The Big Picture
- Fallen is a mid-budget horror film from 1998 that combines elements of detective stories, horror, and the supernatural.
- The film features a strong ensemble cast, including Denzel Washington, John Goodman, and James Gandolfini, who deliver powerful performances, some even playing multiple roles.
- While the film was initially poorly received, it has since gained a cult following and is praised for its concept, performances, and how it explores the eternal battle between good and evil.
Do you remember the era of mid-budget thrillers that ran rampant throughout the 1990s and into the first few years of the 21st century? These powerful, character-driven stories often had exceptional casts and engaging plots that threw an unforeseen twist at you the moment you let your guard down. 1998’s Fallen was one of these pictures and starred the likes of Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Embeth Davidtz, Donald Sutherland, and future The Sopranos star James Gandolfini. Who would’ve thought that this group would band together for a mid-budget horror? Well, no one really, but the results speak for themselves.
- Release Date
- January 16, 1998
- Gregory Hoblit
- 124 minutes
‘Fallen’ Lures You Into a False Sense of Security
At its heart, Fallen is a detective story. Taking cues from both the horror genre and the noirs of old, this Denzel Washington-led film––which was directed by Gregory Hoblit from a screenplay by Nicholas Kazan––sucks us in immediately by revealing the ending of the film, even though we didn’t know it at the time. The subsequent narration throughout the case as Detective John Hobbes (Washington) works tirelessly to solve these strange occultic/apocalyptic murders a la Se7en, which inspired its own wave of copycats in the following years, only pulls you in further as we believe we’re hearing our hero’s innermost thoughts. And to be fair, the movie wants us to think that.To put a spin on the classic noir trope of a detective narration overlaying the film experience, Fallen pushes things a step further by making this a supernatural thriller, and not just an occult crime case. The reveal that a literal demon is behind this strange and seemingly unbroken string of murders is a shocking one, and yet, Hobbes cannot deny the strange things he’s seen. Named Azazel after the biblical character referenced in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha (yes, the same demon you remember from Supernatural), this demon stalks Hobbes as his new obsession. Every time we see through the demon’s eyes, an Ektachrome-yellow highlighting is used to emphasize the evil spirit’s point of view (a look HBO’s Euphoria would replicate decades later), and in doing so we remain confident that Hobbes’ is the one doing the talking.
Of course, part of the reason why Fallen works so well is the commitment of its actors. Sure, all movies, well, most movies showcase actors willing to commit entirely to their roles, but in Fallen, many of our stars are forced to take on more than one part. We learn early on that Hobbes himself cannot be possessed unwillingly due to his morally upright nature, which also adds to the security we feel in watching him solve this case. That security is all well and good, but it leaves the door open for other characters, namely those played by Goodman and Gandolfini, to be possessed themselves as the plot thickens.
The Stars in ‘Fallen’ Thrive While Playing Multiple Parts
From the very beginning, we’re first introduced to Azazel through the form of Edgar Reece. Elias Koteas proves himself an invaluable part of this picture here as he establishes all the meaningful ticks and mannerisms of this demonic killer. Movies like 2023’s indie-horror Nefarious certainly took their cues from Koteas’s performance here, and it’s no wonder as he thrills and chills with every word. But Koteas––who should’ve been a much bigger star––isn’t the only one playing Denzel Washington’s demonic adversary. As the film continues, the demon hops across two dozen different bodies (which Disney+’s Loki paid homage to in 2021), including Detective Lou (Gandolfini) in a scene that’ll make you really shiver.
Remember When Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta Were in a Mafia Movie Together?
This 2012 film was critically panned on release but is worthy of a revisit.
Though it doesn’t last long, the moment Azazel takes over Philadelphia detective Lou’s body is arguably the start of the scariest scene in the picture. Just like Azazel did while wearing Edgar Reece, so too does he sing the Rolling Stone’s “Time Is On My Side” to Hobbes in the safety and security of their precinct. Gandolfini plays this moment brilliantly, bringing Hobbes in closer before revealing the dark truth that he isn’t who he thinks he is. No doubt, Lou has been a relative pain in Hobbes’ side before now, but it’s here that our hero recognizes that the killer isn’t a human being at all, but rather a fallen angel bent on tearing his life apart. As Gandolfini struts throughout the office singing that godforsaken tune, he passes Azazel onto another, and then another, only for the demon to walk right out the door. From here on, Hobbes’ life would never be the same.
What Gandolfini perfects here carries over into the third act, when both Lieutenant Stanton (Sutherland) and Hobbes’ partner, Detective “Jonsey” Jones (Goodman), show up at the Milano family cabin to confront our hero, whom Azazel has since framed for the “copycat” murders. We won’t spoil the ending for you (because if you don’t know what’s coming, you will be genuinely shocked), but let’s just say that Goodman’s performance is impeccable, and the balancing act between Washington and his co-star makes us wish these two had starred opposite each other more often. Goodman has a range here that we’d see again later in works like 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Washington is, as always, at the top of his game.
‘Fallen’ Is One of Denzel Washington’s Most Underrated Performances
Unfortunately, Fallen was one of those movies that was swept straight under the radar. In theaters alongside Good Will Hunting and Titanic (which was still going strong after its fifth week), Fallen opened with only $10 million against an estimated budget of $46 million (via The Wrap). The film was only in theaters for four weeks before it left with a measly $25 million. To make matters worse, the critical reviews weren’t kind. “Denzel Washington has the almost impossible task of holding together a convoluted picture that’s only intermittently suspenseful and not very engaging emotionally or intellectually,” wrote Emanuel Levy of Variety. Roger Ebert went a step further, and though he generally liked the film, he noted that “the idea is better than the execution, and by the end, the surprises become too mechanical and inevitable.”
But it turns out that time has been on Fallen‘s side, after all. While the film’s poor reviews no doubt hurt the film’s box office returns at the time, the supernatural thriller has since gained a massive cult following, which has improved its audience and even critical scores in recent years. The truth is, Fallen is a great time, and it’s a fascinating concept that tackles the eternal battle between good and evil from the standpoint of a detective thriller rather than your standard supernatural horror show. Washington is in his prime here, and his work as John Hobbes is not only believable but inspiring. Knowing that you’re going up against an evil that has been walking the Earth for thousands of years, and then addressing it head-on (and by name) takes guts, and Washington thrives playing characters with lots of them.
So, if you’re in the mood to watch a young Denzel Washington play alongside the likes of James Gandolfini, John Goodman, and a host of other impressive actors, look no further than 1998’s Fallen. This one might surprise you, but just remember, don’t trust a soul…
Fallen can be rented on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S.
Watch on Amazon Prime