Monday, May 5, 2008

Fallen vs. Harlan Ellison's Mefisto in Onyx

Being as I was home with a cataclysmic affliction of the bowels, I watched Fallenstarring Denzel Washington today. My cousin Lou the Famous Actor and Traveling Douche recommended it to me one day. It's a serial killer tale with a supernatural twist, and not a bad movie. Denzel plays Detective Hobbes, and we meet him as he visits a killer on death row named Reese, who he caught. Reese is played by Elias Koteas, in the most memorable part in the film. He tries to shake Hobbes' hand through the bars, gives him a riddle and vows revenge before babbling in a tongue he says is Dutch. He sings "Time Is On My Side" as they march him to the gas chamber, and it's not the last time we'll hear the song. The camera pans slowly over the room starting from above the dying killer's head, and we wonder whose point of view it could be.

As Hobbes follows the clues, he learns the story of Detective Milano, who was hailed as a hero but then removed from the roster of decorated officers for some reason. And of course... killings with Reese's m.o. start happening again, casting doubt as to whether Hobbes caught the right man. We soon learn that Reese's spirit is jumping from person to person, by touch; soon enough it's back in Philly buying a cheese steak at Pat's, (good guys get them at Geno's, I guess) and leaving corpses injected with the same poison Reese used.

As Hobbes researches Milano's story, he meets the man's daughter Gretta, who is now a theology professor. She tries to deflect him, but he ends up at the cabin where Milano committed suicide in disgrace, and he sees the word AZAZEL written on a mirror in the basement, not far from some old demonology books. I knew who Azazel was because I had the nerdy habit of reading reference books during my formative years, and Azazel is a shadowy entity that the original "scape goats" were sacrificed by Hebrew tribes thousands of years ago, to cast sins out of the village. Later he was cast as a fallen angel who introduced weaponry to humanity and led 200 angels in revolt against heaven, and that's the one Hobbes is facing now.

The concept of transference gives the film a unique method of suspense; is the person who they say they are, or are they Azazel? He chases Gretta through a crowd by hopping from one vessel to another; he escapes from Hobbes the same way, and taunts him repeatedly by singing "Time is on my Side" through a chorus of different people. The movie is a little on the long side and Denzel is pretty boring at times, but the story is unique, and his cop buddy John Goodman helps liven things up.

Time is on my Side...

Hobbes soon learns that Azazel cannot live outside of a human body for longer than "a breath," so he plans to trap him and finish the demon for once and for all. The ending is quite a surprise and very different from what you'd expect, and there are plenty worse ways to spend 2 hours planted in front of a TV with explosive diarrhea. If you like a good supernatural thriller that isn't effects-laden, I'd recommend it. It was much better than that turd White Noise with poor Michael Keaton in it.

On the other hand, it reminded me of a book I'd read almost 15 years ago, called Mefisto in Onyx, by that infamous curmudgeon of fiction, Harlan Ellison. Back then I was a rabid fan of the rabid man, for which I ask forgiveness. I think I called him and hung up once. I saw him and Stan Lee at a science fiction convention, which was 20 years ago now, so it is long past the nerd statute of limitations, so don't give me any shit. Here's a scornful letter from him berating me for writing to him. I treasure it deeply.

There's a certain amount of passive aggression and/or obsessive compulsion in a man who must answer a fan letter, if only to tell you not to write him again, and manage to fill a single-spaced page in the process. He's an energetic writer and speaker and always funny, if irascible at times. Anyway, the book Mefisto in Onyx has a somewhat similar plot to Fallen- it begins with a psychic who visits a killer on death row to plumb his mind, and gets the tables turned- he swaps identities with him, being a psychic himself.

There was even a movie planned of Mefisto in Onyx- the script was optioned, and expired. Miramax bought it as a Samuel L. Jackson project. Some out of date movie info sites still list it as a credit for Jackson in 1999. The book came out in '93, so when Fallen came out in '98, about a black man in pursuit of a serial killer who could hop from person to person, I thought it was based on the book. I'm really surprised that Ellison didn't sue over it, because he did sue James Cameron over The Terminator, which was loosely based on two Outer Limits episodes that he wrote. The concept of a defense computer nuking humanity to wipe out both sides also came from "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." And he won, if you watch the DVD there's now a credit saying it was based on stories by Harlan Ellison.

Harlan's certainly not too tired to sue anymore; he's gone after e-book pirates on usenet, most recently. When it comes to creative artists, the writers always seem to get screwed. The recent strikes were over DVD and internet rights; the producers want to wring every dollar out of an old TV show, but as usual, the author is the last in line to get paid. I guess that's why they love reality shows, you barely need a writer.

Harlan ranting about how shittily writers are treated in Hollywood.

Although it's been a long time since I've read anything new by Mr. Ellison, I've heard there's a documentary called Dreams With Sharp Teeth being made about him. It's playing at the Film Forum in June, but I'll be in Hawaii. I'm glad he's still around. The man's a force of nature; if he can't be gracing us with new tales, I'm happy to see him ranting on youtube. I still haven't gotten around to reading Slippage, so I can't complain. It's on my shelf. I guess I have reader's block. Poring through Mefisto has reminded me of how well he writes, so I'll probably tackle that soon, and you'll see it here.


sarah said...

haha - nerd.

that author is a douche bag.

Rob L. said...

Ol' Harlan Ellison is great, if you're an angry, nerdy teenage boy. I think I have just about every one of his books, but I haven't read a word of them since I got myself a life. His rants about TV in The Glass Teat are even funnier in retrospect, listening to him call Zalman King a genius...

His book about how they screwed up The City on the Edge of Forever is mighty entertaining and his heavy handed influence shows all over Babylon 5 (goddamned kids, there's no laser beam noises in space!!!)

By the way, how come nobody ever sued James Cameron about ripping Philip K. Dick off for the Terminator movies? Read Second Variey and Jon's World and tell me that he didn't have a better case than cranky old Harlan.

Nice fan letter, Senior Pluck. Your geek-fu is impressive. Once I went to a UFO Convention to see John A. Keel speak.

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