In 1995, David Fincher’s nightmarish crime thriller Se7en exploded on the scene, shocking and stunning audiences with something they had never before seen. It was, and is, an incredible film, a mixture of horror and police procedural and violence and despair, a literal journey into the circles of hell thanks to the elaborate plan from the film’s killer, John Doe -played by a relatively unknown actor at time named Kevin Spacey.
Se7en, despite being the hardest of R-rated films, full of nihilistic brutality and gore, managed to crack the top ten at the box office in 1995, more than tripling its budget. Part of that was due tot he star power of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, part of it was the incredible word of mouth and stunning final act, which left audiences staggering speechless from their auditoriums, imploring their friends to see this movie so they could discuss. Naturally, the success of Fincher’s film meant the imitators would be just around the corner, and the serial killer genre has never been able to step out of the shadows of John Doe.
No matter how hard studios tried, they could never replicate the visceral power of Se7en, mostly because they went about it all wrong. There was Kiss the Girls, perhaps the most direct echo of Se7en, and not just because Morgan Freeman was involved. The first film to try and make James Patterson’s Alex Cross character a “thing,” Kiss the Girls had police chasing down a serial killer with an elaborate method and an equally spooky lair. It was a moderate success in 1997, but has mostly faded into the ether of late 90s wannabes.
Then there was The Bone Collector, another story about cops chasing serial killers, this time with Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington. You can guess this killer’s bit. Phillip Noyce’s thriller tried to trick things up, having Washington’s character confined to a hospital bed at home, having been paralyzed in the prologue. It wasn’t enough to separate the film from the gaggle of films that tried their hardest to make this new subgenre flourish. The Bone Collector didn’t make its budget back upon initial release, and has become somewhat of a punchline.
This was the case with the serial killer wave in the years following Se7en. The next Alex Cross adventure Along Came a Spider, or the OTHER Ashely Judd psychological thriller Twisted (perhaps the nadir of the entire subgenre), or the Keanu Reeves thriller The Watcher, never caught on. They all tried to imitate the elaborate gimmick at the core of Fincher’s film, but they ignored what made that film brilliant to begin with. Despite the common acceptance that Se7en is “gritty and realistic,” the truth is it is anything but realistic when you back up and take in the entire scope.
The world in which John Doe is wreaking havoc is a nondescript city, a hellscape of rain and dirt and disparate existential crises all crashing into each other. The location is never given, though it is meant to resemble New York or, perhaps, Chicago. But it’s not these cities, it is a world that does not exist in the real world, made all the more disorienting and “unreal” by the third act’s journey into the desert. Though it is filmed in Los Angeles, it is never intended to be as such, and it is never filmed to represent the City of Angels, which might be the only place where a desert would be close enough. The juxtaposition of the concrete jungle and the barren sun-bleached finale give Se7en a sense of nightmarish uncertainty.
All the films in Se7en‘s wake leaned into the elaborate gimmickry of their killers, but they never tried to make the setting anything but real. Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, these films took place in places the audience could all recognize, in real cities on the map. It stole from the horrific skewed reality, teetering on the brink of dystopia, in Se7en. The fact John Doe was carrying out such gruesome crimes against the backdrop of a nondescript landscape allowed the audience to detach from the killings themselves and subsequently get swept up in the minutiae of Detective Mills and Somerset as they tried desperately to not only solve the crimes, but psychologically survive their world.
For years, these types of serial killer films faded from the zeitgeist. In the post-9/11 world, real horrors were more popular (for lack of a better term) than some serial killer collecting bones or toying with police officers. Serial killer films tapped into true stories with some success, most notably David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac. Even his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, arguably a distant cousin of Se7en, didn’t resonate the same.
Enter The Snowman, this weekend’s Michael Fassbender thriller about a killer leaving goofy messages taunting police officer and carrying out elaborate murders. It seems, judging by the reviews, that the serial killer subgenre has still never found a way to replicate the raw power of Fincher’s 1995 film. Maybe The Snowman never had a chance, or maybe everyone involved wanted to try and make their own Se7en but missed what made that one so special. It’s probably, as is the case with all the wannabes in Se7en‘s wake, a little bit of both.