What if fallen angels were real and they spent their time just screwing with people while they waited for Armageddon to happen? That’s probably the worst way to describe the 1998s Decreaseda suspenseful supernatural thriller that couldn’t quite take off in the cinemas, but became something of an underground cult classic – over time.
In Philadelphia, famed serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) meets his presumed end in the gas chamber, and the man who caught him, Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), is there to witness it. After some strange interaction, some mumbo jumbo and a few veiled threats, the audience gets their first hint of what is actually going on in Decreased, as something escapes the dying man. There is little time to celebrate, because just when the hero cops thought they had put another one on the board for the good guys, another series of murders with the same patterns occurs. It’s not long before the bodies pile up again, the mystery begins to unravel, and the detective realizes he’s being stalked by someone who can possess almost anyone he touches.
It’s easy to get caught up in this plot when the pieces fall into place and to keep thinking about it long after the movie ends. I found myself wanting to know more about this world, the people who know about demons and track them down, and why some people are resistant to touch but not to the “spirit”. Some think this is because Hobbes was too pure, which is partly supported by him talking about not wanting to take bribes early in the film, but he doesn’t come across as much more moral or righteous than the average person. . It gives Azazel some extra personality as the film’s villain that he attacks Hobbes so furiously simply because he couldn’t possess the hero like he could others. Good to see that even immortal former angelic beings can be little dicks. A long-term goal is established, the fall of Babylon and a subsequent apocalypse, but that’s the big picture, while this film focuses on this small beef between an immortal and a stubborn man who he wants to systematically destroy. There could easily have been a sequel or spinoff as there is plenty of material present, even if it isn’t with any of these characters.
The acting is a huge attraction Decreased. Washington does a solid job, and while it’s not his best role, most people will have no problem liking Hobbes and empathizing with his plight. The scenes with his brother, Art, who seems mentally challenged in the film, are almost touching at points. Decreased also features John Goodman who is excellent as always, especially when he gets to do more towards the end, James Gandolfini plays the asshole colleague but shows some undeniably fun quirks along with Embeth Davidtz and Donald Sutherland helping to round out a stellar cast. A lot of these people get to show some range, though it’s the quiet and subtle moments that beg to be noticed, and hey, most of them are going to sing at some point.
Hopefully no one lets their distaste for The Rolling Stones keep them away Decreasedas it is a movie that changes the way some people perceive the song Time is on my side. The scene where everyone sings it to Hobbes at the police station is really a bit creepy, and it’s hard to ignore Elias Koteas’ passion as he belts out the tune. And how could they make a movie about a malevolent demon that taunts its prey without including Sympathy with the devil? Otherwise it would have been a missed opportunity. There’s some Beck in there though for anyone who needs a track that’s a little more fun.
The genre, tone and themes within Decreased are all layered and blended almost together. In some ways the film tries to do too much, but even with all these different elements present, it never lingers too long or too far into anything that could have tied it down more firmly. When dealing with demons, it would have been easy to add more horror elements, but the thrill and excitement of not knowing, being out of the loop and fearing what someone with that kind of power might do is much more impressive. How can he trust anyone?
Early on, there’s a scene that could be considered very ‘pro-police’ with Hobbes introducing his fellow cops, saying that even the corrupt cops out there do more good than the average person every day, and the movie shows how wrong he acted of his solidarity as they all began to suspect him, thinking it must be another policeman carrying out this new set of murders, and they all inherently became his enemies, possessed or not. All the ‘good cops’ here can’t make it.
It is established early on how vulnerable everyone in Hobbes’s life is, and the sense of hopelessness grips the audience – it lingers. The mystery and historical angles are engaging and cross the religious aspect, but there’s no need to delve too deeply into everything that ultimately remains between Azazel and Hobbes. Decreased is a biblical thriller, almost like The prophecy (1995) or Stigmata (1999), but it remains more grounded in comparison and narrows the scope. Director Gregory Hoblit knew when to pull back on the music and humor and which scenes needed a moment to sink in.
It’s hard to talk about this one without discussing the ending, but Decreased is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so spoilers it is. The movie has what some might call a depressing ending, but that’s only because the bad guy wins. The opening narrative tells the audience what happened, but without prior information, this conclusion hits one Lot harder. Honestly it felt like Azazel should have won, he’s a fallen angel, older, wiser and Hobbes didn’t have all the information so he was doomed from the start no matter how much we wanted him to succeed.
But so close…
Some people really don’t like this ending, either because it’s a huge letdown or because they didn’t feel like the three or four hints about what’s going to happen justified the twist. While researching this and looking at other reviews I noticed some didn’t even catch one of the tracks so maybe there is something to that. The film received many mixed reviews, with critics feeling that there was a lot of heart and potential but that it should have stuck to one genre, but for me that’s what made it unique and stand out in some otherwise easy to ignore selection. .
Not enough people then Decreased, although it was totally worth it. Reviews were most likely one factor, but it was also caught in the wake of Titanic’s historic walk in theaters, which hurt even though it was several weeks in. The movie can be a little slow in parts, but I suggest the invested 120 minutes is worth it.
I was also glad that the movie didn’t try to force a romantic relationship between Hobbes and Gretta Milano, but that seemed to add to the film’s novelization. This book doesn’t deviate too much from what I saw, but it does expand on some of the details of the story, at least a bit, and might be worth it for hardcore fans.
visually, Decreased holds up well. Part of that is because the nature of the demon’s powers didn’t require a lot of special effects. Most of what is done is with camera tricks or filters, and some of it screams 90s, but the style has its own charm. You almost want to pat it on the head for not breaking out into a music video, but there are some really good visuals and the audience view follows the action well.
The movie still has some legs these days as it got a bit off a tribute in an episode of Marvel’s Loki series on Disney+. It could also have been a very different movie, as apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger was initially contacted for the lead role, but perhaps he preferred the script End of days (1999) more.
Decreased is an underrated film, but it won’t do it for everyone. The film is not quite the classic Seven (1995) is a feature it very likely drew inspiration from, but the added supernatural paint helps this project stand on its own. Some fans compare it to The hidden (1987) or a movie called The first power (1990), which shares a similar plot, but between the acting and solid direction, I’d still recommend that Decreased is quite worth seeking out. I think this movie will stay good, it has time on its side after all.