirable results. However, I found this entry to be a great surprise. Granted, this one doesn’t have a lot of Hellraiser-style gore, but gore alone does not make a Hellraiser film. Although, one early scene might spur thoughts from Hellbound, and I feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound: Hellraiser II. While this does share some elements with Hellraiser: Inferno, it blends everything together very nicely for a superior film. It is a whole twisting story that wraps itself with past mythology and storylines featuring the return of Ashley Laurence.
We open to Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and her now husband, Trevor (Dean Winters), driving down the road speaking vaguely of things we are yet to understand. They start playfully fooling around, start kissing, but Trevor narrowly misses a head-on collision with an SUV which swerves the car off the bridge into the river. Tthe car sinks, Trevor escapes, but is unable to free Kirsty. Naturally, Trevor believes she drowned to death, but her body cannot be found. Trevor wakes up to some amnesia along with several disturbing experiences, but he takes them as nightmares due to his head trauma. Trevor is re-oriented to his peculiar surroundings including his sexually aggressive boss Gwen, his sexy young neighbor in his apartment complex, and his somewhat oddly-behaving co-worker and friend Bret. Trevor is plagued by bizarre images and nightmarish experiences all the while more and more of his memory returns. He can’t explain why someone dies in his apartment, but then, reappear alive with no memory of such events. Or why he sees an image in the video camera happening right before him, but yet, it isn’t. Why he feels he’s being watched or followed by a faceless, dark figure. None of it makes sense to him. One cop believes he’s done nothing wrong, but another believes he killed his wife. The further it all progresses, the more it comes together like any sort of puzzle. It’s all cleverly woven into a worthy sequel to the first two Hellraiser films.
I really have to say that I think Dean Winters is a severely under-recognized talent. He’s an actor with a lot of charisma and emotional strength capable of being a major leading man. He always puts everything he has into everything he does. Hellraiser: Hellseeker is no different. He carries this film excellently reflecting various states of confusion, heartfelt emotion, inquisitiveness, menace, and passion. He embodies that wide range with ease and depth. With both how the story is structured, and the honest quality of his performance, even in the end, I didn’t really despise Trevor despite what he tried to do to Kirsty. You can come to feel empathy for Trevor as the man you’ve come to know over the course of this film instead of the man he really was.
The entire cast really is a solid mixture. Detective Lange is given plenty of humanity and compassion by William S. Taylor, and conversely, Detective Givens is nicely hard edged and abrasive by way of Michael Rogers. The ladies of the film are all very attractive, and handle the steamy, seductive aspects of their roles with a lot of passion and assertiveness. There’s definite some stimulating sexually charged action in the movie that further throws Trevor into a whirlwind of confusion.
Doug Bradley puts in one of his best performances here. Of course, he portrays Pinhead, and does so with a lot of chilling, intimidating vigor. He seemed very amped up for this script as it gives him a very juicy role that he sinks his teeth into very deeply. The film puts in just the right amount of Pinhead to keep him compelling with just a few poignant scenes. Since they avoid over indulging in the character, those scenes have strong impact which had been missed in the last several entries. The previous film, Hellraiser: Inferno, had so little Pinhead in it that he had nearly zero impact. Hellseeker gets it right. Bradley also portrays a sort of second character which he brings a different, yet similar quality to. He’s more cryptic and tempting in a subtle fashion that is very effective. His performance as this Merchant really sets a foreboding, mysterious tone for much of the film. The scene is very nicely interspersed throughout the film as Trevor flashes back to it every so often to reveal more of it.
The structure used here to build up these very vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and slowly reveal the darker truths surrounding Trevor is, dare I say, very brilliant. While it’s not all that original of a structure, the execution is just so exceptionally effective. The hallucinations are startling and constantly unnerving to an audience who must regularly question the reality of the situation. The mysterious aspects are greatly interwoven for a very compelling story that moves at strong, steady pace. Overall, this is just an exceptionally well written and executed script that has a strong punch of a twist ending.
The film was directed by Rick Bota, who had previously been an amazing cinematographer on a number of movies. So, it’s no surprise that he makes this film look far above its direct-to-video status. He clearly worked extensively with director of photography John Drake to create a very textured and moody look for Hellseeker with its blue and green tones. It creates a hardened, cold aesthetic that benefits the story very well. There is plenty of grit in the darker visuals and a rich depth of contrast that enhances the moodiness. The visuals really have a lot of weight and integrity, and the camera work is very solid. There’s plenty of dramatic angles, used sparingly, and competent camera movement to give this film production value and artistic quality. Overall, this is a film that is shot very solidly.
While the Steven Edwards’ score is definite departure from the classic Christopher Young style music, it suits this film nicely. There are some electric guitar pieces mixed in with the orchestral work, and I think that gives this Hellraiser film a bit more respectable self-identity. The score of Edwards surely supports the unnerving and startling tone that is so very well executed by Rick Bota.
Hellseeker still unsettled me after several years since my last watch of it. There were plenty of graphic sequences that made me squirm and wince. These are great story beats that weave into the overall plot smartly by the end. Nothing’s ever gratuitous. It all has a purpose once understood in retrospect. The effectiveness of this nerve twitching moments are a testament to both the amazing make-up effects work of Gary Tunnicliffe, and the digital effects work headed up by Jamison Goei. Regardless of a direct-to-video budget, the results of both are greatly impressive. Tunnicliffe really raised the standards of practical effects back to the first two films of the franchise. I will admit that the Cenobites still have the same quality as they do in the other later sequels, they are surely photographed better. The visual effects of Goei are very admirable on this kind of level. I’ve seen big budget summer blockbusters with horrendous CGI, but here, it’s quite good. It’s not Jurassic Park quality, but for a horror franchise of this budget, it’s superior to what you’d likely expect.
All in all, this is a damn good sequel. While I do feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound, don’t go thinking that this is a comparison to the first two films because it’s not. Those are different styles of stories than this. It’s a far more suspenseful, creepy, and mysterious film. It’s not so dependent on the Cenobites to drive the story forward. It has its surreal, bewildering qualities as Trevor’s own perception of reality is increasingly distorted. This is what Hellraiser: Inferno should have been, but failed greatly by detaching itself from any backstory or mythology that the series had been built on. That’s what Hellraiser is, it’s a story built on mythology as well as inner and outer conflicts. To lose the mythology and the backstory really doesn’t make it feel like Hellraiser. From the very beginning of the original Hellraiser, we’ve got mythology and history that was rich with depth. That’s what gives this series its strength. Pinhead and the rest of the Hellraiser mythos have so much that is yet to be known. There’s so much fertile ground that can still be harvested for further stories such as this one. With something as vast and as dark as Leviathan’s realm, there has to be much more that can be told about it.
While this was another original script re-written and adapted to be a Hellraiser film, I believe those writers did a solid job doing so. Tying the entire story into Kirsty was exciting and smart. Seeing her and Pinhead square off yet again was awesome, and acknowledged some substantive history with the franchise. On the DVD, there is an extended version of that scene which is very well written re-treading their back story that better explains why Pinhead sought her out. It’s only too bad that Ashley Laurence reportedly said Dimension Films only paid her enough for a single payment on a refrigerator. That stings, a lot! Regardless of that, she still put in her all for this performance, and it was a great stronger, edgier side to the character which fit perfectly into this excellent story.
This film really stands up, and it’s good that you learn things along with Trevor. You’re about as confused as he is as these bizarre, horrific, and startling events keep intruding on what he believes is reality. It’s all a puzzle that both you and Trevor discover together. It’s a film that really pays respect to the origins of the franchise, and continues on Kirsty’s story in a very intelligent way. Rick Bota proved he could be a solid director of horror with the right script. The film has a great level of grit and harden atmosphere that sets a perfect unsettling and creepy tone. Simply said, Hellraiser: Hellseeker is one to see for any Hellraiser fan!
I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy. Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling. It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.
Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.” He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago. Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman. Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci). Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow. It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.
While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while. Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane. He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator. He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss. The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic. Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight. True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts. Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it. That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in. Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began. Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.
I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci. She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material. What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching. She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul. Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic. They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.
At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken. It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999. Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented. It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds. The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes. It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality. It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.
Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien. Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch. Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into. Her overall performance is marvelous.
The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good. Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here. The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done. What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic? The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie. The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory. The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience. I cannot praise this work highly enough. While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.
The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way. The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger. Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension. Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie. This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton. And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings. It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.
This movie really is a lot of fun. Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments. So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check. He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting. Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense. The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating. He’s mercilessly violent and very smart. There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap. This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters. The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story. How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.
That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations. Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again. Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting. It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.
This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect. It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher. The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too. There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent. The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor. It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery. I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in. This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride. They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film. I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation. It’s more than worth your while.
The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade. I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001. I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion. Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.
Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper. Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.
This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen. It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through. There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments. The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period. The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing. It doesn’t get gimmicky. It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him. It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.
Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place. Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste. The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly. It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities. This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight. While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted. It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.
The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job. They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism. The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character. This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors. It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture. The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims. While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects. There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats. As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.
Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here. I like the accent he adopts for the role. Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow. He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life. While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him. Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence. Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman. While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession. It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance. Depp leads this film excellently.
Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham. She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion. While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them. The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.
Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight. Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline. It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.
The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull. He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film. He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well. All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters. They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.
The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny. His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades. Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal. It was preposterous. Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice. Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities. He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover. It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct. It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.
Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality. Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy. There’s really no way around that. So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction. Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice. Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling. If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.
Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline. Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story. It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance. It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact. The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat. I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.
So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same. It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking. Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series. There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery. The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance. While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy. “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question. Sure. While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons. If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.
Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career. His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes. It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of. Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.
Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement. Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city. They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching. While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes. Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.
While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre. Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well. Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world. He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them. He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough. He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary. Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core. The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.
With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to. The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy. This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority. The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is. There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history. There’s nothing new and shiny here. It’s all old and deteriorated by time. The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality. The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day. It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field. The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.
The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it. This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness. This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world. It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify. Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments. I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing. It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still. They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced. The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room. It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in. The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another. The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way. Every aspect of its execution is excellent. Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful. It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.
Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident. He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations. It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real. Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent. It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well. While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.
It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed. No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot. We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs. How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier. The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders. Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer. Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of. She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner. These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships. This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.
The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer. How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control. He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion. A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax. I’ve never had a problem with it. In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge. He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do. He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.
Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion. Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference. He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable. He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole. As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense. Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.
The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid. They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities. They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end. When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.
Freeman, as always, is exceptional. He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly. Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case. At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it. Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight. Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well. So much of the film’s tone is sold through him. Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did. While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently. Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.
In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe. It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling. Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet. There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible. He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece. It’s all amazingly compelling. Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.
The supporting cast is very solid. R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into. While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy. She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries. She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart. Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.
Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere. It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film. It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be. It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout. Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.
Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it. Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad. In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic. Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema. It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher. It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio. Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success. This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher. It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.
Admittedly, I am not a book reader. Whatever my issue, I find it difficult to sit down and read a full novel. So, while I have a good amount of say regarding this film, I have no frame of reference on the James Patterson novel it was based on. I like the Alex Cross character very much in what Morgan Freeman has given us, but with all of two films from more than a decade ago, it’s never been much of a film franchise. Both this and its follow-up Along Came A Spider (whose novel is actually a prequel to this) have similar problems, but Kiss the Girls is definitely the better of the two. Still, it doesn’t live up to the potential it could’ve had.
Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) travels to North Carolina to investigate the apparent kidnapping of his niece Naomi. The local police have the evidence, but not the investigative intuitiveness to put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the strong willed, yet compassionate surgeon Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is abducted and later escapes from this collector and killer of exceptional woman who calls himself “Casanova.” Now, aided by the sole escapee, Cross begins an investigation that takes him from one coast to the other and back trying to identify and capture the disillusioned “great lover.”
The actors in the film’s central focus, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, are both very good. Judd makes Kate a very empowering character from the start, and she is easily presented as someone you can care about and feel strength from throughout. She’s physically tough, is confident, determined, but also, shows that she has vulnerability and compassion. It’s great that the film introduces her prior to her abduction in order for the audience to see the woman as she is naturally. From there, we are emotionally connected with her through her trauma and recovery. She was a strong person before, and this experience merely solidifies those qualities within her. Judd has plenty of gravitas and vibrancy. She keeps Kate McTiernan a forefront character that continues to stand tall throughout the narrative. It easily demonstrates the strong core of Ashley Judd’s acting ability, and why she has become such a revered talent over these many years.
Freeman is masterful as Alex Cross. He’s always been a very intellectual actor allowing the audience to see the gears turning in his head, and establishing a very particular manner for his roles. He inhabits them all well, and makes them subtly distinct. In this role, he shows us one of the best investigative minds in fiction. Cross is able to see the lines of connection that others can’t because he’s so detail oriented in his work, the same as Freeman is with his acting. When he walks into the squad room with all the abduction victims on the board, it doesn’t take him long to put it all together to understand why they were picked, and what Casanova’s agenda is. Just how Freeman’s eyes operate in a scene say so much of what Alex Cross is thinking and deducing. Cross is also tempered. He is calm and calculating in his investigative process. While the local cops are all a little smarmy and egotistical, Cross maintains a cool perspective on everything bringing a serious psychology to the case. He rarely allows his emotions to dictate his behavior, but even if he doesn’t show it, they can influence it. There’s no denying his personal stakes in this investigation, and that alters how he handles everything. In an interrogation scene, he can’t help but become enraged as a sleazy suspect talks sexually ill of his niece, and that shows that Cross is just as human as anyone. While he can remain focused and professional, maintaining his cool in dangerous situations, he has his limits. Still, he is able to rebound, admit his errors, and ultimately tie things up. Alex Cross, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is truly a fascinating characters full of potential. However, despite the strength of the character and the actor, that is not enough to lift the film into exceptional territory.
The unfortunate side of things is that the story and how it unfolds lacks compelling development. The bi-coastal killer plotline with the Gentleman Caller essentially has no pertinent relevance to hunting down Casanova. It comes off as a divergence ultimately added just to throw in some gunfire and stakeout scenes. While it does connect with the main story, it’s ancillary. You could cut it out, and it wouldn’t make a real difference towards the capture of Casanova. It only amounts to a gunshot echoing through the woods that leads Cross to finding the lair, and in time, they likely would’ve found it, regardless. This subplot is there so the characters have somewhere to go and something to do until the final act with its weak twist ending.
This is a negative mark against both Alex Cross films. They both have these twist endings that come out of nowhere which have no organic flow from the story or characters. By how Kiss the Girls is presented, Casanova could’ve turned out to be anyone or no one. Casanova ends up being a character that’s been there in the film all along, but no one knew it. The problem is that there is zero evidence presented throughout the movie towards that end. You take Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for an example here. When you watch that movie for the first time, you see his performance in one way. However, on repeat viewings you see an entirely different performance because of what you discover at the film’s ending. Spacey himself hasn’t changed, but your perception of the character has. You see a subtle thing here or there that does seem peculiar, and does add up to something more substantive and telling later on. Unfortunately, none of that is here in Kiss the Girls. You can’t re-watch this movie and pick up on something you didn’t notice before in the performance of the actor who turns out to be Casanova. It’s played straight in every scene as if the character is exactly who he appears to be, but then, the performance changes entirely once the twist ending begins. That is very shallow and generic work from script to direction and beyond. A movie with a twist ending like this needs those little clues you can pick up on throughout, but not be able to fully assemble them until our protagonist has. However, when you look back, you see how all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly. None of that exists in this screenplay or film. The ultimate reveal of who Casanova is turns out to be unsatisfying because of this issue.
This is not to say that the actor in question handles this turn poorly. It’s quite an exceptional performance that has substance and an unsettling quality. He sells it well, and doesn’t need a mask or shadows to make him appear intimidating and chilling. It’s simply the execution and lack of pre-existing evidence to that effect which is the failure here. Not to mention, the film ends kind of flat. It’s more about structure than anything. Casanova is dispatched with, and the film ends. All of the character resolution happens before this to make way for the surprise twist after the audience has let their guard down.
I feel like Alex Cross is an extraordinary character inserted into a mediocre film. The story structure is not tight enough to remain thoroughly satisfying, and the mystery of Casanova is not complex enough to really take advantage of Cross’ compelling intellect. There is more mystery about finding Casanova than actually exploring him. In another similar film like Manhunter, it’s all about putting every little piece of forensic and psychological evidence of the killer together to drive the protagonist of Will Graham towards confronting and stopping Francis Dollarhyde. Finding him is as important as discovering who he is from the inside out because they are symbiotic. It’s a chain reaction of one revelation begetting another. Within Alex Cross’ first moments on the case, he’s already figured out Casanova from the inside out, and it just becomes about finding and identifying him. However, this happens so early on in the storyline that actually finding Casanova requires the film to tangle up in a lot of unnecessary plot developments. It’s a great aspect of the character of Cross that he can do that, but it’s also a complication in the plot progression. Every new plot development is a red herring. It misdirects the characters towards something that ends up at a dead end, and only serves to pad out the run time. Also, the Gentleman Caller subplot almost immediately can be perceived as a bust to the audience because his behavior is such a stark opposite to what we experienced with Casanova earlier. Casanova is not a violent, impulsive person. He’s more subdued and even tempered. It’s not a good swerve in the plot, and results in no furthering of the plot or characters.
On the positive side, the cinematography of Aaron Schneider envelopes this film with excellent visual atmosphere. There is definitely some neo noir edge present with strong blacks, a little haze, and solid blue tones throughout. There’s enough light and shadow at play with a restrained color scheme to create a consistently tense visual style. It never gets too heavy, but it surely sets the tone of the world we’re delving into. Despite the shortcomings in the screenplay and story, Schneider’s work makes Kiss the Girls look especially good. The camera work itself might not be of particular note, but its subtle touches punctuate the right dramatic beats. One can take or leave the heavy use of Dutch angles in the final scene, but it’s probably more of sign of the times in the late 90s.
Adding upon that is the very good production design which gives life and personality to various environments. The police squad room looks authentic looking to have many years of use behind it. Casanova’s lair has its peculiar warmth in stark contrast to Dr. Rudolph’s cold, modern home. I like how Kate notes that it doesn’t feel like Casanova, and that design element alone fuel hers and Cross’ inquisitive minds. The environments reflect the characters that primarily inhabit them, and the cinematography captures them perfectly.
The supporting cast is good, some better than others, but none of them have much importance to the story being told. They serve their purposes and roles well, but in most cases, they are easily forgettable. Plus, I find it surprising that the always astounding Brian Cox is wasted in a minor role as Chief Hatfield. He puts in a strong performance, but why use such a powerful, diverse actor in what is essentially a nothing role? This film just seems to have a bad habit of wasting its potential.
I don’t have much exposure to director Gary Fleder’s other work. I recall seeing Runaway Jury several years ago, but it was more the performances from the heavyweight cast that made the impression more than anything. Here, it’s obvious he has a good handle on how to present the genre, and get some stellar performances out of his main actors. However, the loose storyline and pointless plot developments show that he’s not so much interested in presenting a tightly wrapped, riveting, or smart thriller as just going by the numbers. He tries to pass this off as a mystery when there’s only enough genuine storyline to fit into a 30-45 minute film. Everything else is pointless filler that amounts to nothing. Again, I do not know if these issues exist in James Patterson’s novel, but in this film, that’s what I perceive.
Kiss the Girls had the right base elements for a hell of a good thriller with an amazing lead character backed by an equally great actor. Ashley Judd anchors the film well giving Freeman someone to carry the weight with him. The film is boosted further with some nicely atmospheric noir cinematography. The premise is good but underdeveloped. There’s no real chase involved between Cross and Casanova. Nothing where one has to be more cunning than the other to stay ahead. That takes away the urgency, or at least, the relevant immediacy of the plot. You never get the feeling that there’s a connection between the hunter and the hunted, and the best films of this genre establish that in one way or another. Casanova never reacts to Cross as genuine threat, and Cross is too busy chasing down false leads to truly be in sync with his prey. Kiss the Girls is a decent thriller that is generally enjoyable, but lacks enough relevant plot developments to make it anything more than average. Again, Alex Cross feels like a potentially iconic character waiting for a film that is as intelligent and intriguing as he is. Whether we will eventually get that remains to be seen.
Evil is everywhere, and in everybody. That is never truer than in this film. I saw Fallen in its original theatrical run fourteen years ago. I loved it then, and I still love it today. I owned in on VHS, and later, it was one of the earliest DVDs I saw. At the time of release, I stated it was one of the best suspense thrillers I had seen. Now, even after being exposed to a wider array of films in that genre, this still holds up strongly for me. The supernatural twist surely adds to that. Fallen really is an inspired film of its genre that is gripping and engaging on multiple levels from the awesome beginning to the masterful ending.
Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) has already arrested serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). He’s been convicted, and is now awaiting his execution in the gas chamber. Although, for a man facing his inevitable and imminent death he’s remarkably upbeat. Is he psychotic or is he something else? Hobbes witnesses the execution, and sees Reese die in the chamber. The case is closed, and it’s on with life. That is until a new series of murders arise which eerily share characteristics with those of Reese’s, but Reese is dead – isn’t he? An ancient, unseen evil known as Azazel took control over the man known as Edgar Reese a long time ago, but where Reese died, it endured. Now, it’s set its sights on Hobbes to enact revenge on him. Hobbes’ partner Jonesy (John Goodman) is naturally creeped out over the apparent links between these latest murders and those Reese committed, and their commanding officer – Lieutenant Stanton (Donald Sutherland) – is very shady, eluding to knowing a lot more than he’s willing to divulge. Hobbes attempts to solve the puzzle of why there is a space between “Lyons and Spakowski” that Reese left for him – before and after his death. This clue leads Hobbes to the death of a police officer who is survived by his daughter Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) who becomes Hobbes’ path to answers that he is not easily willing to accept. What this mystery drags Hobbes into is a dark and dangerous reality which may only end up in death for all those who stand between this fallen angel turn demonic spirit and John Hobbes.
Denzel Washington – as always – delivers a powerful and solid performance. His character of John Hobbes is very human with a wide range of emotions, but most importantly, he’s loyal and dedicated to those he trusts and cares for. In the start of the film, Hobbes is depicted as a solid professional and a confident detective. He’s no glory hound with the media – he’s just a cop with a job to be done, and is glad that Reese has been brought to justice. As the story becomes stranger and more unreal, Hobbes slowly unravels the mystery with great skill. Denzel carries the film with ease. He handles the subject matter in a very grounded way making it all relatable through his usual charm, heart, and humanity.
This brings us to Elias Koteas who, despite his relatively short screentime, retains the biggest impact of the entire film. He makes every second of his time on screen count. Elias put a lot of hard, hard work into this performance so that it would stay with an audience throughout the length of the film. I’ve seen Elias in many different roles, the first of which was as the crime-fighting Casey Jones in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie, and later, among the powerhouse cast in The Prophecy. No matter the film, whatever role he takes on, he makes it memorable. This one is no exception. Reese comes off as a very haunting and disturbing individual without rolling into Hannibal Lecter territory. Koteas brings an intelligence to the role that is hidden under layers of charisma, riddles, and supposed psychotic behavior. He entirely grasped the intent of the character in the story, and the depth of this evil entity.
Next, you’ve got John Goodman as the warm-hearted and emotionally supportive Jonesy. Goodman always amazes me with his natural talent. He can go from comedic and humorous to intense and dramatic at a moment’s notice. I thoroughly enjoyed his work on Roseanne as well as other movie roles, and in this film, he really puts it all out there. I don’t want to drop any major spoilers, but his performance at the film’s end is just everything he could ever pour into a performance and then some. Donald Sutherland does fine work – as always. His Lieutenant Stanton really offers a stricter and secretive counterweight to the more open relationship between Hobbes and Jonesy. He puts Hobbes at unease as he delves into this unsettling mystery. There’s also a smaller supporting role with James Gandolfini as a fellow Detective with a unique personae and attitude. Of course, he pulls it off with much charisma and energy that adds to the colorful nature of the cast.
How the supernatural aspects are handled add to the class and sophistication of this film. Fallen angles who were deprived of form that have lived on through the centuries possessing humans could have faltered if presented in the wrong way. Embeth Davidtz was given the task of conveying this exposition, and she hit it perfectly on target. As Gretta Milano, she offers up a strong, yet compassionate performance with a confident core set of beliefs that keep the film grounded, but allow for Hobbes and the audience to believe in there being something more out there. Something beyond what we can see that is still a very powerful threat. The film is set in Hobbes’ world of procedural police work where there is a simple explanation and tangible evidence. Gretta slowly convinces Hobbes to look beyond the obvious and open up his mind to the supernatural truth. Davidtz strikes up a good chemistry with Denzel that allows for a sense of trust to build between their characters. This, along with Davidtz’s strength of character, allows Hobbes and the audience to embrace the reality of Azazel.
Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography on this film is filled with fantastic depth and color temperature contrast. I still remember when I first watched this on DVD, and was highly captivated by the vibrant visual quality of the film. It is beautiful while remaining moody. The autumn setting is captured with gorgeous artistry. It is my favorite season of the year much due to how wonderfully colorful it becomes. They don’t just have it there because that’s the time of year they shot film, they make it an overall part of the film’s tone and color scheme. The “demon vision” look is effectively creepy and otherworldly. The score further adds to the haunting, mysterious atmosphere of the film. Of course, the use of the Rolling Stones’ “Time is On My Side” was terrific and inspired. A great choice that fits the manic and peculiar sense of humor of Edgar Reese. The song is constantly sung by those possessed by Azazel throughout the film as a sort of playful tease from the demon to Hobbes. Of course, John Goodman puts in the best performance while mimicking some moves of Mick Jagger.
This all adds up to an exceptionally effective thriller. The suspense of the feature is very taut creating a haunting sense where, eventually, John Hobbes becomes deeply unsettled by. Being stalked by a supernatural killer that is generally intangible who can transfer itself from one person to another with a simple touch was brilliant. There is a chase scene with Gretta Milano which uses this one concept to great effect. The misdirection of the film is also ingenious, and the bookend scenes happen to be a storytelling method I’ve come to use in many of own independent films. This story is all told from a certain perspective that you will not put into alignment until the end. Denzel’s voice overs are excellently handled to be both ambiguous as to the truth the first time around, but also, be entirely perfect on repeat viewings fitting into what you already know. This is mainly a testament to the screenplay of Nicholas Kazan, and the direction of Gregory Hoblit. Voice overs can tend to be a little dry without the proper direction and context given to the actor. Denzel gives them the right tone which feeds into the detective noir investigative aspect of the story, and ultimately, as something much more.
Kazan’s screenplay alone seems excellent. The concepts and how they are handled are done with a fine depth of intelligence and emotional poignancy. The philosophical discussions amongst these characters show exceptional attention to well developed characters, relationships, and storytelling detail. The actors inhabit those roles, along with all their beliefs and attitudes, perfectly. These are essential elements to explore for John Hobbes to develop through the film. He doesn’t give into wild paranoia, but more of a cautious, weary mindset that drives him to a very clear perspective. Azazel’s actions throughout the film makes Hobbes a man with his back against the wall, but he doesn’t flinch or become desperate. He gets smart, and decides upon a course of action that is quite cunning and smart. That’s very telling of the film. There’s nothing cheap or dumb about it. Everyone involved works towards creating a very smart film that maintains a sense of humanity.
Checking wikipedia for some credits on the film, I see there were many mixed reviews of Fallen upon its initial release. There were critics describing it with words like “convoluted,” “far-fetched,” “recycled,” and “not very engaging.” As a friend of mine consistently remarks, what good are critics anyway? I can hardly understand where they come from myself most times. I personally believe too many have forgotten how to simply enjoy a film as a piece of art or entertainment instead of analyzing it like a science experiment. How they could not see the rich depth of this movie is beyond me. I find it entertaining on many levels with dimensional, enjoyable characters, incredible tension and suspense, a fine interwoven mystery, excellent performances all around, and clever storytelling. Again, I felt this way in 1998, and I feel the same now in 2012. I’m sure I will continue to feel that way forever. This partially follows in the mentality of 1990s crime films post-Se7en, but there’s so much more self-identity and humanity within this story that is not often found as much in this genre. Fallen is a definite must-see for anyone who enjoys suspenseful thrillers with supernatural elements. This is a highly satisfying, sophisticated thriller which receives my strongest endorsement!
This is one of those films I did not see in theatres. It was a DVD rental discovery that I have been very pleased to have discovered. The cast is really what drew me to Street Kings – Hugh Laurie, Forest Whitaker, and what might seem like a swerve in Keanu Reeves. I am very much a Keanu fan from Bill & Ted to Point Break to Constantine and beyond. Yeah, I get why people takes jabs at him, but I’ve always enjoyed his work. Here, he turns in a very strong performance holding his own opposite some heavyweight acting talents. This is a very well conceived and executed film from David Ayer that I feel is exceptionally worthy of your time and attention.
Keanu Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a veteran LAPD Vice Detective who has struggled to navigate through life after the death of his wife. He’s a cop who chooses to cutout procedure on the street taking violent action against known criminals to close a case. He is well protected by his Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker) every step of the way. However, when evidence implicates Tom in the execution of his former partner turned Internal Affairs informant (Terry Crews), he is forced to go up against the cop culture he’s been a part of his entire career, ultimately leading him to question the loyalties of everyone around him. He is regularly confronted by Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) who probes for the truth, but Ludlow views him as an enemy to be combated. However, as he partners with the untainted Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans) to weed through this shady, twisted maze towards his own answers, Ludlow comes to realize just how crooked this world is, and who his real enemies are.
I am a definite crime genre lover spawned from numerous Michael Mann films, and I also enjoy a solid cop drama. This brings it all to the table in a very grounded, emotional, but also entertaining package. It’s very smartly written to keep an audience on its toes as the secrets slowly rise to the surface. Bits of action are peppered throughout to keep the energy flowing in support of the plot. Ludlow goes on a shady journey trying to find out exactly where he stands in this crooked world of corruption and deception. This tangled tapestry unfolds to reveal a wealth of dangerous, twisted people with dark agendas.
Keanu really does kick it up to a higher level as Tom Ludlow. The character can be crass in certain moments, but also, show compassion when it matters most to him. There are some fine dynamics to the character that Keanu balances out with ease. There’s the ass kicking cop that throws down shots of vodka after wasting some criminals. There’s the contemptuous man trying to shake loose the truth that everyone seems very quick to sweep under the rug. There is also the slightly humorous side of Ludlow with a couple quips here and there which add to the crass attitude. He’s been protected through everything, and thus, has developed an attitude where he doesn’t take anything from anyone. He has an ego and a self-serving nature, but is able to direct it to his advantage on these unforgiving, violent streets. Everything he does, he believes is for the best, even if it’s crooked, but he grows and changes when confronted with just how crooked and screwed up everything has become. He’s the kind of character who is hardened by his fractured life and his harsh job, but when it comes down to it, he has a strong sense of humanity that he reserves for those who deserve it. Those who don’t get the ill end of his personality which is full of contempt and the will to act it out. Keanu Reeves handles this satisfyingly textured character with a lot of passion and charisma. He is an excellent lead for this film.
Of course, Forest Whitaker is amazing! The man has such a wealth of charisma and passion that it bleeds through in every scene. He inhabits Captain Jack Wander with a strong ego and bravado that none can contend with or deflate. He has pride in his men, but also conviction and authority over them. He’s very much a king high atop his throne where he has garnered respect and fear from those around him. He never comes off as a straight arrow, but supposedly does what he does because Ludlow is his creation. He covers up and cleans up whatever he needs to so that his star cop can keep burning down the street trash. Whitaker makes Wander an increasingly despicable person, but not one you can take your eyes off of. He has a larger than life presence that commands a scene, and that’s what the character needed. A man of power and guile that has the audacity to take on anyone that challenges him or his men. A man with his own dirty secrets that holds all the cards to play people however he wants. It is a brilliant performance that motivates his co-stars to push themselves further and harder.
Meanwhile, on a more reduced role, Hugh Laurie delivers an intelligent, subtle performance as Captain James Biggs of Internal Affairs. He carefully probes Ludlow throughout the film just giving him a little nudge here and there. As Laurie has proven in his many years portraying Dr. Gregory House, he can hold a scene smartly opposite anyone. It’s only one scene, but Forest Whitaker gives him a challenge to contend with. Laurie, as Biggs, stands his ground well. However, the rest of his scenes are opposite Keanu, and they both play them with an electric dynamic. They both portray strong characters offering up conflict fueled by Ludlow’s misconceptions. He doesn’t know what Biggs is really after, and Biggs doesn’t show his cards. He just let’s things play out with a little encouragement to make sure Ludlow takes the right critical steps.
The film is shot with some sharp style and edge. The cinematography continually maintains the energy of the narrative, and providing numerous inspired camera moves to punctuate certain dramatic beats. Thankfully, the style and edge never compromise the story being told, it merely services and enhances it. Everything in this film is conceived and executed properly. Every role is cast with a lot of thought and detail. Strong actors are implanted throughout the movie from the leads to the supporting roles.
Chris Evans adds an extra, different dynamic as the slightly green Detective Diskant. A cop interested in doing the right thing, and willing to push past his experience and limits to do so. He might not have as much streetwise mileage as Ludlow, but has the conviction to maintain his sense of justice. Evans strikes the right balance with him offering up enough inexperienced uncertainty mixed with confidence through trust. Evans & Reeves have a fine chemistry that is born out of the characters’ contrasts, as with most great pairings. That helps to maintain a lighter mood between them, and gives the film its balance of humorous moments. I feel Diskant is definitely a conduit for the audience to better connect with the story. Ludlow is clearly the lead, but Diskant is a little more relatable and helps to give Ludlow someone to connect with on the journey. Someone he can trust, and through Diskant, you can come to relate more with Ludlow.
What I really like about this film is how smart it is written. No character is conceived without a motivation for their actions, and nothing is dumbed down for the convenience of the plot. Everything fits together amazingly well. Screenwriters James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, & Jamie Moss delivered something very satisfying on multiple levels, and director David Ayer realized that with great balance and competence. The entire plot is well constructed, and gradually develops on-screen in a very coherent and intelligent manner. All the characters are written and played with a lot of personality and realistic depth. They all work well opposite one another to create a very diverse and interesting landscape for this crooked world. I literally have nothing negative at all to say about this film. To me, it should be considered a classic in the genre. I love the energy and momentum throughout the story to keep you hooked into where it is leading Tom Ludlow. That doesn’t mean there’s action all the time, just that the plot continues to develop adding new elements that drive the characters forward. Everything that develops motivates people and events towards more dangerous consequences until Ludlow is faced with the truth, but it’s not without it’s costs.
With Street Kings, there’s plenty of violent action, emotionally charged drama, serious danger, and fine dashes of humor to make it a very powerful, entertaining ride that’s worth taking. This is one of my favorite films of the last few years, and I give it my full, wholehearted recommendation! There is no fat in this film, just lean, strong talent that punctuates the story and characters.