The Test of Time: Fallen (1998)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



One of my favorite movies – in or out of genre - I remember owning on VHS as a teenager in the late 90s was FALLEN, the bleakly SE7EN-esque, demonically charged, cryptic biblical thriller starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland and James Gandolfini. I still love this movie a great deal, even if it is damn hard to believe that it’s poised to celebrate its 20th anniversary on the 16th of January. And hey, I’m not the only one. Just this past October our very own John “The Arrow” Fallon gave the flick a very favorable retro-review, which, in a way, served as a preamble to this here timely topical. I never did replace that VHS though, a lamentable oversight I must rectify sooner than later. Anyone have a Blu-ray to spare? Hit me up!

But you know the score. You know where the pressure lies. We’re here today to see if FALLEN is as good now as it was in 1998. Directed by Gregory Hoblit during his halcyon turn of the century run (PRIMAL FEAR, FREQUENCY), FALLEN was wrongly panned and summarily dismissed by most critics when it was released. But, as the ever-creepy Elias Koteas loudly croons in the masterful opening of FALLEN: “TI-I-I-IME IS ON MY SIDE, YES IT IS!” Well, as it pertains to the FALLEN overall, let’s see if that assured assessment was on point. Clock starts now, the Test of Time is underway!

THE STORY: Written by Nicholas Kazan from a germ of an idea he had about evil being contagious. As in, how and why, if one person is rude to another, that person intrinsically becomes rude to the next person, so on and so forth. Kazan then decided what that idea would look like if taken literally, and thus, the germination grew into a fully fecund flower of a premise. As the film opens, Detective John Hobbes (Washington), a deliberate amalgamation of famed 17th philosophers John Locke (who deemed men good) and Thomas Hobbes (who deemed men evil), sees one of his serial killer cons named Edgar Reese (Koteas) get barbecued in the electric chair. As mentioned, in one of the all time great opening scenes, Elias Koteas owns the screen by casually and capriciously strolling to his own certain death while jubilantly singing The Rolling Stones’ “Time is on my Side.” It’s a virtuosic opener that sets the tone for the whole film, as the catchy pop-music refrain becomes a most integral plot point. Koteas’ turn was so compelling that director Hoblit reportedly implored all other actors on set, especially those set for possession, to take note and maintain the standard.

Hobbes begins to realize that, even after being put to death, Reese’s particular brand of lethal sadism continues to persist in murder cases throughout the city (an unnamed city, shot in Philadelphia). Clues lead Hobbes out to a cabin in the woods, where he discovers the name Azazel, which he learns is a fallen angel – or a demon – that has the ability to body-hop from human host to human host with just the slightest physical touch. Hobbes and his policeman pals Jonesy (Goodman) and Lou (Gandolfini) do all they can to help solve the case, even if their superior, Lt. Stanton (Sutherland), is breathing down their necks the whole time. A woman named Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) is also of important service, as it’s her slain father’s cabin that Hobbes is eventually forced to return to and reckon with in the end. There’s also a really touching subplot involving Hobbes’ brother Art (Gabriel Casseus) and his son Sammy (Michael J. Pagan) that has always stuck with me. The way FALLEN fuses plot with character is mutually symbiotic.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: In macrocosm, the whole of FALLEN still holds up very sturdily. The pace of the film is not at all slowed down by today’s flash-bang editing standard, on the contrary, it remains consistently entertaining throughout. The story’s angelic lore also keeps the film from being limited to or feeling dated in the 90s, as these kinds of biblical texts go back centuries. That is, religious subject matter never seems out of date. There’s also the inherently gloomy winter weather that perfectly reflects the subject matter, constant rainy days, heavenly snowfall and interiors back-dropped by flickers of ominous lightening. I love the atmosphere Hoblit steeps the film in and around, I did when I first saw it and nothing has changed since.

Really though, there are three crucial reasons why we think FALLEN hasn’t lost a scintilla of its impact over the last 20 years. #1. The splendid premise. #2. The top-notch acting. #3. The wickedly bleak conclusion!

The premised plotline of FALLEN alone is good enough to endure the winds of time. In what plays like a grand episode of The Twilight Zone (note the Willoughby train station nod to the series in the film), or a big-budget version of Wes Craven’s SHOCKER, the idea to have a fallen angel stuck in purgatorial transit, sadistically transfiguring from one human body to another by a single touch, is simply too brilliant to understate. Moreover, it’s such a cinematic staple of the movie, this very premise, and features such a cool distinct visual style that corresponds with these evil possessions. Speaking of, according to IMDB:

The 'demon vision' footage in the film was shot using a film stock called Ektachrome, which is developed for stills photography. Additionally, the scenes were all shot at 6fps and printed at 24fps, meaning each frame is exposed four times. Coupled with camera movements, this technique gives a blurred/streaky quality. A mesmerizer lens was also used, which allows the camera operator to cock the lens several degrees to the left or right.

Pretty damn cool, and easily one of the most memorable portions of the flick. Now on to the acting…

Straight up, for a so-called thriller-genre B-movie, FALLEN has some of the all time best screen actors among its ensemble. No hyperbole. Denzel clearly carries the film, sure, and lends his part with the requisite charm of his leading man star-power, but it also boasts the acting chops of a seasoned bit player that earned Denzel an Oscar for GLORY in the first place. Denzel is always believable, first and foremost, no matter what role he plays. This is a quality that really helps in a role like Hobbes, as there are scenes of absolute expositional absurdity in FALLEN that require Denzel to make it buyable for us, the audience, while his character simultaneously comes to believe himself. It’s hard to explain it, but suffice it to say, with a lesser actor, these outlandish plot-points would not come off as credibly as when sold to us by Denzel. Dude’s a master for a reason.

The role of Jonesy was written specifically for John Goodman, who is so damn good. It’s hard to believe he played Walter Sobchak in THE BIG LEBOWSKI the same year. One of the things that makes this such a great turn from Goodman is that there is almost zero indication given by him onscreen. Often times in a movie so heavily centered on a grand-mystery-revelation, is there are clues to be found in retrospect. Not the case with Goodman’s role as Jonesy. He never gives you a suspicious moment to pick up on. Also, the chemistry between he and Denzel deserves mention, so compatible are the two together there’s no wonder why Bob Zemeckis cast both of them in FLIGHT more than a decade after FALLEN. Throw in solid support by a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, the over-lording presence of Donald Sutherland as Stanton and the soft, sensitive subplot with John and Art, and you can see why the movie plays as well it does…now and then!

The ending of FALLEN is where it rises above the rest of its ilk. Honestly, what a bold ass move for Warner Bros. to widely release a film with such a blatantly bleak, unhappy conclusion as the one featured in FALLEN. Spoiler alert, Azazel not only lives (in the form of a cat) and gets away with its sadistic serial killing spree, our entrusted hero Hobbes actually dies as a result (he preemptively poisons himself so not to be possessed). It’s the kind of powerfully dour, downer ending most horror films should come equipped with. In a way, the ending almost parallels that of Carpenter’s THE THING, what with the two ambiguously dying men trading pleasantries in the snow before an ultimate decision is made. I love the ending of FALLEN, especially in the way it wickedly lends false hope, only to devilishly (scored to “Sympathy for the Devil” no less) disappoint!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: There are very few and minor gripes about FALLEN that I suppose warrant typing. First, there’s an early scene with an awkwardly outmoded AOL computer search engine (“web crawler”) that literally does not hold up by today’s tech-savvy society standard. Another anachronism comes by way of the Beck song “Where It’s At” that immediately calls the 90s to mind, and not necessarily in a good way. The movie also gets a little too repetitive in the body-swapping department right in the middle of the film – first Hobbes witnessing such, then Gretta suffering such – that could have been edited a bit better.

THE VERDICT: Not sure about you, but damn do I love FALLEN just as much now as I did as that wide-eyed teenager 20 years ago. It has a really cool premise, a legitimately frosty setting, a distinct visual style, a first-rate cast that give wonderfully credibly performances, and last but not least, a properly unhappy ending that could not reinforce its subject matter in a more salient manner. No doubt about it, I’ve fallen for FALLEN, and haven’t been able to give it up for the past 20 years!




Extra Tidbit: Per IMDB, Jeremy Renner appears as a corpse in a bathtub early in the film.



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