Both of the novels I've written (42 Months Dry and Demoniac) could be considered “supernatural thrillers,” meaning they are action/suspense stories involving miraculous elements, demons, pagan worship, possession and exorcism, etc. And since most of what the general populace knows about these things comes from Hollywood, I’ve decided that, each and every Tuesday, I will review one of these films, looking at everything from cinematography to theological accuracy. I'll be focusing on the mid to late-’90s and early aughties, when these were experiencing a revival, as well as perhaps taking in a couple of the most recent crop.
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, NYPD Blue)
Written by: Nicholas Kazan
This movie has a rating of 6.9 stars on IMDb. Seriously?! 2007’s The Mist, which I consider to be one of the five worst films made in the last twenty years, has a 7.3. There’s no accounting for the horrible taste in movies of the general public.
From the outset, you have to realize that this is not a horror movie and barely even a thriller. It's an intense story with supernatural elements and a great twist ending, written by a guy who seems to have mainly written a bunch of junk before this (including the late '90s J-Lo vehicle, appropriately named Enough). He did pen a 1986 movie staring the amazing Christopher Walken and Sean Penn, but the fact that a Walkenophile like myself has not seen it leads me to conclude that it was unremarkable.
But that doesn't matter. I mean, have you ever seen Identity? If not, see it post haste (if you like horror/suspense/thrillers). It was written by a man whose most noteworthy writing credit to date had been the “horror” B-Movie Jack Frost, which basically replaces Chucky with a snowman and has him murder a bunch of people. I guess you never know who has a brilliant story inside of him.
This is one of the best all-star ensembles in a decade filled with all-star ensembles.
Let’s start with Denzel Washington, my yardstick of cool, who plays the main character, a Philadelphia detective assigned a series of grisly, baffling murders. In addition to being distractingly handsome, he looks so insanely young here, reminding me anew that my early twenties were fifteen years ago. The coolness he exudes is manifest in some great one-liners and a habit of flipping a coin through his fingers, a la Iceman in Top Gun.
The rest of the ensemble fires on all cylinders as well. John Goodman plays Denzel’s partner/sidekick, the loveable wisecracking cop, who somehow does not seem like a tired cliche, despite being a loveable wisecracking cop sidekick. Seriously, name a movie starring John Goodman that wasn’t improved three-fold by his very presence. Donald Sutherland also nails his roll as the police captain who loves the status quo and doesn’t want to deal with the possible supernatural elements at play. Add James Gandolfini (for once not ending anyone’s career by appearing in a movie) as the cynical, semi-dirty cop and Embeth Davidtz, who I only recognize from a bit-part on Scrubs, and who looks like the female version of Johnny Depp. (I mean that as neither a compliment nor an insult.)
Then you’ve got the serial killer, played by Elias Koteas, who has turned in great performances in everything from Apt Pupil to Benjamin Button to The Prophecy (which I will soon be reviewing), but who is always first and foremost Casey Jones to me. But he’s creepy enough here and seems to do a decent job on the Aramaic lines.
|"Cowabunga, dude! I'm a demon-|
possessed serial killer!" [translated
from the Syrian-Aramaic]
Merits and Demerits
It starts with a black screen and Denzel saying, “I want to tell you about the time I almost died.” The narration throughout just works. It’s done, not as a horror movie, but as a straight-forward detective story (complete with smooth sax riffs over rainy establishing shots and research montages). The editing is likewise smooth and the picture, unlike a lot of late-'90s fare, really showcased my HD TV; the shadows were very deep without the whole picture coming off as too dark.
As to the story, as I've mentioned it starts with a bang and ramps up from there. Denzel's character watches a serial killer he spent years tracking down be executed in the gas chamber (the depiction of which only further cements my hatred for this barbaric practice), but not before he tells Denzel that he will be seeing him soon and then drones a series of very specific curses in Aramaic. We slowly (and satisfyingly) learn with Denzel that the killer was possessed by Azazel, an ancient demon who has the power to pass from person to person, generally by touch. Azazel decides to use one human host to kill an innocent victim, then transfer to another host and kill the previous killer, creating a baffling string of murders.
The only weak link in all of this is the character of Gretta Milan, the daughter of a cop who died trying to defeat Azazel. She “teaches theology at the university,” which comes off incredibly forced and which the screenwriters use as license to skip a few steps and drop a few sandbags of exposition on the viewer. According to what I read, this character is actually a combination of two characters: one who knew about Azazel and one who was simply the daughter of the cop who Azazel killed up in the woods; this would have worked a lot better and left a lot fewer questions hanging (e.g., where did she get the phone numbers of all the other “demon fighters” and, if her whole life’s purpose was fighting Azazel, why did she keep sending the one man who would provider her that opportunity away again and again?).
The twist at the end was the best kind—the kind that was clearly planned from the get and which retroactively changes the way you view everything, making you want to view the film a second time the moment it comes to light. The movie even teases you with it; fifteen minutes in, Denzel says (via narration): “Even the most casual thing. It registers. Often, you don't remember till later on, but then—you look back and you realize . . . you knew."
As with all the nineties films I’ve reviewed thus far, the credits feature the then-cutting-edge “symbols in the font” motif, which probably felt ultra-edgy at the time. I mean, VHSs of Se7en were still on some new release racks when this movie hit the theaters.
In addition, within the first two minutes, the viewer is treated to Beck’s “Two Turn Tables and a Microphone,” which is just one example of great use of music. Unlike the unforgivably corny Tiny Tim Fiasco in Insidious, Fallen knows how to use a well-known song to incredibly creepy intent—in this case, The Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side,” which a dozen characters sing to non-diminishing returns.
Other nineties gems include a prominent placement for Web Crawler (Tagline: “Search before you surf!”) and the giant brick of super-computer required to provide Denzel with caller ID. Which is weird, since I remember having a display built into a digital phone several years before this movie came out.
From a biblical viewpoint, the main canyon here is the whole Azazel thing. The word comes from Leviticus 16 and is part of the description of the Yom Kippur ritual, namely the release of the scapegoat into the wilderness. I won’t bore you with a bunch of Hebrew, but it’s pretty likely that this is just the term for a creature sent out (having had the sins of the people confessed over it). Even if one views this as a reference to some sort of demon, the idea that some demons were “deprived of form” and now have to live out their existence in human hosts is . . . well, made up. But, then again, it’s a movie. Likewise, the whole passing by touch thing is fictional nonsense, but it’s never presented as anything but.
Besides, if there’s a takeaway (beyond entertainment) here, it’s not a message about the spiritual world; it’s more of a general moral application, like Pay It Forward, but in reverse. And, of course, the negative stuff is generally the most consistently paid back and paid forward (think of cycles of bullying, child abuse, sexual abuse, etc.) Somebody hurts somebody else, and that person carries it around for a while before finding someone else they can unleash it on. That’s what I see happening in some of the more clever scenes in Fallen, as the demon is passed from person to person, tearing lives apart.
Still, simply being a fictional romp does not give the movie a license to twist Scripture. There are times where the script gets things biblical 180º off. For example, Gretta and her doctorate of made-up theology tells Denzel, “The demons want the fall of civilization, the fall of Babylon as they put it.” Um, NO! Jesus will bring about the fall of Babylon (corrupt and idolatrous society). In fact, I was just preaching on that out of Revelation 18 this morning (click here for the sermon). Satan isn’t all about chaos in every situation (think of the great order in the Third Reich). He can use society just fine and he’s pro-civilation most of the time, as long as he can set the values.
Another big dud also comes from Gretta’s lips: “God limited demons and made them mortal and he put a few of us here to fight them . . . ” Nah. Fighting demons is not the concern of some special class of people (your John Constantines or Carmen-the-CCM-gunslinger types). In fact, fighting demons is of itself no one’s concern. St. Paul tells us to submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Jude tells us that even the archangel Michael left the fighting to God.
And speaking of Michael, there are little trinkets and pictures of angels all over the place, so why don't they factor in to the plot at all? As in most Hollywood takes on the subject, only fallen angels seem to really exist. The good kind are just mascots. Along the same lines, even while the dialogue is full of God(i.e. “Do you believe in God?” “Maybe it’s God . . .” “God willing”), God doesn’t make so much as a cameo appearance.
This last phenom is an ever-present shortcoming in Hollwood's treatment of the supernatural: the glorification of man. Too often, when movies acknowledge the existence of a spiritual world, devils are the problem and humans (digging down deep into the vast reservoirs of their goodness) are the solution, even (apparently) in attaining salvation, as Denzel tells his nephew, “If anybody deserves to go to heaven, it's your dad.” That may be true, Detective, but since no one is righteous and no one seeks God (Rom 4), no one “deserves to go to heaven,” so the conversation is moot. In the end, though, (SPOILER ALERT), he fails to defeat Azazel, even by giving his life, which could certainly be used to arrive at some biblical conclusions, as Azazel in the Old Testament, is part of a clear foreshadowing of the One who gave his life so we would not have to.
- “Well, thank you. You're . . . [under his breath] you're a white man.”
- “He had bad teeth. They found a piece in the cornflakes.”
- “When it's a perfect world, let me know.”
- “We need a translation of the translation.”
- “Without pizza and other fine Italian foods, there would be no happiness.”
- “We're not supposed to know; we're not supposed to see. It's like the mafia--they don't even exist.”
- “There are certain phenomena that can only be explained if there is a God.” Yeah, like, the existence of . . . anything at all.
- “Nobody likes to get hit from every angle, but evil just keeps on coming...”
- “I mean, do we care what ants do, ya know, from a moral standpoint?”
- “Beware my wrath.” (spoken by a senior citizen, perhaps the only bit player who couldn't pull off the creepy I-was-just-possessed-via-touch vibe)
- “Everything's personal if you're a person.” Bet that looked clever on the page.
Fallen doesn't have a bunch of sudden-loud-noise, make-you-jump scares; it's a different kind of film. But there were plenty of very creepy, slightly dread-inducing moments that were pulled off skillfully. The pregnant pause after, “Art, what's wrong with your eye?” was one, as we realize that Denzel just looked the demon in the eye and greeted him (in the form of his nephew). And the repeated (but not too often) demon's-eye view was understated and effective. And, while the whole “word written in the mirror” phenomenon has been done to death, it really worked with the plot and landed well as one of the few moments that made the viewer flinch. It worked because it was allowed to scare us by itself, rather than throwing in a really loud musical cue and a wacky video effect.
The demon in the book had a face on his butt. Am I the only one who saw that? A butt face! Perhaps that's the real take-away from this movie: Next time the devil tempts you or tells you that you're worthless, just remind him he has a butt face.