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constructinghorror.com: FALLEN [Steve Ericsson]

The vicious serial killer Edgar Reese has been brought to justice by homicide detective John Hobbes. Everyone believes that the execution of Reese will close the case, but the killings continue and this time the crime scenes contain messages and clues for the detective. John Hobbes soon finds himself threatened by a left-handed ancient demon called Azazel, which passes from person to person by touch and really likes to sing. The fallen angel murders and wreaks havoc at will, but the detective is the real target of evil. Hobbes has to find a way to uncover the truth and fight the demon before he and his family are all dead.

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Constructinghorror.com:

It is said that producers Charles Roven and Dawn Steel were so excited by Nicholas Kazan´s spec script that they rushed the film into production within a year after purchasing it. But a meager $25.2M at the box office may not have been what Warner Brothers expected as the horror/thriller had such stars as Denzel Washington, John Goodman, and Donald Sutherland. Competing with Titanic, As Good as it Gets, and The Superbowl, Fallen closed after 10 weeks in American theaters, but the story is a complex crafty piece of work with some exceptional twists and deserves to be revisited on DVD.

“Let me tell you about the time when I almost died.”

The dying John Hobbes runs through the forest as we are introduced to the narrator of the movie. Unfolding as a long flashback, the story begins in a prison cell with the possessed serial killer Reese. He grabs detective Hobbes, talks ancient Aramaic (a language he has no way of knowing), and asks the detective the question “Why is there a space between Lyons and Spakowsky?” He is then executed in the gas chamber and uses his final breath to sing The Rolling Stones’ song “Time Is on My Side”, which is one of the most important and memorable set-ups of the movie.

The killings in the style of Reese continue and lead up to the question asked in the opening. It turns out that the names “Lyons and Spakowski” are decorated police officers and the “space between” is an officer who has been erased from a chart at the station. This man, Officer Robert Milano, shot himself in a small cabin up north after being accused of committing copycat murders. His daughter, Gretta Milano, a theology teacher, is convinced of his innocence and understands the connection to the events happening to Hobbes. She is also the only one who knows the rules of the supernatural world and becomes an important ally.

John’s family consists of his brother Art and his nephew Sam, and as in any good thriller the conflict becomes personal and puts the people around the protagonist in danger. Azazel threatens Hobbes by entering the police station and jumping bodies while singing “Time is on my side”. Whatever Hobbes does, he can not stop the demon, since the possessed officers and later on civilians are innocent people. Killing them will not harm the demon. The traveling song between people on the street is one of the most haunting and impressive demonstrations of power. John Hobbes will have to find the Achilles heel of the fallen angel to save himself and his family.


The Screenplay vs. the Movie

With close to 30 years of experience in the business, Oscar nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan knows a few things about storytelling. He mostly writes spec scripts to keep his creative freedom and prefers to write whatever he feels passionate about. The nomination for a Bram Stoker Award for best horror screenplay (one of the most prestigious awards for horror authors) may give an indication that Kazan enjoyed this spec. And the deal with the studio was one he could not resist, as it included the role of executive producer on the final film. The movie itself was nominated for an IHG Award (International Horror Guild) in 1999 and was directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fracture).

The genesis of the screenplay came from when Kazan started to think about what he had noticed growing up and later in his own family. “Evil” is contagious. If his wife Robin got mad at him and said something unpleasant, he found himself saying something harsh to his older daughter. She then said something harsh to the younger daughter. The energy seemed to travel. This in combination with, according to himself, “catastrophic imagination” and an image he once saw on the street – someone touching another person in an ominous way – became the seed that was nurtured by thinking, plotting and hard work over three to four years before it finally became the horror/thriller Fallen.

Director Gregory Hoblit really liked the screenplay, so it was not without surprise that executive producer / screenwriter Kazan received the 60 pages of notes. If you compare the screenplay with the final product you will notice the impact of the notes as many scenes have changed, a few characters are gone and most of the scenes have completely new dialogue. It seems like Gregory Hoblit used his experience from the ground-breaking TV-series Hill Street Blues to create a realistic, believable world in and out of the police station, and welcomed challenging actors like Denzel Washington to enhance the story. Fallen has some great performances that seem so real that one suspects that some of them are improvised, and they add humor to the dark tale of Hobbes in scenes like the first meeting with Gretta and the last lines in the serious discussion about the meaning of life.

Fallen is a great screenplay, but the long and rewarding rewriting process made the story believable and gave it more impact. Gretta Milano, for instance, and her relationship with Hobbes changed during this process. She was originally two characters that delivered the exposition, and she was also the love interest of Hobbes which ended with them sleeping together. Both changes are for the better.

In the climax of the movie there was only one person confronting Hobbes, but Hoblit insisted that if you didn’t know which one of the two police officers coming to get Hobbes is the demon – it would create yet another twist. As soon as Kazan got used to the idea he embraced it and incorporated it into the screenplay.

Religious imagery is often used in horror for obvious reasons, but director Hoblit tones down the biblical texts found in the original screenplay, cuts a short scene where serial killer Reese threatens a priest, and changes the writing on the wall at the second murder scene from “Armageddon” to “???? = Look In Mirror”. Hoblit might have felt that having the fallen angel Azazel terrorizing Hobbes was enough.


Storytelling highlights:

The Opening

A Flash-forward would not have been necessary to create a mysterious and effective opening of Fallen. We could just as well have been entering death row and the execution of serial killer Reese as it is fascinating in it self. But the flash-forward does enhance the story by setting the viewer up for the payoff in the climax and produces a rush of insight and the end of the film. It’s an effective twist that gets a powerful emotional effect and it introduces the narrator that frames the story.

The continuing scene establishes more things than you may at first notice.

1.) The scene introduces the sympathetic Hobbes and the way he flips coins, a trait that will be used against him as evidence of the new copycat murders.

2.) It introduces Lt. Stanton (played by Donald Sutherland) and his relationship to John Hobbes as they have a sub-plot of their own to the bitter end.

3.) It establishes a documentary being shot in prison about the serial killer (as we want to be able to listen to and translate the threat in the ancient language spoken by Reese before the execution).

4.) It creates mystery and forward movement with the question about “Lyons and Spakowsky”.

5.) It sets-up the first rules of what the demon is capable of and establishes the song that will become the proof of supernatural activity and demonstrate power.

Besides all that – it’s entertaining.

Nearly every line of dialogue and action establishes, sets-up the story and makes the opening an excellent scene to study. Even a subtle line such as “Open your eyes. Look around sometimes”, spoken by Azazel (Reese to Hobbes) is echoed in the climax by Hobbes to the demon. Everything is integrated.

The Use of Diegetic Music
“Time is on my side” is first played as a non-diegetic song during the pre-credits as the serial killer is taken to the gas chamber. When the music ends, Reese sings and integrates the choice of music brilliantly into diegetic singing as he dies. Later on, as the demon passes through several people threatening Hobbes, they sing the same song again and the audience understands the rules demonstrated and the vast powers of Azazel. Brilliant. As the demon floats out of the dead it establishes the first part of the system of rules – it can travel and possess another body when the host dies.

The Skeptic Protagonist
Using a professional investigator makes the life of a screenwriter easy at first. Hobbes has no problem finding the motivation to continue his search for truth. In many horror movies you wonder why the characters continue to pursue the thing that will become their destruction. Any sane person will stop as they realize their own life is on the line. Using a cop (or any other sort of investigator) is a great way to get the story going. What makes it a bit tricky is that police officers and detectives work all day with leads and proof that exist in the real world. They have to have a good understanding of reality and can only act on facts and evidence. (Except in shows and movies like The X-Files.) In other words, they usually do not believe in gods, demons, or angels. Kazan uses this to his advantage and convinces John Hobbes and the audience who identifies with him at the same time by slowly introducing events that break that logic. The skeptic protagonist is tricky, but a screenwriter like Kazan, a director like Hoblit and an actor like Denzel Washington shows just how effective it can be.

Exposition and The Rules of the Fallen Angel
Exposition shows how good a storyteller really is. Fallen needs to explain what the supernatural entity is and how the system of rules can be applied to battle the demon in the climax. Hobbes is confronted with a number of mysterious events where logic can no longer be applied. By showing unquestionable evidence, as the writings on the wall – “Lyons ????? Spakowsky”, the taped threat against Hobbes in ancient Aramaic, and the demonstration of how Azazel travels by touch – the audience will accept the presented truth since it is the only logical conclusion of what is happening. At one point we even see Hobbes through the eyes of a possessed cat as the color-palette of Azazel has been established in the opening.

Kazan shows before telling. The only person who knows about Azazel is Gretta, the daughter of late officer Milano and she refuses to tell Hobbes anything the first two times he sees her.

“Do you believe in God”, she asks the first time.

“If you enjoy your life, if there’s even one human being you care about: don’t take this case.” She says the second time.

This is a challenge that will only make Hobbes, and the audience, really want to know what is going on. She has secrets she refuses to tell, and when she finally explains the rules of the fallen angel the audience’s desire to know has been built up and the release is a satisfying experience (the third time they meet). Hobbes has to open up to the possibility of what she says to be true if he is going to have any chance to survive the upcoming battle. An interesting remark is that Hoblit made Hobbes even more skeptic in this scene than was originally written. The realization of the supernatural reality becomes both smooth and more believable.

The Revelation
The unreliable narrator is rarely used in the movies, but makes the ending of Fallen so much more interesting. It means that you think you know who is narrating (or that you believe the information presented to actually be true), but at some point the truth is revealed. The opening narrator of Fallen is not John Hobbes. It’s his voice, but it’s Azazel as Hobbes. He has been poisoned and the images of the running Hobbes from the opening returns as the narrator continues to explain; “…a time when I ALMOST died…” and as the rules that have been set up permits – the demon leaves the body of the dead protagonist and enters… a cat. A great and surprising twist carried by the unreliable narrator and is set-up in the first frames.