April 2018 (Issue 43)
Screening the Past
The serial killer film is nothing if not prolific: Robert Cettl discusses over six hundred examples in his annotated filmography, Richard Dyer argues that there are over two thousand serial killer films, and the IMDB lists more than 3500 film and television titles.  As with any genre, the serial killer film is marked by its typicality. Indeed, Philip Simpson criticises the serial killer film as a subgenre that is “endlessly derivative of its predecessors”.  The tropes of the clever, fiendish killer, his grotesque, ritualistic ‘signature’ and the gifted but damaged investigator are certainly familiar, but how does the serial killer film replicate itself on a textural level? This article will analyse the influence of Kyle Cooper’s much admired opening title sequence in Se7en (David Fincher, 1995).  However, rather than exploring the general influence of the sequence, I will focus on its stylistic similarities to the credit sequences of other serial killer texts such as The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce, 1999), Red Dragon (Brett Rattner, 2002), Sanctimony (Uwe Boll, 2001), Taking Lives (D.J. Caruso, 2004) and the first season of Whitechapel (Ben Court and Caroline Ip, 2009). I will argue that their imitative or plagiaristic qualities can be interpreted in terms of Mark Seltzer’s work on the repetitive and circular discourse of serial killing.
The title sequence of Se7en appears a few minutes into the film, occurring after a brusque initial encounter between Detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) at the scene of the first murder. The sequence runs for just over two minutes and contains over a hundred shots, many in close up. It shows a person (whom we retroactively infer is the killer John Doe [Kevin Spacey]) shaving off the skin on his fingertips, and then working on a group of notebooks while wearing bandages. We see Doe writing in longhand, and highlighting and erasing portions of other texts. He also develops photographs and uses scissors to trim Polaroids and pieces of film. Doe incorporates some of these images and texts into the notebooks and then uses needle and thread to stitch the pages of his journal into a book, one of many.
The title sequence provides vital story material for the viewer about Doe’s activities. He removes his fingertips to ensure that he does not leave fingerprints behind, either in his apartment or at crime scenes. This also enables him to toy with the investigators by leaving a message composed of fingerprints on a wall at the second murder scene. Instead of this resulting in Doe’s apprehension, it points the police to his third victim, whose amputated arm was used to ‘write’ the words “help me”. After Doe surrenders, the police discover that he does not have a Social Security number, nor any banking or other official records. He is also, as Somerset states, “John Doe by choice”. His anonymity focuses police attention on to his mission or “work”. Indeed, during the final confrontation, Doe insists that he is not personally important, but that his crimes will be remembered and studied because of their shocking nature and diabolical logic (and Se7en is more memorable than many other serial killer films for precisely this reason).