Seven may have been marketed as a psychological thriller film when it was released, but this film can be regarded as pure horror. John Doe, the serial killer in Seven, feels that evil and sin have become so rampant in society that people have acclimated themselves to them and tolerate their existence. Essentially, evil has become so banal that people stopped caring.
Through the realization that people tolerate sin, John Doe sets out on his mission to exaggerate the seven deadly sins by committing the most gruesome murders which will be worthy of study–something the killer says people will involve themselves with once he finishes his plan. By exaggerating the sins, he brings them to the forefront of the people’s consciousnesses. Afterwards, evil is no longer banal, and the people would be forced to react and no longer tolerate people committing such grave sins. This makes John Doe one of the most fascinating serial killers in popular culture. He kills to make a point, and does so to stop people from committing sins in the future, or, at the very least, force people to stop tolerating wrongdoers. At the same time, however, he knows he is not free of sin himself and offers himself up to be part of his own plan. Seven isn’t so much about the police tracking down a serial killer than it is a meditation on the inhumanity many people display.
The killer is frightening in that he kills because he feels it’s what needs to be done. But he’s not the only aspect of the film that sets up the fear within the members of the audience. Much of it is subconsciously injected into the audience.
Many of the images presented to the audience are disturbing, the scenes are shot in a way to make the viewer feel low, and the settings are dark and dingy, which helps establish the gruesome tone of the film. The setting is something that interested me because of the way it “traps” the viewer. Everything is decaying in the film–from the cracked and crumbling sidewalks to the roofs of the buildings, and everything in between. The audience is drawn out of the safety of the real world, and into one that seems as though dangers wait in every nook or gap a person walks by. Gone is the sun (until the end, but we’ll get to that), gone are shiny cars, gone are any luxuries, and gone is the sense of safety. Before the killer is introduced, and even before the first kill is shown, the viewer has already been placed in an uncomfortable and unsafe setting. Even the lack of a name for the fictional metropolis helps to increase the darkness of the atmosphere, and since no member of the audience has lived in the city shown, tension builds and any sense of familiarity is removed.
Setting plays a major role in horror, and I feel that Seven is a great example of a setting designed to put a person on edge. As a horror writer, it’s fascinating to watch how this is done in not only literature, but film as well.
The camera angles often exacerbate these feelings by forcing the viewer to look up at the killer, John Doe. When the camera is focusing on Detectives Mills and Somerset, it’s typically at a height level with that of the actors. The viewer is equal to them, and this builds a sense of camaraderie. But when we see the killer, such as in the scene when he gains the upper hand on Mills and presses the gun into Mills’s head, the audience looks up at an extreme angle, tracing the barrel of the weapon to the killer’s face, which is darkened in the shadows. This gives the sense that he is in control. As the audience, we aren’t just sympathizing with Mills, but rather interacting with the scene through this forced perspective where the killer seems larger and the gun bigger than they actually are. For fiction writing, creating this feeling is something that horror writers should keep in mind. Readers must not just read about a character, but must, in some way, feel as if they are part of the story, even if this just means creating such a bond between the reader and the character that the reader becomes involved.
At the end of the film, Mills and Somerset drive with the serial killer into the desert. For the first time, the audience is treated to a good deal of sunshine. Even the camera angles are now different, and the audience rides in the helicopter and looks down as Mills and Somerset drive with the killer in the police car. It seems almost subliminal in that the killer has been captured, so that means the view represents the police–and ultimately the audience who has been rooting for them–are in domination. However, if you pay close enough attention, as the scene progresses and details start arriving about what the killer has planned, the camera starts shifting away from high shots, and sinks lower and lower, effectively dragging the reader down. There are still a couple more high shots, but by the time the film ends, the low shots far outnumber the high ones. These shots are not meant to be noticed, but help subconsciously manipulate the attitude and emotions of the audience.
These camera angles would be the POV in literature. Just as David Fincher, the director, manipulated the audience into feeling a certain way, so too should not just the horror writer, but all writers. We, too, can force the perspective and drag the audience down with the characters, or raise them up, only to drop them down and empty elevator shaft a moment later. The setting and POV in Seven are perfect examples of how to manipulate the audience without them knowing what is actually happening.