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!
“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film. I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!” Drop the misconceptions, people! Let’s start fresh. This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream. The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension. And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness. This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years. A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it. What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.
This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California. The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns. His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth. Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine. There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert. Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast. After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway. Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong. After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded. Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert. These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962. They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings. The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors. The lucky ones die first.
This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror. Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life. There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match. As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja. There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat. Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror. A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here. By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example. Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be. Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline. What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple. Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film. He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience. Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking. Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it. Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level. Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.
Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact. The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least. From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there. These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward. The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic. Their work here is worthy of major awards. I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs. You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits. Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work. In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed. Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film. Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen. He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.
Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job. This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery. And man, is it great! Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious. The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations. The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones. They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better. Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.
The “human” cast, as it were, are great. Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them. They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop. They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD! Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves. We crave it, and we get it in spades. Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea. This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen. The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski. He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD! He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized. Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2. He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.
Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well. Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully. Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last. They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own. Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief. A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor. On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING! I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!
And goddamn, how great was this score? Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart! Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film! I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant. Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.
Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic. Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness. Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize. The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything. The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example. There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity. Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide. It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this. It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere. Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.
Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful. Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands? Been way too damn long. Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.