25 years ago, David Fincher Se7fr successfully capitalized on Thesilenceofthelambs partly resembling almost nothing Thesilenceofthelambs.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Seven. The New Line Cinema release opened to strong pre-release reviews and consumer buzz to top the weekend box office with $13.9 million. Even in 1995, it was a strong showing for an original, R-rated, star-driven grimdark serial killer movie. In addition to earning plaudits for its visual style and sadly downbeat ending, the film solidified Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as box office attractions (or value-added items), while reinforcing the idea that New Line Cinema had its pulse on the air of the times (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, Rush Hour, Blade, Lord of the Rings) in a way that would put rivals to shame. It was the only serial killer movie to successfully bounce off the success of Thesilenceofthelambs, partially by being nothing like Thesilenceofthelambs.
The film, directed by David Fincher and written by Andrew Walker, about two cops in an unnamed town (Seattle?) hunting a serial killer who features recreations of the Seven Deadly Sins, bequeathed $100 million domestic and $327 million million worldwide on a $33 million budget. To show you how things have changed, he ranked just below batman forever that year which grossed $335 million worldwide. Its visual grit and sometimes stylized editing both influenced the emerging aesthetic of music videos and served as a mask for what was otherwise a slow-paced, character-driven and procedural drama. There’s only one action scene (thrillingly directed and edited) and, despite its reputation as an exceptionally gruesome R-rated chiller, features almost no on-screen violence in the present tense. To like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and yes, Thesilenceofthelambs, Se7fr used implication, context, and suggestion to feel a lot more horrific than it actually was.
It was also one of the only serial killer films to successfully capitalize on the runaway success of Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally’s blockbuster adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel. I have a lot to say about Thesilenceofthelambs when he turns 30 in February next year (spoiler: I watched it this week and it’s still one of the greatest mainstream American movies ever made), but he single-handedly made the movie horror to adults after 13 years of post –Halloween domination by teenagers, college kids and slasher movie fans. The reign may have been short, thanks to Wes Craven Scream in late 1996, but he produced at least one modern slasher classic (candy man), two adult bloodsucking blockbusters (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with the Vampire) and saw Craven shoot a Freddy Kruger movie for adults (Wes Craven’s New Nightmarewhich tears).
Thesilenceofthelambs also unleashed the serial killer film’s seemingly untapped potential as a Hollywood blockbuster (Al Pacino’s erotic thriller sea of love probably opened the door in 1989). Yeah, the genre existed a bit/sort of in “action hero chases serial killer/horror movie style slasher” like Sylvester Stallone’s CobraChuck Norris’ The hero and the terror and Charles Bronson 10 to Midnight, Se7frbut that of Michael Mann man hunter (an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon) earned $8.5 million in 1986. But of the many serial killer movies, both are excellent (Copycat) and not so excellent (take lives), Se7fr stood out not as a knockoff, but as a unique crime thriller in its own right. He rubbed shoulders with that of Paul Verhoeven Primary instinct (a Michael Douglas/Sharon Stone erotic thriller that made $353 million in 1992) as avant-garde blockbusters.
Yes, I am aware of the irony that Primary instinct is (without inflation) the highest-grossing serial killer film of all time and one of two post-Silence films to stand out artistically and commercially as the other (Se7fr) opened the same day as Verhoeven’s NC-17 Showgirls. Nevertheless, Primary instinctwhich starred Douglas as a burnt out/reckless cop getting intimate with Sharon Stone’s thriller novelist who may or may not be ice-bitters to death in real life, earned $117 million in 1992. Another “how things changed” note, its seventh weekend and eighth weekend grossed $4 million each just before Lethal Weapon 3 kicked off the summer with debuts of $33 million were the highest-grossing totals in the past 28 years, only challenged by Imbalance ($4.6 million including Canadian crude) and Principle ($4.7 million in its third national weekend).
More important again, Se7fr is a classic example of how simply keeping up with the latest hit isn’t going to get top-tier revenue. Yes, Se7fr was a serial killer movie, but it was also different from Thesilenceofthelambs as Dusk was from Harry Potter. Same Primary instinct which was also different from Thesilenceofthelambs and Se7fr as The hunger Games was from Harry Potter and Dusk. This does not mean that a more asymmetric counterfeit (Kiss the girls Two years later Se7fr and The Bone Collector in 1999), Divergent Two years later The hunger Games, etc.) cannot do relative banking. But to go to infinity and beyond, you really have to be the first Matrix and not the “sequel” Matrix. Even James Wan and Leigh Whannell Seenvery much a horror film in the vein of Se7frearned “only” $103 million worldwide in 2004.
Seen spawned an eight-movie, Lionsgate-counting franchise, arguably the only truly flourishing serial killer franchise aside from the periodic Anthony Hopkins-as-Hannibal Lector movies. Call Hannibal, despite its $165 million domestic/$352 million worldwide, a serial killer movie is overkill. the Seen the series is a Spiral far from exceeding $1 billion in total. He also succeeded, relatively speaking, by doing something like Se7fr but taking itself in its own direction and on its own way. Like Kevin Spacey’s famously unbilled John Doe (in the opening credits), Tobin Bell’s John Kramer used his murders to preach about the moral imbalance of the world. Curiously, the next heir apparent is apparently that of Matt Reeves The Batman, which features Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne hunting down Paul Dano’s serial killer (and preaching) Riddler. Unless it pulls batman and robin figures ($236 million in 1997), The Batman will by default become the greatest serial killer movie of all time.
Judging by the DC Fandome trailer, Reeves appears to be giving fans the “Batman as a Seven“serial killer thriller” they wanted, well, ever since Se7fr opened 25 years ago. In 1995 Se7fr and batman forever were on an equal footing globally. Now The Batman will probably be the first truly successful non-fantasy (sorry The cell and Identify) theatrical serial killer outside the Seen franchise and the Hannibal Lector movies from Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie The Bone Collector ($151 million on a $73 million budget) in 1999 and Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd Kiss the girls ($60 million on a $27 million budget) in 1997. This is yet another genre that has A) been swallowed up entirely by television (Criminal Minds, Hannibal, Dexteretc.) and B) is now only likely to score because he’s locked into a popular comic book superhero franchise.
Note: I rewatched the film last week to a out now remark, and it still comes off as a terrific Hollywood original. The dinner conversation between Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow still gets to me every time.