David Fincher threw his hat into the serial killer film ring with this 1995 look at the most fucked up fringes of American society. Starring a murderer’s row of a cast, Seven was tailor made to bring horror to the masses with a thriller guise, and boy did it work in the box office. What does that mean for the overall quality of the movie though and just where does this fall in the never ending horror/not horror argument? We get into that and more below, but be warned, we spoil the shit out of the film in doing so. If you somehow do not know what is in the box at this stage in your life then stop reading, check out the trailer and go watch the movie. Morgan Freeman is in it. Don’t act like that isn’t reason enough to watch a movie in its own right.
Reviewed by: Jake
Seven, also commonly spelled Se7en just to be cute, is part of a wave of serial killer-focused horror flicks from the 90’s that were marketed as “thrillers” to appeal to a larger audience (others including American Psycho, Bone Collector, and, most notably, The Silence of the Lambs). For the most part, this really fits that billing. The movie focuses on Detective David Mills, played by Brad Pitt, who moves to our fictional Gotham of a rain-soaked, grime-smeared, shithole of a grungy, noir New York City to “do some good”. On arrival, he meets up with our other main protagonist, Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) who is rundown and tired of the living hell of the city and his work. He’s retiring and going to go live on a farm or some shit. The two immediately fall into the typical old cop/young cop frenemies schtick that we’ve all seen a million times before. The big difference? This all happens as they begin to unravel a series of ultra-gruesome homicides based on the seven deadly sins. Instead of your one liners, moustache combing and high speed car chases, you get a prostitute who is fucked to death by giant sword penis strapped to a hostage (lust), and a “drug dealing pederast” who is strapped to his bed for a year and given just enough intravenous drugs to keep him alive while his body literally deteriorates to mush via slow, torturous emaciation (sloth)… You know, thriller stuff…
As the two detectives spend more time together and feverishly attempt to track down our insanely fucked up and extremely cunning antagonist, they become a dynamic duo… thriller stuff… We could get into the nitty gritty of exactly how each kill goes and how Mills & Somerset eventually get to our serial killer, but the meat on this bone is really in the execution, which we will get to a little later. Suffice to say, the detectives track murderer extraordinaire John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey) via some questionable library record searching. A game of cat & mouse ensues, but Doe remains one step ahead for a time, completing more gnarly kills. Eventually he turns up on their doorstep at the precinct and surrenders. He is able to work a deal with the cops wherein he will lead them to his final two kills and plead guilty if Mills & Somerset agree to be his escort. If not, he will plead insanity and the media will go off because he will claim two more bodies are out there, never to be found. The cops agree and Doe leads them into the desert, where a package is delivered, containing the head of Mills’ wife. Mills shoots Doe in a blind rage, delivering a twist ending in that the main players themselves were the embodiment of the final sins on the list (envy & rage). Doe wins. The end… thriller stuff...
What the Movie Does Right
Almost every single thing.
I could wax poetic about a seemingly never-ending list of successes this movie has but I think the biggest umbrella these fit under is attention to detail. There is a supreme attention to detail in this movie that really elevates it above other films of its kind. Personally, this comes through most clearly in the sets. Every moment committed to film helps create the desperate, dirty, overpopulated, crime-riddled megalopolis that our story is set in. Every environment feels unique, from the roach infested apartment of the obese shut-in who falls victim to the gluttony killing, to the underground sex club “massage parlor” where the lust murder takes place.
The perpetual rain helps bolster the bleakness and foreboding atmosphere that grows over the course of the movie as well. John Doe’s apartment is also a massive success. Dark, disturbing and filled with journals that (in a page right from the Kubrick manual of movie making) they actually wrote, you can certainly envision a psychotic zealot residing there.
The other main area of the movie that benefits from it’s overall attention to detail is its character building. Like any movie, there is exposition, but in Seven, it all feels necessary, interesting, and like it actually provides something of value. We learn a lot about each of our characters not only from their interactions over the course of the film, but also from the small, seemingly insignificant moments and touches that add character to each scene. A good example of this is when Mills fills a pint glass with wine for Somerset after he turns down an offer for a beer. It’s unspoken, but reveals more about Mills character. Seven is chock full of shit like this.
One final shoutout to what this does right goes to the only jumpscare in the movie. I don’t think any of us here are the biggest fans of jumpscares in general, but if you are going to do it, it has to be earned through appropriate tension building. The jumpscare in this movie might be the best example I can think of. Period. Seriously, check this shit out:
What the Movie Does Wrong
Very little. I quickly enter nitpicky territory when thinking about this movie’s missteps, because they are so goddamed few and far between. But, you want some? Ok, I’ll throw you a few.
First, and the biggest issue all of us here at A-Z Horror have with the movie is the means by which Mills & Somerset track down John Doe. Because he checked out a couple books on the seven deadly sins from the library? Seriously? Given the overall quality of everything else going on with this movie’s story, the fact that they are able to zero in on the real perpetrator in this gigantic city just because he checked out some Milton and Dante like a regular fucking college student is mind boggling. Kudos to the screenplay for realizing this and actually writing Pitt some lines that basically say what we are all thinking, but if you know it’s dumb maybe make a smarter path to the killer, ok?
Second, and this is getting really high on the nitpick scale, is that the rain in a couple of the scenes is clearly being funneled out of one of those industrial machines that are used for movies. This complaint is not to say that they should have somehow filmed only when it was rainy, but given the attention to detail we’ve spoken about ad nauseum here, there had to be a way to frame a few shots differently so the edge of the downpour is out of sight. I don’t want to be able to see where there is no rain…
Finally, and perhaps most subjectively, I have a problem with some of Pitt’s delivery. This is a tough one to complain about because he’s playing an intense, energetic firecracker anyway, but some of his blunt delivery feels extremely stilted and odd. Like I said, this complaint is totally subjective but it ripped me out on several occasions so it’s worth noting.
Story: 9 - This movie took advantage of the thriller/serial killer concept and ratcheted things up to the extreme. This is a mean, mean story and a grim reflection on our society that leaves nothing but dead or broken characters in its wake. You know, thriller stuff.. If thrillers are extremely well-written horror movies.
World-Building / Immersion: 9.5 - This is one of the most well realized worlds I’ve seen. The city and its various inhabitants all live in such a hellacious shithole that you can’t help but feel the filthiness as they go about their lives. It’s a living, breathing organism and a hell of an accomplishment. This is a movie you will want to take a shower after, especially considering its two hour runtime. That length and a couple personal quibbles with Pitt lines are what keeps this from being a 10 for me.
Scare-Factor: 4 - The concept of this movie is creepy as fuck, but the execution is where it actually does fit into the thriller genre more than out & out horror. You don’t really see anything in this movie, despite the gruesome nature of the crimes. Personally, I’m more than ok with that and think what’s left to the imagination is often more sinister than reality, but it doesn’t make it a terrifying film. The jumpscare is the real standout, here.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 9 - The set design in Seven is impeccable and perfect. I love it. Aside from one or two minor qualms like the clear utilization of the rain machine, the visual effects are spot on. From a sound standpoint, the movie also excels. The NIN intro and title card sequence feels VERY 90’s now, but I think it works to the movie’s benefit in a weird way.
Overall: 8.5 - This is about as high as I can go for this one, given its fringe status in the genre. While I would argue this is clearly and absolutely a horror film, it does lack some of the punch that a straight up horror version of this story could have taken. I personally think it is executed almost as well as it could be and would recommend anyone, horror fan or no, should see this. It’s an undeniable classic.