Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: Se7en (1995)
While slasher films can be gritty they mostly stay within the realm of hokey, not in a bad way, but in a fun and enduring way. Slashers are those movies we watch when we want to turn our brains off for a while and watch some masked burnt mysterious whatever maniac do horrible things to teenagers. Serial killer movies however, while can be equally hokey, normally tend to lean towards the more serious of the two. Most serial killer movies that I’ve seen are dark and intrinsically layered films that force me to keep my brain working, to watch out for the clues, and to digest whatever metaphor or symbolism packed in bloody imagery that the director is intending for me to swallow. We’re talking Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, Identity, American Psycho, Henry, and the list goes on. Se7en is no different.
Released September 22, 1995, Se7en hit audiences like a sledgehammer covered in grime. I can still remember working at Blockbuster when the VHS released. It was a hotly demanded Friday night flick. And one of the few that has penetrated the bourgeoisie of Hollywood to claim a Golden Globe nomination and to go on and win the Saturn Award, along with several other MTV related awards. Se7en holds an 80% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Tomatometer,” and is said to be, by Christian Science Monitor movie reviewer David Sterritt (i know i know, couldn’t help myself), a “powerfully directed [movie] by David Fincher, and Morgan Freeman gives another of his superbly understated performances.” I was actually kinda shocked to see such a positive review from a Christian movie reviewer who rants films typically on family friendly friendliness. Or perhaps given the subject matter, I probably shouldn’t be… (coughs loudly). Well, before we dig deeper into the complexity of Fincher’s yet another surprise hit, lets get some of that sweet sweet IMDb synopsis.
“Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his motives.”
Wowzer, that’s one way of going about telling audiences what’s in-store with this video rental. Based on this synopsis, it sounds like we’re gonna enjoy a slightly edgy R-rated movie, “oh and look honey, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are the star cast members, how bad could this be, oh this is going to be a real treat, dear.” I would of course give anything to see the reaction of whatever idiot thought this film was some cozy mystery. The slightly edgy murder suicide opening ought to do the trick, if not that than certainly the opening credits with the delightful melody of Trent Reznor’s “fuck me like an animal” playing while some bandaged finger John Doe sows together a diary of a madman. Those opening credits oozed with filth.
Moving on. As the movie continues, we get this feeling or vibe more like, this dark cloud that hovers over the city and the pacing that follows the entire story arch keeps us on edge. And character differences and similarities are nearly magnified at every turn. Of the two detectives mentioned in that stellar synopsis, Detective Somerset (played by Morgan Freeman) comes across as an aged, experienced (perhaps too experienced) veteran cop on the cusp of retirement. Getting an opening look at his apartment, everything is methodical, calm, precise, and carefully laid out. Whereas, when we are introduced to Detective Mills (played by Brad Pitt) he is not as experienced, and not as methodical. His life is seen in mostly unpacked boxes and tossed sheets. His life is not precise, its more or less chaotic, but that’s how Mills is as a person and as a policeman. Somerset is calm and even tempered, and Mills is a bit of a hothead.
The two detectives eventually converge on the first of 7 Deadly Sin victims, Gluttony. Here the two are trying to get a read on the other, though I think perhaps Somerset could care less about the inner workings of his soon to be replacement on the detective squad or unit or whatever police call them. Gluttony is a large man bound by the hands and feet at a roach infested dinner table. His face is buried in a half eaten plate of cold canned spaghetti. According to the coroner’s later report, the man ate himself to death, bursting from the inside. But the “fat man” didn’t do all this happy sunny fun stuff to himself. Someone forced him to eat plate after plate. As we’ll soon find out, these are all killings and death in which is not hard to imagine. Who hasnt felt the pangs of being stuffed at the dinner table? Thanksgiving meals or birthday parties or July 4th picnics? Can you imagine that feelings again? Can you imagine being forced to continue eating after those pangs and stuffness have already started?
Somerset is getting all the wrong kind of vibes here, he knows something is up. He knows someone doesn’t take the time to carry out this sort of crime without a purpose or a plan. He knows there’ll be more. But he’s had enough. Retirement is only 6 days away. And as for Mills, this really shouldn’t be his first case in the big city, as he tells the Police Captain (played by late great R. Lee Ermey). Unfortunately, there seems to be lack of detectives in New York City back in the mid-90s, so Somerset is stuck with the “fat man,” while Mills is reassigned to another case. That “other” case of course forces the detectives back together again with the murder of victim 2 of the 7 Deadly Sins, Greed.
Greed was a big shot defense lawyer who was forced to carve a pound of flesh from his own body. Clues are left behind at each crime-scene that eventually led the detectives to the next brutal murder…sort of. After some good old fashion gumshoeing, and some forced fun bonding by Mill’s wife, they discover the body of Sloth, who isn’t technically dead but he might as well be. Let me hit the pause button here. This was the scene that really fucked with my head, as if the others weren’t disturbing enough! To imagine what this dude went through, the level of torture that didn’t last an hour or two, but a full year. To be strapped down to some dirty mattress, unable to call for help, unable to move, not even to get up to take a piss or crap. Forced to just…lay there, doped out of your mind. Day after day after day for a full year. Slowly rotting away. Jeez!
From here, the detectives need to do something. They are forced by the sheer scale of the crimes to walk the line between right and wrong, as it pertains to the law. Somerset knows a guy who works for the FBI who works for whatever branch that monitors flagged books at the library. With a quick bride and some really nasty looking pizza, they obtain a list of New York’ers who have checked out highly suspicious books, one of those happen to be related to the 7 deadly sins. A suspect perhaps? On a very thin whim, they decide to question a fellow by the name of John Doe (played by…). But as it would seem, John Doe is not ready to be questioned. You can’t see his face. He’s hidden intentionally. From a dark shadowy hallway, he opens fire on the detectives who then give a merry chase through the apartment complex ending outside in the rain with a subdued Mills on his knees waiting for Doe to pull the trigger. But as Somerset struggles to catch up, Doe vanishes, sparing Mills’s life.
Let’s assume its because Doe’s work is yet to be completed. As the detectives search the killer’s apartment, finding all sorts of fun and interesting things such as a giant neon red cross (yeah, who doesn’t enjoy sleeping under a giant neon cross?), and following a congratulatory phone call from Doe, they get a lead on a possible next target, a “pro.” In the big apple, prostitutes are a dime a dozen (I’ve never been, i’m just assuming based on this one movie, oh and Pretty Girl, that was in New York, right?), and they are soon called out to the next grisly scene, Lust. Here, just like the others, it doesn’t take too much of an imagination to get creeped out. There is a great moment of numbness shown on screen as the two detectives sit alone in separate interview rooms. No tone. No words. Nothing. Just…numbness, that is especially effective coming away from the thundering techno rock music of the bordello that creates a feeling of being shocked by the brutality of these murders, an emotion that is written on the faces of our star characters.
The following scene, that of Pride, feels rushed and has less of an impact as the others. In fact, Doe doesn’t even wait for the cops to discover the body. He calls it in. His timetable has been forced ahead, and it certainly feels that way. And then he shows up at the police station, covered in blood and asking to see his lawyer. Who is John Doe? Well, he’s not the devil, he’s just a man, as Somerset points out. Not what they had or we had expected. Played fantastically by recently defamed Kevin Spacy, the killer ended up being some whimmpy looking regular joe. I wonder if that was intentional. Knowing now that these killings are starting to feel banal, and that we need something really jarring to shock us. Well, we certainly get that as this shinny white dude Doe requests the company of Somerset and Mills on a trip outside the city in return for a full confession. I don’t intend to get all spoiler so I’ll end my movie recap here. Just don’t get all freaked out when you find out what’s in the box as you find out what happens with Envy and Wrath.
As far as movies go, Se7en is by far one of the best serial killer movies ever made, better I think than even Silence of the Lambs. Yes, I went there. Hopkins is always excellent. Both movies are dark and equally gritty, but Se7en has just a little more punch and bite to it. Se7en was also, i think, David Fincher’s best movie. Fight Club is pretty dang good, but for horror, this was his best. I’m really curious to see what he’ll do with World War Z 2, as I heard he has taken the helm for that not so popular movie among horror fans project. He certainly keeps tethered to the minds of serial killers and polarizing screen shots with his created show Mindhunters on Netflix (a slow but delightful burn). As for hidden messages, I don’t think there is much hidden here. There are a lot of quotable taglines throughout the movie to chew on metaphorically and theologically. Even the sicko manic killer makes sense. His best quote being, “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention,” which holds a lot of truth. There are a lot more caveats to explore, but perhaps I’ll end things here with the last line of the movie, a strangely optimistic and equally nihilistic given the nature and brutality of the movie, when Somerset says off camera: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”
My rating: 5 out of 5
Who doesn’t love a good story? Thomas’s favorite tales include All Quiet on the Western Front, Salem’s Lot, and Hell House. In his own writings, he aspires to create fantastic worlds with memorable characters and haunted places. His stories range from Shakespearean gore, classic monsters tales, and even stories that hurt him the most to write about, haunted soldiers and PTSD. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, Thomas’s debut novel, Reinheit, was eventually published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, FEAST, Beautiful Ugly, and Planet of the Dead. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, filled with werewolves, Frankenstein-inspired monsters, cults, alter-dimensional insects, witches, and the undead are published with Limitless Publishing.
In 2008, Thomas was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He is the senior editor at Machine Mean, a site that reviews horribly awesome and vintage horror movies and books from guest contributors who obsess over a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics
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