25 years ago, David Fincher’s Se7en successfully capitalized on The Silence of the Lambs partially by being almost nothing like The Silence of the Lambs.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Seven. The New Line Cinema release opened with strong pre-release reviews and consumer buzz to top the weekend box office with $13.9 million. Even back in 1995, that was a solid showing for an original, R-rated, star-driven grimdark serial killer movie. Beyond just winning plaudits for its visual style and its infamously downbeat ending, the film solidified Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as a butts-in-the-seats (or added value element) box office draws, while furthering the idea that New Line Cinema had its pulse on the zeitgeist (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, Rush Hour, Blade, Lord of the Rings) in a fashion that would put its rivals to shame. It was the one serial killer movie to successfully bounce off the success of The Silence of the Lambs, partially by being nothing like Silence of the Lambs.
The David Fincher-directed and Andrew Walker-penned flick, about two cops in an unnamed city (Seattle?) hunting a serial murderer who is staging recreations of the seven deadly sins, legged out to $100 million domestic and $327 million worldwide on a $33 million budget. To show you how things have changed, it ranked just below Batman Forever that year which had earned $335 million global. Its visual grit and occasionally stylized editing were both influential amid the emerging music video aesthetic and served as a mask for what otherwise was a slowly-paced, character-and-procedure-focused drama. There is just one (thrillingly-staged-and-edited) action scene and, despite its reputation as an uncommonly gruesome R-rated chiller, features almost no present-tense onscreen violence. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, yes, Silence of the Lambs, Se7en used implication, context and suggestion to feel far more gruesome than it actually was.
It was also one of the only serial killer flicks to successfully capitalize on the blow-out success of Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally’s blockbuster adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel. I’ll have plenty to say about Silence of the Lambs when it turns 30 in February of next year (spoiler: I watched it this week and it’s still one of the greatest mainstream American movies ever made), but it single-handedly gave the horror movie back to grown-ups after 13 years of post-Halloween domination by teens, college kids and slasher movie fans. The reign may have been short, thanks to Wes Craven’s Scream in late 1996, but it produced at least one modern slasher classic (Candyman), two blood-sucking grown up horror movie blockbusters (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with the Vampire) and saw Craven making a Freddy Kruger movie for adults (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which rocks).
The Silence of the Lambs also unleashed the seemingly untapped potential of the serial killer movie as a mainstream Hollywood smash hit (Al Pacino’s erotic thriller Sea of Love arguably opened the door in 1989). Yes, the genre kinda/sorta existed within “action hero chases a serial murderer/horror movie-style slasher” grindhouse fare like Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, Chuck Norris’ The Hero and the Terror and Charles Bronson’s 10 to Midnight, Se7en, but Michael Mann’s Manhunter (an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon) earned $8.5 million in 1986. But of the many serial killer flicks, both excellent (Copycat) and not-so-excellent (Taking Lives), Se7en stood out not as a knock-off but as a unique crime thriller unto itself. It stood alongside Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (an erotic Michael Douglas/Sharon Stone slasher thriller that earned a whopping $353 million in 1992) as trendsetting blockbusters unto themselves.
Yes, I am aware of the irony that Basic Instinct is (sans inflation) the biggest-grossing serial killer movie of all time and one of two post-Silence movies to stand out from the pack artistically and commercially even as the other one (Se7en) opened on the same day as Verhoeven’s NC-17 Showgirls. Nonetheless, Basic Instinct, which starred Douglas as a burned-out/reckless cop getting intimate with Sharon Stone’s thriller novelist who may or may not be ice-picking folks to death in real life, earned $117 million domestic in 1992. Another “how things have changed” note, its seventh weekend and eighth-weekend grosses of $4 million each just before Lethal Weapon 3 kicked off the summer with a $33 million debut were the lowest-grossing chart-topping totals over the last 28 years, only being challenged by Unhinged ($4.6 million counting Canadian grosses) and Tenet ($4.7 million in its third domestic weekend).
Most importantly, Se7en is a classic example of how merely following the latest smash hit isn’t going to get top-tier grosses. Yes, Se7en was a serial killer flick, but it was as different from Silence of the Lambs as Twilight was from Harry Potter. Ditto Basic Instinct which was as different from Silence of the Lambs and Se7en as The Hunger Games was from Harry Potter and Twilight. That’s not to say that a closer-skewing knock-off (Kiss the Girls two years after Se7en and The Bone Collector in 1999), Divergent two years after The Hunger Games, etc.) can’t make relative bank. But to go to infinity and beyond, you really need to be the first Matrix and not the “next” Matrix. Even James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Saw, very much a horror movie in the vein of Se7en, earned “just” $103 million worldwide in 2004.
Saw spawned an eight-movies-and-counting franchise for Lionsgate, arguably the only truly thriving serial killer franchise save for periodic Anthony Hopkins-as-Hannibal Lector movies. Calling Hannibal, its $165 million domestic/$352 million worldwide cume notwithstanding, a serial killer flick is a stretch. The Saw series is one Spiral away from passing $1 billion total. It too succeeded, relatively speaking, by doing something kinda-sorta like Se7en but taking itself in its own direction and on its own path. Like Kevin Spacey’s famously unbilled (in the opening credits) John Doe, Tobin Bell’s John Kramer was using his murders to preach about the moral imbalance of the world. Oddly enough, the next heir apparent is seemingly Matt Reeves’ The Batman, which features Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne hunting down Paul Dano’s serial killing (and preaching) Riddler. Unless it pulls Batman & Robin numbers ($236 million in 1997), The Batman will become the biggest serial killer flick ever by default.
Just judging by the DC Fandome trailer, Reeves seems to be giving fans the “Batman as a Seven-style serial killer thriller” movie that they’ve wanted, well, since Se7en opened 25 years ago. In 1995 Se7en and Batman Forever were on even ground globally. Now The Batman will likely be the first truly successful non-fantastical (sorry The Cell and Identity) theatrical serial killer outside of the Saw franchise and the Hannibal Lector movies since Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie’s The Bone Collector ($151 million on a $73 million budget) in 1999 and Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd’s Kiss the Girls ($60 million on a $27 million budget) in 1997. It’s yet another genre that A) has been entirely swallowed by TV (Criminal Minds, Hannibal, Dexter, etc.) and B) is now only likely to score because it’s encased within a popular comic book superhero franchise.
Note: I rewatched the movie last week for an Out Now commentary, and it still holds up as a terrific Hollywood original. The diner conversation between Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow still gets me every time.