(Author’s note: Thanks to Mike for putting this exercise together! Head on over to his blog and check out the other entries in the series…they’re pretty inspired!)
Fifteen years ago, stylish rogue director David Fincher took audiences by surprise with his grim, unsettling police thriller, Seven*, a Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman vehicle about a serial killer murdering victims using staged manifestations of the seven deadly sins– greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, pride, wrath, lust. The killings (which we mostly only see as a visual postscript, leaving our imaginations to fill in the blanks) range from disturbing to downright stomach churning, though each is unfathomably cruel in their own fashion; by the time we meet the victim of sloth, we could very easily call this a horror film, though of course we’re too wrapped up in the surfeit the film induces to really give a damn what it’s called. That dark, grimy aesthetic just pulls us in and refuses to let go; in the years following the aftermath of Fincher’s sophomore major studio effort, that artistic point of view has arguably inspired the looks of major cinematic cities from Alex Proyas’ Dark City to Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Gotham in the Batman films.
Of course, Seven‘s greatest (or most palpable) impact has been felt in the world of graphic design and editing, specifically as it concerns the opening credits; Kyle Cooper’s work here has had a massive effect on how artists approach the opening title sequence, treating it as part of the story rather than a banal introductory requirement all films must hold to. Seven‘s opening credits set up the story on their own instead of simply listing the necessary cast and crew; you can see this influence in films like Snatch, and even HBO series like Carnivale. If nothing else, Seven should be applauded for innovating an element of a film that most wouldn’t necessarily think needed to be innovated: Cooper made construction of the opening titles an art form unto itself.
But I have a major beef with Seven, and maybe it’s just me. Every great movie has its imitators for certain, so while others have been inspired by Fincher’s style and aesthetic, I can’t bother with getting that worked up over mere mimicry. What I am fussed over is something much more blatant. Taking cues from a filmmaker is one thing, but flat-out stealing? Well, that’s another beast entirely. Enter James Wan and Leigh Whannell, two no-talent schlubs who purloined the essence of Seven for their own ends. I could accuse them of theft and leave it at that, but if I’m going to blame these two creative black holes for anything, I feel it’s only right that I also point out the obvious: If Seven never existed, we very well may never have had to endure the Saw franchise.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Seven‘s John Doe (Kevin Spacey, eerily detached from everything and yet somehow magnetically charismatic in his own bizarre fashion) cuts a brutal and gore-filled swath through the sinners of the unnamed city in which the film’s story unfolds based on the biblical. Meanwhile, Saw‘s John Kramer (Tobin Bell, easily the best part of the entire franchise**), also known as the Jigsaw killer, entraps his victims for entirely non-religious reasons: Having lost his chance at a family and a happy life, and discovering that he is afflicted with cancer, John starts placing people in potentially lethal traps to determine how much they appreciate the “gift of life”. John also dies (and don’t cry “spoiler” at me, the son of a bitch has a terminal illness) halfway through the series, which continues thanks to the efforts of his “disciples”, fellow nutjobs who carry on his legacy over the course of the next three films. If brevity is truly the soul of wit, then John Kramer is the Ayn Rand of movie serial killers.
John Kramer also has a visual aid in the form of a truly goofy looking puppet. So there’s that too.
But differences aside there’s no mistaking that Kramer comes from the same fundamental mold as Doe. Both of them are driven to kill and maim to expose humanity’s decadence and uncover the transgressions of the average human being; they want to punish those they deem to be wicked and, in doing so, make screwed up sociological statements to the rest of us. They want to inject morality back into daily existence. They’re serial killers with consciences.
To wit: Doe seeks to demonstrate to all of us how sinful our society has become. His victims all could be classified as innocent, though Doe would naturally disagree. This is a man who believes that the vainglorious are guilty of a crime heinous enough to warrant mutilation and torture as a sentence. Meanwhile, Kramer wants to force those very same sinful sorts of people to face their crimes and, if they’re strong enough, survive and gain a new appreciation for the life they’ve got left. Both of them want to leave a mark on humanity, ostensibly to “save” people from themselves. In Doe’s case, his delusion is compelling. In Kramer’s, it’s downright puzzling– how do you expect people to appreciate their lives more when you’ve left them physically and emotionally rent asunder?
There’s more to the issue than the similarities between the motives of the killers in both films, of course. Two movies about killers with moral agendas can definitely co-exist. The problem is that Saw borrows too liberally from Seven, and quite literally forces its victims to face their crimes/sins by putting them in situations that mirror the acts that garnered the attention of Kramer in the first place. Seven‘s victims literally are killed by recreations of the sin they embody; for gluttony, a man is force-fed until his stomach wall ruptures. For pride, a woman taken by her own beauty is disfigured and forced to choose between calling 911 or committing suicide. Fast forward to, say, Saw VI, which centers on one of “Jigsaw’s” victims– an executive of a health insurance company. He is forced, through a series of tests, to decide which of his staff members get to live or die– just like he decides who lives or dies on a daily basis, depending on who can afford his health insurance! Nefarious. Wan and Whannell have fashioned their Jigsaw killer into John Doe 2.0, and in programming their upgrade excised the wit and social commentary embodied in the character’s words and actions in favor of buckets of goop; if in fact Seven was a direct source of inspiration for the duo, then their tribute to its morally murky waters very clearly misses the point of the entire exercise.
Taking the concept and making it their own would have been one thing, but Wan and Whannell lifted so much of the meat of Seven that their films can’t help but feel like cheap doppelgangers. Sure, they’re the bad guys here– they had the “great idea”of bringing Saw to life– and we should retaliate against their assault on good horror filmmaking by, uh, not buying tickets to Saw movies. But in its own way, Seven bears the responsibility of being the film that helped open up the gateway and allowing the Saw badness through. I’m absolutely not suggesting reviling Seven for its unwitting negligence– but pound for pound, even if the film is so good as to outweigh the consequences of its release, Seven without a doubt made mainstream horror suck a little more.
* Side note: Seven also made it okay for movies and television shows to replace letters with numbers– like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Numb3rs. Even as someone who favors proper spelling and grammar, I can’t get too upset over this minor element since it only allows artists the opportunity to make themselves look stupid.
** Credit where credit’s due. Bell is a pretty menacing guy, even if he doesn’t do much by way of active participation, which probably makes that air of malice even more impressive.
Great post Andrew. And totally agree with you on the Saw franchise. I’m not one for the horror genre anyway, but now and again I make a few exceptions. But Saw isn’t one of them, I never bought into the whole thing.
I was lucky enough to see Saw I in a theater filled with people who derided it the entire way through, which made it much more entertaining and worth the price of admission. I’m a fan of horror, but I go for the good stuff, not the cheap knock-off garbage. The Saw franchise essentially exists to perpetuate its own existence– not exactly what I’d call a shining example of what the genre is capable of.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate and admit that I thought the first Saw film was pretty good. It gave Cary Elwes a leading role and introduced us to Michael Emerson. It was with the sequels and the relentless torture porn that things got terrible quickly.
Great article. It was just that the sheer volume of imitators that Se7en spawned that was so overwhelming (many of them inferior). Films Like Kiss the Girls or Along Came a Spider, to name the more okay examples. You could argue Silence of the Lambs reignited the genre, but Se7en made serial killers with weird MO’s the order of the day.
Saw I may have given Elwes and Emerson work, but Elwes’ character was flavorless and uninteresting. I love Elwes, but he couldn’t salvage his horribly written persona and make it into something watchable. As for Emerson…I’ll give you that, but he really wasn’t given much to do aside from play a generic and kind of faceless bad guy.
I thought about studying weird M.O.’s in serial killer films following Seven’s release and success, but…well, I’m repeating myself, but I just had to take the opportunity to rip on the Saw franchise. Childish? Maybe. Satisfying? You bet. Silence of the Lambs, I’d argue, led to Seven, but Seven definitely led to garbage like Kiss the Girls and Taking Lives.
Seven was so dull and pretentious and I found it virtually unwatchable. There was no tension whatsoever unlike in “Silence of the Lambs”.
Where forensics and minute observation are crucial in the solving of serial killings, investigating with weak torches in the dark dominates the movie.
Oh come on! WOULDN’T ANY COMPETENT DETECTIVE BE BRINGING IN FLOOD LIGHTS?
Obfuscating each scene with dark murky shots is perhaps convenient to the director. But this dreary effort was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It was so bad that Adam Sandler should have been in it. Anyone who borrows from this rot, masquerading pretentiously as a work of art, is a Kamikaze thief. I love your reviews Andrew thats why I am devastated that you actually though 7 was worth even imitating. The movies derived from it must have been REALLY really bad as you indicate. 7 was merely really bad.
Oh, I absolutely think that Seven is worth imitating. If not for the content of the film– the quality which obviously you and I disagree on, though that’s neither here and there– then certainly for the stylistic techniques it featured. I thought about focusing specifically on how Seven’s opening credits have influenced the way that artists approach that most oft overlooked section of a film, for better or worse (mostly worse, given the name of the article series), but the chance to rip on Saw was too much to pass up.
All that said, I’m flattered by the compliment, and I hope that my opinion of Seven doesn’t change your mind about my reviews! We can differ on at least one movie, I think…
Your articles are excellent Andrew and I thought given the title we would agree again so the title actually drew me to the article coz I thought you were saying that 7 sucks which as I said, I thought it did. Its all subjective in the end. But do you acknowledge that it was too dark for people to be using a mere torch?
No offence meant though. The article is well written. I just happen to think 7 was lousy. I might watch it again given I do respect your assessments. Maybe you could look at it again and see what I mean. I tell you what I will have another look. To be fair I walked out on it, I thought it was so bad; so maybe given your opinion I will have another try. I just hope if something happens to me that the detective would bring decent lighting
cheers and regards
Oh, no offense taken. We react to movies in very personal ways. While you may be the first person I’ve spoken with who really, truly didn’t like this movie, I can see why– both the tone and the atmosphere, I think, can make it hit or miss for some. For me, it wasn’t too dark at all, and I never thought for a second that Pitt and Freeman ought to have brought flood lights for the investigation. Mostly that has to do with the fact that Seven isn’t a real procedural, which leaves me somewhat unconcerned with how accurately the police work is portrayed, but I can understand the complaint.
Your comments mean a lot to me, Nick, and I’m pleased that you read my blog. Sometime soon, I’ll watch Seven again and maybe then we can compare notes.
Oh, how I wish I could go back in time and prevent “Saw” from happening (well, maybe not the first one, which wasn’t terrible).
“Se7en” is a spot-on example of what happens when you pair a high-concept idea with masterful actors and cinematography. The idea of a serial killer who dispatches his victims according to what deadly sin they have committed could be the subject of a cheesy, half-baked torture porn film, but Fincher is smart enough to put Morgan Freeman front and center to tone down the dramatics. Freeman doesn’t do melodrama; he’s all about the subtle devastation, and in him we see how this job can wear down humanity, sand down the edges of the spirit until there’s not much left. While I’m no member of the Brad Pitt fan club, he’s a nice counterpoint here: the cocky young detective, full of idealism and big ideas about righting wrongs and black-and-white conceptions of good and evil. And Kevin Spacey is flat-out shockingly good as the killer. He’s cool and collected and completely sensible, even rational, which makes him far more scary than a raving lunatic.
As far as the look of the film, well, it may not be logical or in touch with actual detective procedures, but hell if it isn’t atmospheric: the constant pouring rain, the dark shadows, the lingering shots. It’s all meant to create a mood as grim and dour, show us what Freeman can’t close his eyes without seeing.
I’m surprised to see Saw I get any love. I couldn’t stand it. Not a second of it. The direction is flat-out terrible, most notably exhibited in how Wan couldn’t get a single second of goodness out of some really talented actors. Glover is offensively bad here, and Elwes may as well have just not shone up. On top of that, the twist comes so far out of left field that it becomes painfully obvious that the writing team had absolutely no idea how to build up to the revelation of the killer’s identity and no idea how to connect him directly to the audience by having him interact with Elwes and Whannell in a meaningful, scary way. Not to piss in your Cheerios or anything, but Saw just rankles me.
But you’re spot on with your evaluation of Seven and what makes it work as a film. I wish you hadn’t written that bit about Freeman and subtlety, but only because I wish I’d come up with it myself. And you’re right, it’s all about tone and atmosphere; that darkness and griminess is intentionally unrelenting, as well as completely absorbing. If anything, Seven should be hailed as a really great piece of world-building.