Saturday, October 25, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 24 - Seven

#5 (Tie) - 11 Votes

The years after the release of The Silence of the Lambs saw a flood of police procedurals and serial killer movies that revolved around charismatic murderers with a cinematic modus operandi. These films, such as Jennifer Eight, Just Cause and Copycat, were often as violent as the average horror movie, but their producers preferred to market them as "psychological thrillers" - the idea was to avoid the lowbrow connotations of horror and sell the movies as more tasteful, serious affairs in the hopes of achieving some of the box office and awards success of Jonathan Demme's film. The most successful of these post-Silence thrillers was Seven, which was released in the fall of 1995 with a marketing campaign that positioned it as a serious thriller for adult audiences. Which it was, but the irony is that Seven succeeded because it never shied away from the darker implications of its subject matter. If anything, the element that the disributor, New Line, fought to change - the shocking, downbeat ending - is the thing that generated the word of mouth that made the movie a big hit. While so many of the decade's other thrillers were pulp posing as art, Seven is both a morally and philosophically serious work and a grim, unflinching horror movie with an ending as disturbing as that of any straight horror movie.

After the horrible experience of making Alien 3, David Fincher had no interest in directing a feature again until, a couple of years later, he read a script by newcomer Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the original draft while he was working at a Tower Records. It's easy to see how the movie's bleak, despairing view of the human condition appealed to the director, who has since shown himself, in movie after movie to embody George Carlin's definition of a cynic as a disappointed idealist. Fincher and production designer Arthur Max created an unnamed urban hellhole for the film, where it's constantly dark, gray (courtesy of the bleach bypass process employed by cinematographer Darius Khondji) and raining, that seems to affirm the belief of jaded veteran Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman, never better) that society is in a state of inevitable collapse. The partnership betwen a veteran cop and an idealistic, hotheaded rookie is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but it's to the credit of Walker's script and Freeman and Brad Pitt's performances that Somerset and Mills become two believable and distinct characters, rather than action movie archetypes used as to voice two opposing worldviews. While it's the concept of ironically designed murders inspired by the seven deadly sins that served as the movie's marketing hook, it's the quieter scenes where these two men debate whether the world as beyond saving that continue to fascinate me as I return to the movie over the years.

It's John Doe's murders, however, that push Seven into the realm of horror. One of the smartest aspects of the script is that we only see the aftermath of the murders as they're investigated by the police; scenes that would become unbearable to watch for most audiences become tolerable when they're described in retrospect. Ironically, this allows Walker and Fincher to create scenes in our imaginations that are far more upsetting than anything they could have shown, with some of the movie's most terrifying concepts depending entirely on the power of suggestion. Probably the most grotesque of John Doe's murders is the lust-themed killing of a prostitute at a kinky sex club, which is conveyed to us almost entirely through dialogue after the fact. Cutting between the interrogations of the club's eerily calm manager and the hysterical, horrified john, Fincher lets us gradually piece together the awful details of what happened, finding a chilling way to imply something that, if shown, would have probably lost 90% of the audience.

Seven famously withholds its killer's identity until about 90 minutes into the movie; it's hard to convey now how brilliant the casting of Kevin Spacey was, but this was right before he became an Oscar-winning star, and he was a recognizable character acter who was strong enough to create a startling impression (my all-time favorite Spacey line delivery is "Detect-IIIIIIVE!") while still unfamiliar enough to disappear into a frighteningly anonymous character. Walker, Fincher and Spacey smartly don't try to make John Doe a colorful, Hannibal Lecter-type monster; instead, Spacey plays the role as unsettlingly calm and thoughtful, and as he explains his reasoning for what he's done, the monstrous but coherent internal logic behind his actions grows more and more unsettling. John Doe's despair at what humanity's moral failings is not so far removed from Somerset's, but Seven thankfully doesn't resort to the hacky device of implying that the killer and his pursuer are the same. The devastating ending succeeds in shocking Somerset out of his sense of resignation and destroying Mills' life and all of his assumptions about the way the world works (I used to think Pitt overplayed the ending, now I think it's exactly right).

Fincher had to fight hard, with Pitt's help, to preserve the ending - at one point, the studio asked if maybe it could be the head of one of Mills' dogs in the box instead. He did agree to one concession, the brief denoument and Somerset's voiceover citing Ernest Hemingway (originally, the movie would have cut to black immediately after Mills fires his weapon). This change actually improves the movie; as dark as it is, it would have been a terrible idea to let John Doe have the last word. Two decades later, Fincher hasn't lost his ability to provoke audiences, as the success and ongoing conversations about Gone Girl demonstrate. But if the director's worldview has hardly gotten any more upbeat, he has demonstrated that, beneath his icy, methodical approach to filmmaking is a more contemplative and empathetic storyteller than we might have assumed at first. Seven is a pessimistic film, but in the end, it's not a nihilistic one; that's an important distinction, one perhaps lost on fans of the film that mostly dig the '90s industrial atmosphere, just as the many dudebros and angry nerds who worship Fight Club don't get that the movie is making fun of them. If you're watching Seven to see some fucked-up shit, it delivers on that, but if you prefer more thematically complex horror, than few movies in the genre are better, smarter or more existentially terrifying.

U.S. Release Date: September 22, 1995 (Also opening that day: Showgirls, Empire Records, A Month by the Lake, Canadian Bacon, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

What critics said at the time:

  "First-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker eschewed constructing a real story with characters we care about in favor of shock value. There's none of the humor that takes the sting out of slasher movies, and certainly none of the psychology and depth that made 'The Silence of the Lambs' such an intellectual thriller. David Fincher, who killed off the joy in the 'Alien' series by directing the third installment, was probably chosen to helm this because it is yet another movie that shows disdain for its characters. 'Seven' cares so little about the victims that, for the most part, we don't even hear their names. Is exploitation a sin? And if so, are we in for a sequel?" - Jami Bernard, New York Daily News
"Admittedly, designer unpleasantness is a hallmark of our era, and this movie may be more concerned with wallowing in it than with illuminating what it means politically. Yet the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across, something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we’re living in." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

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