Andrew at the Cinema
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.