Posted by David Kalat on July 14, 2012
When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And I was wrong.
I figured the breakout thriller to see in 1995 was going to be Copycat. I know, I know, but hear me out—I wasn’t alone. A lot of industry press at the time leaned the same way. The previews for Copycat made it look like Silence of the Lambs meets Thelma and Louise, and it has Sigourney Weaver in it. Actually, that’s about all I can say—I never did see Copycat, which puts me squarely in the majority.
Instead, when my wife Julie and I decided to go to the theater, she insisted on Seven instead (or Se7en, if I’m going to follow the conventions of Video Watchdog, which I might as well). She advocated loudly, strongly, and effectively for Se7en, and god bless her for it.
I’m going to take for granted you’ve seen the film—but for the purposes of the discussion that follows, I’ll recap the premise. Se7en is set in some unidentified Hell, a place where it’s dark and rainy all day, every day. Lt. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is set to retire in (you guessed it) seven days, having had his fill of all the senseless violence and depravity this unnamed city has to offer. His final week is coincidentally the first week for Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), a corn-fed transfer from some rural backwater. As much as Somerset wants to escape the city, Mills has sought it out00driven by heroic if naïve ideas of making a difference.
It turns out that Somerset’s final case and Mills’ first are related. Somerset’s case involves an obese man bound to a table and force-fed to death, while Mills has a defense lawyer who was forced to slice off a pound of his own flesh. Both are the work of a serial killer, who is designing his murders as performance art manifestations of the seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, vanity, envy and wrath).
We’ll return to the nuances of this premise in a bit, but the first thing to note is how unrelentingly grim the who enterprise is. Even its makers marveled the thing got made.
The marketing gurus at New Line were especially taxed at how to sell this movie. Because, here’s the thing: at that time, in 1995, Morgan Freeman was not a marquee name. Gwenyth Paltrow was still relatively unknown to audiences, and she barely appears in the movie anyway. Director David Fincher was if anything a liability from a marketing standpoint—he had made his name making music videos, which led to a job directing Alien 3, a widely underappreciated picture generally regarded by all sentient life as an unqualified artistic disaster (I beg to differ, but that’s for another day).
The one piece of Se7en that a marketing guy could hang his hat on was Brad Pitt, but his fan base at the time was primarily teenage girls, who were not the typical audience for such a violent thriller. At the same time, the typical audience for this kind of violent thriller was turned off by Pitt. The marketing guys did their research, and came back with statistics showing the target demographic of young males were unwilling to take their dates to a Brad Pitt movie.
Preview audiences sat through screenings of Se7en and ranked it “mediocre.” Critics were harsher—when the film opened, the early critical consensus was negative, even derisive. Even the kindest reviews compared it to Silence of the Lambs and found it lacking. Researching those first round of reviews, I didn’t find a one that avoided making a reference to Silence of the Lambs. This measured to some extent the enduring power of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, but it is funny how none of these professional critics could see the day when Se7en would take its place alongside Silence as a peer, not a knock-off, and other movies would be derisively compared to it.
In all, those early days sure made it look like Copycat was the surer bet—more marketable, more accessible, more palatable.
But actual paying customers, real live audiences—they had their own opinions, separate from the preview audiences, separate from the professional critics. They voted with their wallets to turn Se7en into the surprise hit—a number one box office topper for four full weeks and an unprecedented haul for a fall release.
Facing the proof that Se7en had won America’s heart, The Chicago Tribune’s Marc Caro speculated jokingly on what kind of movies Hollywood could now be expected to make to cash in on the craze:
“How about Capital Punishment, in which noble detectives trail a serial killer who carves the names of state capitals into his victims. ‘This one’s Montpelier, and he’s already done Salem and Springfield,’ one cop might intone, ‘There are 47 to go.’ Or The Brady Bunch, in which a cannibalistic killer preys on victims named Bobby, Cindy, Peter, Jan, Greg, Marcia. . .
Those scenarios couldn’t sound much sillier than the original outlines of the current spate of serial killer movies. A film in which each victim represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins and is killed in a corresponding fashion? And this is meant seriously? Please.”
Caro wasn’t far off the mark. Indeed Se7en did inspire a number of copycat thrillers (of course, Copycat not being one of them). This allowed cranky critics to spend the rest of the decade accusing other thrillers of aping Se7en, which must have made for a pleasant change of pace from accusing all thrillers of being Silence of the Lambs clones.
The aspect of Se7en that made for easy mimicry was its gimmicky premise—and in fact, it was the gimmicky premise that provided the marketing team at New Line with the solution to their dilemma. Faced with the challenge of selling a Brad Pitt film to thriller fans and a thriller to Brad Pitt fans, they opted for a third way and focused all advertising on the film’s central concept. The Associated Press called it “the unique concept of a serial killer whose victims are paragons not of virtue but the seven deadly sins.”
And so, in the face of Se7en’s indisputable success, and the fact that this success is attributable to its premise, it’s worth asking whether that premise can indeed be called a “unique concept.” We don’t even have to look for fanciful Brady Bunch parodies to find Se7en’s dopplegangers: eerie and striking parallels can easily be found between 1995’s Se7en and 1971′s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Phibes had its origins when writers James Whiton and William Goldstein approached American International Pictures honcho Deke Heyward with a script in which a faceless murderer wreaks revenge inspired by the 10 curses visited upon Pharaoh in the Old Testament: curses of boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, beasts, rats, locusts, the first born, and darkness. The killer is one Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) who lost his wife in a car wreck, from which the 9-member medical team attending to her injuries were unable to save her. Just how Phibes squares his 10 curses with 9 victims is a point of comparison with Se7en explored below.
Producer Heyward was facing a marketing challenge not dissimilar to that faced by New Line—he had a film that seemed to fall between two opposing camps. On the one hand, Phibes seemed gruesome and mean-spirited, and on the other it leaned towards spoofy comedy. So, he embraced that dissonance and worked with director Robert Fuest to emphasize the dark humor and campy overtones. Fuest came from a background on TV’s The Avengers, and knew how to strike just the right balance between ridiculous and terrifying.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a tremdous hit for AIP—and a much-needed one at a difficult juncture—and the one true “monster” role for Vincent Price. It sired a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and seemed ready to spawn a whole franchise. Brides of Phibes and Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land were discussed, as was an NBC television series, but Heyward left AIP in 1972 and without his idiosyncratic commitment to absurdity, the Phibes concept fizzled. Price did star in Phibes-ish roles in films that were undoubtedly inspired by Fuest and Heyward’s kooky thriller (see Theater of Blood).
Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker had been working at a Tower Records in Manhattan as a video store clerk when he was writing Se7en. One reviwer, Dan Craft, wondered astutely in a 1995 article whether Walker had happened to rent Phibes around that time—but aside from idle speculation, there is no evidence that Walker took any direct inspiration from Phibes. Perhaps Phibes worked some unconscious influence on Walker at some formative moment in his past, perhaps the similarities are mere coincidence. Nevertheless, the similarities are there—and they run deeper than you might think.
Structurally, both films adhere to the same blueprint: a serial killer is following an arcane and complex religiously-inspired pattern for his murders, which are committed ritualistically and outlandishly. At first, with but a few bodies, the detective who believes the crimes to be part of a linked pattern is ignored or derided by his superiors on the police force. As the body count rises, his fears are confirmed.
In both films, the killer is somewhat anonymous. Anton Phibes is a dead man with a prosthetic face and a mechanical voicebox; John Doe has no discernable identity beyond the meaningless name has given himself. Each is a literally self-made man.
In both films, the detectives gain their first qualified break in the case when they use religious traditions to probe the psychology of the killer. Detective Trout (Peter Jeffrey) traces the manufacture of Phibes’ ritual amulets and thereby gets the first crucial clues that lead him to identify the late Dr. Phibes as his prime suspect. Somerset and Mills, meanwhile, run an illegal check on who’s been reading library books on the seven deadly sins, and thereby gain Doe’s “name” and address.
The tone and effect of the two films could not be more different. Phibes plays for macabre laughs what Se7en milks for skin-crawling horror. But Phibes leavens its campy comedy with occasional moments of genuine horror, while Se7en inserts occasional comic relief in between its darkest passages. Phibes is told from the perspective of the killer, obsessing over the details of each bizarre murder but skimping on the details of the investigation. Se7en spends its screen time with the cops, using mere suggestion to hint at the rarely-seen details of the murders. Phibes is a colorful, Art Nouveau-comic book; Se7en borders on black and white but without the white part.
There is one last point of connection between the two that needs to be mentioned, but I hesitate because I don’t like spoilers, and although I’ve taken it as read that you’ve seen Se7en, its finale ought not to be ruined for anyone who hasn’t seen it. So, if you’re a Se7en newbie, sign off now and read no further, please.
OK—those of you left, that ending is a doozy, ain’t it? When Andrew Kevin Walker first wrote the script, he did so as a sample to show off his writing abilities to prospective employers. He never entertained the nutty idea that anyone might actually make that movie. But Brad Pitt read the screenplay and stormed into New Line to demand the film be made, and that it be made without any blinkered tinkering with the ending. He fought against any inclination to replace the downbeat ending with any generic cops-n-robbers shootout or other such ending. Pitt was the movie’s angel, and the reason for its most disturbing aspect.
Now, had Pitt relented, had the movie ended differently, I might be more inclined to disregard the similarities with Phibes as a mere curio. But, well, let’s see how Phibes ends:
I said before there were 9 victims and 10 curses. Actually, there are 8 victims and 10 curses. There were 9 members of the surgical team in the operating room when his wife died, and all 9 were targeted, but he only kills 8. With the last 2 curses to go, Phibes kidnaps the son of the head surgeon, Vesalius (Jospeh Cotton)—this is the curse of the first born. He locks the kid into a contraption rigged to dissolve his body in a flow of acid, unless Vesalius can unlock him in time. The key however is inside the boy—so Vesalius has to operate on his son, using the same surgical skill that failed to save Mrs. Phibes, to save his son. Either way, win or lose, Vesalius will live—Phibes makes no move on him directly. The attack is on Vesalius’ loved ones, to make him lose someone he loves.
The parallel to John Doe’s attack on Mills’ wife is obvious—Doe has no intention of killing his chief antagonist. His goal is to hurt his chief antagonist, to make him lose someone he loves.
While Vesalius tinkers with surgical tools, keys, and acid baths to save his son, Dr. Phibes retreats to his underground lair and embalms himself. The final curse of darkness, the tenth curse, is his own death.
Again, Se7en tracks the same trajectory—the final murder in Doe’s cycle is Doe’s own death, which he engineered as a companion piece to the attack on Mrs. Mills.
Both Phibes and Doe conclude their work with their own self-destruction; both Vesalius and Mills are allowed to live.
By design or accident, Andrew Kevin Walker’s “unique concept” follows the same structure as a Vincent Price flick made 24 years earlier. Recognizing this heritage takes away nothing from Se7en’s achievements—it is a testament to the respective skills of the various filmmakers that such similar source material could be turned into two such arresting yet radically different motion pictures.
If Phibes is not Se7en’s ancestor, it is clearly its antecedent.
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