6. se7en (David Fincher, 1995)                     

The mid nineties was not a time when people were easily impressed by anything. We were living in cynical times where a sense of irony and a talent for a superior put-down was usually enough to get you through a conversation. Seven is a film of this time precisely because it was as cynical as it needed to be, but far too good for cynics to sneer at with any credibility. For purists (who find the clever-clever antics of the characters in Scream (1996) and their post-modern "horror movie rules" toe-curling) Seven was also the re-birth of Horror.

The film attracted some attention at the time for supposedly being ultra-violent, which is possibly because audiences approached the film as a straightfoward thriller. The film is not actually graphically violent at all (there is one killing on screen, with a pistol, filmed in medium shot - not exactly Schwarzenegger's Commando) but being the story of a serial killer, the premeditatively sadistic manner in which the villain despatches his victims is distressing to some. Scores of similar films made since Seven (the most recent of which, James Wan's Saw (2004), is an unspeakable rip-off with not one ounce of Seven's invention) have shown that sadistic ideas without the other ingredients of a classic horror picture simply don't work.

The primordial brilliance of this brand of horror (as opposed to the graphic formula slayings of the Friday 13th films, for example) is that we live the horror uniquely through the reactions of the protagonists. Rather than frighten us out of our wits or sicken us with the depiction of a violent murder, how much more powerful is it to be introduced to a character who has been a policeman all his working life (Detective Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman) and has seen things we could not imagine, being confronted with something so gruesome that even he is shocked beyond belief?

In the same way as the scariest monster films are the ones in which we don't see the monster until the end, we do not see what happens to the killer's victims, we are only given visual clues - the acts themselves, we can only imagine...

Director David Fincher doesn't just rely on this conceit to work its magic, he piles on every atmospheric layer and cinematic trick he can think of: the location is unknown, it rains all the time, nobody is anybody's friend, people barely give one another the time of day. The world Fincher creates is a dirty, cluttered purgatory in which the characters are trapped and those who are not scratching around for whatever morsels of optimism they can find have abandoned all hope of redemption (Freeman's character being the prime example). One memorable "escapist" moment has security guards in an empty library play a tape of Bach's Air on a G String to impress Pitt with their "culture".

Into this appalling mess has walked Mills (Brad Pitt), a headstrong young cop who to Somerset's astonishment requested a transfer to the area. He is accompanied by his beautiful young wife Tracy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and to make matters worse they want to raise a family. Meanwhile a serial killer called John Doe is creating a trail of corpses, each bearing the imprint of one of of Dante Alighieri's Seven Deadly Sins. Apparently unconnected people are being executed, but why?

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker famously claimed at an awards ceremony that he was really gunning for the exploitation audience when he wrote the script, not the "arthouse lot". The fact that he made a distinction between the two is odd, because the best exploitation films (Psycho, Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) have always received due credit from critics, particularly in Europe. As it happens, Seven's combination of a fiercely intelligent script (with scalpel-sharp dialogue), Fincher's vision and technique and above all some astonishing high-contrast work by French-Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji, thrusts it firmly into the pantheon of exploitation pictures.

There are moments that grip you while you watch the film, like discoveries of bodies (particularly "Sloth", but everyone will have their favourite) and their are moments that stay with you afterwards and enrich the experience on repeat viewing (a simple dialogue scene in a diner between a regretful Freeman and Paltrow, who announces that she is pregnant, derives its emotional power from the contrast to the horror that surrounds it and the tragedy which is being foretold).

At a time when Hollywood studios' appetite for innovation was at its lowest, certain 90s films such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) were paradoxically responsible for a flood of second-rate genre imitations and Seven is not immune from this either. Tellingly though, the film, despite the numerous knock-offs since (8MM, Kiss The Girls, And Along Came A Spider, Saw) really stands the test of time when viewed a decade later. It is tight, surprisingly understated and builds tension slowly, only occasionally exploding, so that it keeps its power in reserve, rather than assaulting the audience's sensibilities throughout.

Two particular further contributions deserve to be singled out: Rob Bottin, the barking mad special effects designer who worked on ground-breaking horror projects like The Howling (1981) and The Thing (1982), lends his monstrous vision to the brief glimpses of the victims which we are afforded during the crime scene investigations; and Kyle Cooper, who produced what is surely one of the most memorable (and certainly one of the most influential) credits sequences seen since the glory days of Saul Bass.

Se7en 157 minutes  Director David Fincher  Writer Andrew Kevin Walker   Actors Morgan Freeman  Brad Pitt  Gwyneth Paltrow  Kevin Spacey  R Lee Ermey  Photography Darius Khondji  Editor Richard Francis-Bruce  Score Howard Shore

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