These things start in the damndest places.
During our chat room set up for the recent Oscars telecast, the topic moved to horror films. I have a broad opinion of what a horror film is, certainly broader than the focus of the tribute segment of the show. New music editor Ken Shane said, “For me, a horror film has to have some basis in the supernatural.”
My criteria for horror is that you leave the theater in silence, and not because you’re in some sickened state of shock — that’s too easy. Buy yourself a rubber brain from the Halloween superstore, stuff it with Karo corn syrup mixed with red food dye and M-80 firecrackers and videotape it. You’ll get shock value, all right. You leave the theater in silence because you’ve been shaken into a state of paranoia, anyone next to you could really be anything, something could fall from the sky and tear you to shreds, and although you know this is all highly unlikely, what you saw has gotten so deep in your brain that you can’t shake it. You’re going to stay very quiet, get to your car and maybe you’ll discuss this all tomorrow.
My brother-in-law and I had that experience walking out of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. On paper there’s not much that would cause severe dread: One of the Simons from TV’s Simon & Simon? Check. What about cockroach monster Alice Cooper? Check. What of a giant tank of liquid Satan in the basement of the abandoned church? Got it. And just to make this all even more outlandish, let’s do this on a budget so small it wouldn’t have even paid the catering services on the set of The Thing. John Carpenter, God bless his chain-smoking heart on the other hand, really is one of the best at what he does (or did, apparently,) and made it all work. We were creeped. We were shocked. We were stone cold silent, because anyone else or everyone else in that theater could be an underworld minion in disguise, in the flesh. You knew otherwise, but try explaining that to your twitching nerves.
Obviously this falls squarely in line with Ken’s supernatural observation; after all, Prince Of Darkness was about the entrance of the anti-christ into our world and the end of days. However, I posited that the movie Seven (or as the purists annoyingly insist, Se7en) is just as much, if not moreso, a horror movie. He asked if The Silence of the Lambs was a horror movie, and I affirmed that. What about Psycho? Not so much; Psycho is really the story of a sick, tormented soul and clearly falls into the thriller/suspense category. Silence Of The Lambs isn’t quite there although it is both thrilling and suspenseful and, in my mind, Hannibal Lecter is a monster for all the same reasons John Doe is a monster. I’ll explain using the characterization of the latter.
The best movie monsters have a way of getting into the heads of their victims, or the potential victims, or the supposedly invincible hero whose sole purpose for being in the film is to conquer the foe. Van Helsing did away with Dracula, but not before he seduced his prey. These enemies seem to be omnipresent, appearing out of thin air when they so choose, and they know how you think. Even more frightening, they know how to make you think, and that manipulation of that which you still think is your free will is some potent voodoo right there. In Seven, the 7 Deadly Sins serial killer not only seems one step ahead of the police, at times it’s as if he’s standing right next to them unseen, tying up the strands, and when it comes time to complete his masterpiece of misanthropy, those strands are wrapped around the hands of one of his pursuers, and around the trigger finger of the other.
It would be much easier to cope with John Doe, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey in a performance for the ages, as a foaming, drooling lunatic, a zombie with a bloodlust and a pretense. Instead, and much more compelling and disturbing, he’s highly intelligent. There isn’t a move he hasn’t already anticipated, right down to the Pyrrhic victories of getting a punch in on him here and there when he willingly surrenders for his crimes. It looks like he has given up, but even that is part of his plot, and he has effectively seduced every police person after him, just like Dracula with his hypnotic gaze.
The cool thing about the movie is that it is not solely a horror movie or a thriller. In Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Det. Somerset, you have the Murtagh Principle at work, the policeman who’s ticking off the days until his freedom from the dirty, soul-sucking city. He’s training Det. Mills (Brad Pitt) as his replacement, not his partner, but Mills is a standard issue film noir protagonist, at heart a good man who will be drawn into the vortex and ultimately swallowed by it. If you are a film buff, you would be rolling your eyes at these broad characters, and if they didn’t tip you off, the virtuous wife of Mills, courtesy of Gwynneth Paltrow, might as well have “Goose” tattooed to her forehead; she is the one true innocent in this mess. With all these hoary old types bumping around in the dark of this film, there should be zero chance of it working, but it is the relationship writer Andrew Kevin Walker creates for all these paint-by-numbers caricatures that gets you looking beyond the more obvious mechanics, and it is that relationship that draws you in and holds you. It is also the secret Somerset holds from Mills until that dreaded ending that keeps you praying on your seat’s edge that, no, what you think happened didn’t.
Seven made director David Fincher a star. Before it, you knew him as the director of Alien 3, and probably held a grudge against him because of it. You might have also seen his music videos as he was a favorite of Madonna for quite a while, and he started down the uncomfortable path that leads to Seven at Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got A Gun video. It’s the little choices he made in the movie that really arrest you, such as the psychotic scrapbook montage opening, the sudden cuts, the way the credits at the end of the film are running down the wrong direction of the screen – all these are little, disturbing subtleties that amount to something as unnerving as the occasional, yet seriously graphic, depictions of violence, the inner workings of a brilliant but sick mind thrown up onto a canvas of the ugly city. John Doe sees himself as an artist and some sort of preacher. He’s turning cold-blooded murder into his grand guignol sermon.
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The movie had a profound effect on the industry and made all the participants into truly bankable stars. It also cemented a relationship between Pitt and Fincher that is comparable to DeNiro and Scorcese, and would result in Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The latter film would be considered a visual effects landmark with many (not me, as CGI faces simply aren’t up to snuff in my eyes yet) and would show off Fincher’s technical skills once again. Before music videos, he was part of the Ranch down at Industrial Light & Magic. If Freeman’s work as Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy put E.Z. Reader down, Det. Somerset put the final nails in the coffin lid. The movie also had a negative effect as lesser talents would latch onto the more nihilistic aspects of the story, revel in the twisted dioramas presented by the antagonist and make that the crux of the tale. There might have been a Saw without Seven, but it would have been vastly different.
Is it really a horror film though? As with all subjective topics, it all depends on what horrifies you. The world around us seems to become harder every day, the value of human life cheaper and easier to degrade. That might merely be because we have non-stop media, feeding us the images and sluglines that continuously reinforce upon us man’s inhumanity to man. Ask the children of a Holocaust survivor if people valued life more then than now and I guarantee they’ll just shake their heads. Regardless, Seven is on track to becoming almost quaint, but I can say that after my original viewing the film rendered me speechless and wary. I was horrified, so yes, it qualifies in my mind as belonging in the genre. If only the many imitators understood that it was so much more.