The Horror: ‘Se7en’
How David Fincher's Iconic Crime/Horror Hybrid shocked the world by thinking outside of the box.
Horror films are often forgotten and left behind to rot in the locked vault of cult appreciation. Buried so far beneath the over saturation of projects being pumped out into the genre is the struggle of production, the social stigma of fear during a film’s release, and how the critical reception may have changed over time. Searching the vault, we will examine the inner workings of the greatest films and creators the horror genre has to offer. You can check out my last installment on John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror hybrid The Thing here.
David Fincher & Se7en (1995)
Dark, gritty and unforgiving; Se7en (or Seven) has been memorialized in the horror community for it’s pessimistic portrayal of the world, and an iconic shock ending that left a collective jaw drop. Starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and a (surprise!) Kevin Spacey, the film is anchored by it’s acting as we see the chemistry between the duo of ‘Somerset and Mills.’ When looking at this noir/crime/horror hybrid, it is important to consider the impact it has had on film in the long run. The depiction of the world of crime being a horrific one is something that has stuck in the genre, as we see an increasingly realistic portrayal of criminals and the reasoning behind their actions. This is yet another example of genre mixing, and how the addition of horror elements can solidify a film as a classic. The purpose is clear, as we navigate the seven deadly sins in the scope of a modern noir setting.
A Film Deemed too Dark
Not surprisingly, Se7en had some issues getting off the ground as far as production goes, and apparently almost got canned entirely. The story goes that the film was attached to a multitude of different directors, varying from Jeremiah S. Chechik (an obvious fit, of National Lampoons Christmas Vacation fame) to Guillerimo del Toro (fresh off of Cronos (1993)). The script was reportedly too dark for Guillerimo del Toro as he stated, “I rightfully said no to Se7en because it was a great script, but it was a very cynical view of the world. And I loved it, I wanted to see it, but I’m a romantic, fat bastard and I don’t subscribe to that view.” It is not even the least bit shocking he would turn the script down as there is little to no romanticism in Se7en, and there is no holding back in the atrocities the film seeks to portray. The director wasn’t the only one that reportedly backed out of the project because of the dark content. Denzel Washington was reportedly offered the role of Brad Pitt’s character, but turned it down because it was “too dark and evil,” a decision he has stated he regrets.
Se7en encapsulates the idea that sometimes a film can only happen under the circumstances that are thrust upon it. Cycling through directors, the studio was ready to drop the project, as many thought the overt violence and depravity was not fit for a Hollywood epic. Enter Ernest Dickerson, a director/cinematographer known for his role in films, like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Juice (1992), as he pitched the studio the idea of making the film a more self-contained horror-centric piece. The studio loved it; to imply the violence and only show in spurts was perfect, and a young up-and-coming Brad Pitt was the perfect choice. Even the idea to cast an African American actor as the seasoned veteran cop was genius! Only, the studio didn’t want Dickerson…”Well, you talked your way out of a job”— Dickerson details in the experience in a conversation with his manager. Some write it off as part of the business because with a respected director comes respected actors. However, if the story is to be believed, Dickerson played a large part in getting this script deemed “too dark” by many, and off the ground into a hybrid horror classic.
A Shocking End that Almost Never Was
Everyone knows the famous revelation at the film’s end, and if you’ve never seen the film, I would stop reading and go watch because I don’t want to spoil it for you. “WHAT’S IN THE BOX!?” has been quoted to death in pop culture, but many are unaware of the statements origin or dark connotation of what is actually in the box. Of course, Pitt’s worried questioning to Kevin Spacey’s character is what is remembered from the film, and puts a bow on the concept of the seven deadly sins, but it almost never was. That’s right, the film had a multitude of endings written in an effort to make the film more digestible for the average viewer. Unpacking the ending, the reasoning for the choice is sound. As John Doe gives himself up to police, he is two deadly sins short of his goal to display a killing in the name of each sin. Still missing envy and wrath, John Doe has a plan brewing beneath the surface. In a culmination of the films dark themes, Brad Pitt finds his wife’s head inside of the box, courtesy of the envy displayed by Spacey. In an act of rage and passion, Pitt shoots John Doe in the head and completes the cycle with wrath. Poetic in a sense, the film seems unrecognizable without this scene, but it took a contract inclusion by Pitt to maintain this ending.
In fact, the script (including this ending) was received by Fincher as a result of an accident. When shopping the script, Fincher was sent a copy of the original ending, but it had since been rewritten, including a more optimistic ending. “We sent you the wrong draft,” Andrew Kevin Walker, the film’s writer, details in his experience working with David Fincher. Fincher’s response was that he would only do the original script, and a collaborative relationship was born as the pair has worked in many facets since then. Even so, when casting the studio, they still wanted to sweeten the ending a bit, but their star Pitt would not let this happen. Due to a dispute involving a cut scene in Legends of the Fall (1994), Pitt felt he must exercise his artistic desire in his contract. A fear of content he was fond of being cut, Pitt made it a factor in his contract that the ending stay intact. This includes both the concept of what is in the box, and Pitt’s reaction to it being more of an act of passion than doing the right thing. The other endings that were written included variations of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character being saved, Mills shooting Somerset, John Doe shooting Mills, etc. The point is by some miracle we got the ending the film deserved, and it has forever iconicized Se7en as a classic in both the horror and crime community.
A Pessimistic Portrayal Serves as a Horror Inspiration
Today we have seen a spike in realistic depictions of the world of crime. Shows like True Detective and Mindhunter are modern examples of Se7en‘s impact on the genre, featuring realistic violence that is constructed in a dark, dreary package. David Fincher has even been brought on as a director for a few episodes of Mindhunter, bringing the inspiration full circle. This pessimistic portrayal of the world is one that stuck, which is odd considering how the negativity was deemed as “evil” upon the film’s release. The reason the desire to see evil in it’s true form stuck, is the same reason that horror is successful in the first place, because the real world is so shocking at times that you have to see violence normalized in order to cope.
As media becomes more advanced, people are exposed to more events and become desensitized to violence. This bleeds into our films and art as well, specifically horror, as the violence has become more grounded and less of a spectacle. The inspiration for this comes from films like Se7en that treat violence as a reality, rather than something that is disconnected from one’s own beliefs. The film helped to spawn the “gore” age of the early 2000s with films like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) that took the gritty, crime style violence to the next level. This era also utilized the concept of noir-like tone with a dark, dirty depiction with a heavy focus on lighting. While they tended to focus more on the horror side, the inspiration is very clear.
People tend to say Fincher’s crime drama is not horror, but the reality is that at it’s core the film is truly terrifying. The slow burn of each murder being revealed is paid off by a shocking ending that gives an extremely pessimistic view of the world. Rooted in gritty violence and paired with a religious connotation, the film simply would not work without the horror elements; something that Ernest Dickerson knew right away. Iconic in tone and narrative, Se7en has served as an inspiration for genre mixing of horror of any kind, and has helped move the idea of film violence into an era of impact. Anchored by outstanding acting and a villain that does not make his appearance until the grand finale, Fincher caught lightning in a bottle with Se7en. The film is determined to remind you sometimes the world can be evil, and the “hero” does not always win.