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In 1991 The Silence of the Lambs turned the course of horror movies away from fantastic boogeymen like Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger, and back to real-life serial killers. In a cultural shift similar to what occurred with Psycho thirty years before, the supernatural was replaced by notorious mass murderers of the kind that (thanks to the need to sell newspapers and snag audiences for TV news) seemed to be everywhere, itching to prey upon innocent citizens. Silence was a superior thriller that veered into horror territory through its representations of mutilation murders and torture, and it won a bushel of Academy Awards. Its success opened the door to 1001 mad murderers, creepy guys next door that, unbeknownst to their neighbors, were torturing and murdering to their hearts content.
Although the public's appetite for this tacky subgenre seemed to know no limits, I quickly tuned out the endless string of copycat movies and TV shows about Horrible Inhuman Serial Killers, the kind that exist to derive sadistic pleasure from inflicting pain and suffering. They quickly devolved from recognizable real-life case histories (that were mostly as pathetic as their victims) to being replacement boogeymen, mad obsessives always one step ahead of the law. Call it "Serial Killer Chic".
Worst of all were the myriad 'psychological' explorations of unusual detecting methods. The Silence of the Lambs had featured a real F.B.I. investigator with the depressing job of sifting clues and using applied psychology to profile known serial killers, with the aim of better identifying new offenders. Dozens of movies, TV shows and entire tele-series were based upon corruptions of this idea, often presenting telekinetic or psychic skills as a practical tool to locate killers. The same description cropped up again and again in connection with these exploitative pseudo-factual fantasies: "To catch the killer, the dauntless investigator must enter his consciousness and share his twisted mindset". Yawn.
Expensive action movies had a new type of villain to exploit. With the Evil Soviets pacified and ex-Nazis too old to put up a fight, the "fun" action thriller Speed turned to the Mad Serial killer. No messy political context was needed, and not really any character motivation. Just find an actor capable of frothing at the mouth while delivering diabolical ultimatums to the out-smarted police, and the movies wrote themselves.
All of this is to explain why I stayed away from David Fincher's Se7en despite glowing recommendations. A music-oriented director who made the much-criticized Alien 3, Fincher hit it big with Se7en and moved on to other complex / gimmicky thrillers like The Game and Fight Club. He exploited urban fears in Panic Room before bouncing back with 2007's Zodiac, a marvelous, insightful film about a real serial killer that should have put an Amen to the subgenre.
But back in 1995 we have Se7en. It's a very well made thriller that combines good acting and a tight control on atmosphere in the service of disturbing our inner peace. Like The Silence of the Lambs it sets detectives on the trail of a murderer who is not only diabolically clever, but has a personal method to his madness. The movie is so finely crafted that it's easy to overlook its tacky central idea, which is yet another gimmick.
Many people list Se7en as their favorite grand guignol murder thriller, so I'm not going to detail the plot. In the service of the film's narrative tricks, I'm omitting any mention of a few key characters and the good actors that play them. In an unnamed gloomy, depressed inner city Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a couple of days from retirement when Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is transferred into the homicide department. Mills' young wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) feels alone and unhappy in this grim part of the city. As the expected friction rises between the veteran and the rookie, she intercedes to draw the men together, and they become friends. Somerset and Mills are confronted by a series of horrible torture killings that follow a pattern that indicates a diabolical mastermind at work. Each slaying is related to one of the Seven Deadly Sins from the Bible: Gluttony, Pride, Sloth and so forth. Wading through the gore of each murder scene, the detectives realize that the killer must have spent over a year preparing his campaign of terror, and has kept to a strict discipline to accomplish his masterpieces of torture and sadism. It's desperate that they out-think the fiend, and go on the offensive instead of just waiting for him to strike again.
Se7en's script sticks close to its detectives, who lead less than ideal private lives. Mills likes the rush he gets when the quarry is close and he can get "emotionally involved". Somerset spends his off-time in libraries seeking literary clues to the 7 Deadly Sins theme in Dante's Inferno. Thus we know the killer is a heavy-duty intellectual, which in films is almost always a negative factor. He's nothing like us.
We never see a murder committed, only the awful aftermath with cops throwing up and our heroes recoiling from putrid corpses and massed insects come to feed on the remains. The verbal discussions of the methods of killing alone will make one's skin crawl. Encouraged to imagine the actual killings, we mentally write-in the horrible details on our own. The last couple of killings are so gross that even contemplating them makes one feel like depraved scum. They elicit sub-psychological conservative reactions -- revulsion, shame, and maybe the fear that somewhere a sick-o is watching the same movie and taking notes for future reference.
It's about this time, however, that one's counter-psych defenses kick in. For me this happened big-time during William Friedkin's The Exorcist, when I realized that I was expected to believe the film's superstitious nonsense, that the movie was using its horrors as a sadistic club against sensitive people of faith, especially devout Catholics. By the time that the sober Morgan Freeman is putting a "meaningful' emphasis on the Seven Deadly Sins, and the script is suggesting that an appalling Biblical prophecy is being carried out, I'd had enough. 1
In its last act, to make the clockwork plot pay off, the picture must arrange for the cops to do something they'd never do. Here they have this guy who's more resourcefully malign than Dr. Mabuse and Jack the Ripper put together, and they actually consider him reliable enough to bargain with. The cops follow his instructions and wander into what is obviously a trap. I almost expected to see a two-story neon sign out on the highway: "BIG TRAP YOU DUMMIES". I'm not bragging, as I'm usually the last person in the room to figure out a twist ending, even a simple twist. This time it was glaringly obvious. Who haven't we seen in the last few minutes that might be put in jeopardy? Se7en has so far typed its characters to a tee: Somerset is the wise old black guy, a deep thinker and humanist; Mills is the callow but sincere young stud cop, and ...... no spoilers.
Se7en is exciting, efficient and far more intelligent than most movies of this kind, so potential viewers should set aside my personal opinion as to its merit. Compared to the last few years' glut of torture-porn movies, it's relatively benign. But it's much closer to their venal commerciality, than to the thoughtful horror of Silence of the Lambs.
Se7en has excellent direction and fine dialogue to recommend it, and there's no denying that it's a quality production. The atmosphere in the police station is convincing and some of the murder scenes are stiflingly claustrophobic. We're put in an optimum mood for the macabre, even if this depressing city is awfully rainy for a place so close to an arid desert. We like the actors and we want to know who the killer is. But the humorless Se7en can't help going "profound" in the third act, when it's really a slick, sick thriller with a mean streak toward its audience. It's really a campfire horror tale that moves efficiently toward the worst possible ending it can imagine.
An excellent mainstream horror chiller was once made called The Other ... despite its good intentions, it ends with a killing so depressing that audiences were turned off. This surely killed off the word-of-mouth: this movie is No Fun. But the much more mean-spirited Se7en became a big success. It has Brad Pitt and an ad campaign that primed us to wallow in 'civilized' gore.
New Line's Blu-ray of Se7en has been fully remastered and approved by its director David Fincher. The movie's many fans will probably find that it looks better here than it did on their local movie screens. The audio has DTS Master Audio but the Dolby Digital track is a straight 5.1.
The presentation gives us four separate commentary tracks, which is certainly thorough but about 3.5 tracks too many for this auditor. Director Fincher, actors Freeman and Pitt and various creatives contribute. The most interesting items on the extras list are the additional/extended scenes and a short set of alternate endings, that mostly suggest that the filmmakers deliberated long and hard over what the proper ending should be (as opposed to the organic idea that every good story has only one possible ending). Another extra examines the nervous, fancy opening titles sequence, with two commentaries and several versions, audio mixes, etc.. Other extras give us an inside appreciation of the killer's obsessive diaries, and an overview of the remastering process for picture and audio. An effective, creepy trailer finishes off the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Se7en Blu-ray rates:
1. Note to viewers tired of being psychologically hammered by (even well made) exploitative thrillers that ask one to accept superstition as reality: Just remember the sarcastic Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, reacting to uncanny evidence of demonic forces afoot in the public library: "No human being would stack books like that!"
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Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.