Have you ever felt like you’re just one bad day away from losing your cool? Like, seriously losing it? Like, off the deep end kind of losing it? I think we’ve all been there at some point or another, and that’s why the folks here at Nightmare on Film Street have deemed March’s theme, March Break. Whether it be broken bones or broken psyches, we’re covering it here and for Almost Horror, we didn’t have to look far to find a fringe horror film nobody knew they needed. So grab your browline glasses, your white short-sleeve button-up, don’t forget your briefcase, because it’s time for Joel Schumacher’s mid-life-crisis-gone-horribly-wrong, Falling Down (1993).
WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS
In Falling Down, the Michael Douglas character D-Fens AKA William Foster is a love letter to anyone who has felt the fingers of the universe open the sky, point at them, and place the weight of the world sits firmly upon their shoulders. When no sign of abatement can be found, keeping the chaos in balance by a single thread that’s resting on an ever-sharpening blade seems dauntingly impossible. Nary an ounce of mettle can be found to rescue yourself from the impending break that’s quickly cracking in the levee of one’s mind and when that sediment bank gives way, we all know the mess that follows.
This is exactly what happens to D-Fens. Not only is he dealing with the mental anguish that comes with the feelings of immortality that middle-age brings, but he’s also feeling the crushing blows of disappointment from the realization that self-expectations are nowhere near being met. He’s also met with the punishing effects of obsolescence after being fired from his job, the stunning right hook of rejection following a divorce from his wife, the mind-numbing helplessness of being stuck in L.A. traffic on the hottest day of the year, and his air-conditioning breaking is the proverbial straw that broke his back and his spirit. All he wants to do is get to his daughter’s birthday party but the horrors that await him, both on the mean streets of L.A. and in his own head, may have a different say in his plans.
MALE WHITE PRIV-ANOIA
D-Fens is most certainly a closeted psychopath given his violent tendencies but he firmly believes he is the victim amidst the chaos he’s perpetrating. But as he leans on the decline-of-civility/standing-up-for-decency crutch all while he assaults, wounds, and shoots at foreigners, people of color, and even rich white golfers, obviously for being better than him.
Foster’s belief that he’s a sympathetic victim finds him often trying to relate that he’s not such a bad guy in between violent attacks and veiled racist rants. In fact, he almost begs the audience to root for him and we do at times, but that support falls apart once we learn that William Foster isn’t some average Joe who just wanted change to make a phone call, he’s actually sick with a history of violence. It’s a catastrophic combination of white male privilege and the fragility of the white male ego that creates a ticking timebomb with a faulty detonator and a hair-trigger.
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RISE OF THE ANTI-HERO
In the late ’80s, thanks to mega-horror franchises like Halloween (1978-present), Friday the 13th (1980-present), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-present), villains ceased to be villains anymore. Gone were the days that the Freddy’s, and the Jason’s, and the Michael’s lurked in shadows and had most of their screen time reserved to the final reel of the film. Now they were the stars of the movies. Audiences paid to cheer them on as they carved up teenagers ad nauseum.
The same can be said about D-Fens. Once he hits the streets of L.A. his reign of terror is undeniable. What’s worse is he goes about his bloody business under the guise of decency and morality. He strikes terror into an entire city, including some of that city’s most hardened criminals, driven by fear, despair, obsolescence, and helplessness but powered by the audience and an inflated sense of entitlement.
REVENGE HORROR OR VIGILANTE DRAMA?
Part of the argument here is how does a crime drama, that leans heavily on the modern white-victimization narrative, possibly fall into the much-loved revenge horror sub-genre. Allow me to explain. The modern horror genre was built on revenge. From Last House on the Left (1972) to The Invisible Man (2020), revenge horror has ruled the box office for the better part of a century.
This trend has also spilled over into more mainstream genres like thrillers and dramas with films like Blue Ruin (2013), The Gift (2015), and even Joker (2019) employing the revenge horror formula. Falling Down is no different. We have the anti-hero in D-Fens, a near-nameless villain whose beige existence allows him to navigate his hunting grounds nearly undetected. The citizens of Los Angeles are his prey, unbeknownst to both them and their hunter in the beginning, but once this beast is let out of his cage, there is no putting him back.
When most people think of Michael Douglas they think of dramas, a few comedies, and if you’re over fifty, a few ’70s TV cop procedurals. The last thing on the minds of most would be his connection to the horror world. However, Mr. Douglas has a surprisingly creep section on his resume. Early films he did had a definite network to the horror world.
Douglas’ work in such films as Coma (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), Fatal Attarction (1987), The Game (1997), and Don’t Say a Word (2001) all sit within the parameters of horror’s hallowed halls. Conversely, director Joel Schumacher has a rich history in the genre with hits such as Lost Boys (1987), Flatliners (1990), Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Number 23 (2007), and Blood Creek (2009). Certainly, a pair whose filmography doesn’t reflect their horror roots nearly enough.
IN THE WAKE OF A PSYCHOPATH
The body count in Falling Down is relatively low for a horror revenge flick topping out at six bodies in the movie morgue. While D-Fens himself is indirectly responsible for all of them, he only physically kills one person, Nazi Nick at the surplus store. His actions are responsible for the rest of the screen deaths with three gang members killed in a car crash, an old golfer suffers a heart attack when D-Fens shoots at his golf cart, and… SPOILER ALERT… D-Fens himself, shot by Sergeant Pendergast played by Robert Duvall (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978).
But those fictional deaths pale in comparison to the real-life death that happened less than a mile from the film’s shooting location. Lensed in the spring of 1992, Falling Down set up shop in the streets of Los Angeles at the same time that the Rodney King verdict was announced. The ensuing riots left at least fifty-five dead and countless more injured which contrarily halted Falling Down’s filming due to unsafe conditions.
And this brings to an end our assertion on how Falling Down is less of a crime-drama and more of a revenge horror. All of the points have been made and we feel pretty strongly that we’ve put forth a decent case. But you tell us. Did we convince you that Falling Down is an instant Almost Horror classic or are you still of the mind that it belongs as it has always been? Let us know on our official Nightmare of Film Street Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Discord accounts. Not into social media? Subscribe to our Neighborhood Watch Newsletter to have all things horror delivered directly into your inbox. Until next time, fellow fiends, to avoid losing your cool, be kind to each other… be creepy too, but always be kind.