Fallen (1998)

D: Gregory Hoblit
S: Denzel Washington, John Goodman

Stylish and atmospheric supernatural thriller pits Philadelphia cop Denzel Washington against dark spirit which freely inhabits the bodies of mortals and has been on a killing spree since the dawn of time. When serial killer Elias Koteas (Crash) is captured by Washington and then subsequently executed, the demon inside him decides to goad and manipulate his would-be dispatcher by possessing people he knows or has come into contact with, with the eventual aim of having the cop himself condemned for further crimes.

Shades of The Exorcist are present on a thematic level here, with the initially incredulous and rational cop gradually being forced to recognise the existence and the power of the spiritual plane. The film is not quite as visceral, of course, and on the whole the emphasis is on drawn-out scenes of suspense rather than shock. Particularly nice are those where the demon transfers from person to person by touch, the only link being a coldness in the host's manner and the faintly sung strains of the tune "Time is on my Side", which it uses to remind its quarry of its everlasting presence. Unfortunately despite fascinating elements, good performances, and a pleasing visual tone to match, the film is overextended and perhaps too low key for its own good.

Washington is believable in the central role. He initially plays his character with a slightly sneering arrogance which disintegrates by degrees. Though he finally comes up with a plan to turn the tables on his tormentor, he spends much of the film grappling with disbelief and increasing helplessness, and director Gregory Hoblit does a nice job of visualising a sense of disorientation and paranoia. Supporting roles filled by eternal sidekick John Goodman and the ever-dependable Donald Sutherland (as Washington's workmate and superior respectively) add human drama. As our hero's investigations take him ever further into the realms of what seems like fantasy, he becomes increasingly isolated from his colleagues and family to the point where it becomes difficult to be sure he's not insane.

Yet however taxing the dilemma for the supporting characters, without the kind of paranoid uncertainty upon which Rosemary's Baby was built on the part of the audience, the core of the film is too literal to generate much intrigue. The result is that the narrative becomes a series of generally well-mounted detective sequences with occasional outbursts of hocus-pocus, faintly reminiscent of Angel Heart but not as gripping. The main response this evokes in the viewer is a sort of morbid curiosity about how things will turn out, but given that we are never in any doubt that this is indeed the devil's handiwork (or the fallen angel, or demon, or whatever), it is mostly academic.

The film is still worth watching and should appeal to genre fans whose taste runs to concept rather than affect. The pleasures here are mostly in the delivery though, both in Hoblit's use of sets, lighting, and camera to give a sense of his central character's metaphysical unease, and in Washington's performance of that unease. There is rather less excitement than casual viewers might expect, it takes far longer to get to the point than is necessary, and the film's finale, while not unexpected, feels like a cheap gag rather than a chilling refusal of resolution. There's a great little film in here somewhere, but it has been stretched too thin by the demands of large-scale production. It is not without its moments, but it is not necessarily as cohesive and effective a whole as might have been hoped.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.