The fine art of killing

The killer as artist, the victim as installation: this is Hollywood's aesthetic response to serial murder. By Kim Newman

The "Lust" victim in Se7en is a prostitute murdered with a dagger- augmented dildo. Naturally, homicide cops Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt track down the manufacturer of such an unusual object, only to find a blase craftsman who assumed his customer was "a performance artist". It's a funny throwaway in an overwhelmingly grim movie, but also a tip-off to the film's real theme: murder as performance art. Each of the victims is arranged as an installation, illustrating one of the deadly sins. The cops prowl around the crime scenes like perturbed patrons, mildly irritated that National Endowment funds have been spent on Robert Mapplethorpe or a pile of firebricks. It's hard not to be reminded of Andre Breton's "simplest surrealist act", firing a pistol randomly into an audience. Se7en - which the posters and ads more comfortably call Seven - is a rare Hollywood film in which aesthetics are given priority over plot. Almost entirely about men talking in dark rooms and trying not to look at the Bacon-butchered carcasses of raw material victims, it may (one rainswept foot-chase aside) be the most action-free thriller ever to achieve enormous commercial success. Two-thirds of the way through, the villain walks into a police station and gives himself up without a struggle, simply because this is the only way he can finish off his masterpiece. The killer is as willing to become a part of his own corpse pattern ("I really envy you," he insists, in a rare clunker line) as to kill strangers.

This is perhaps the most honest entry in a cycle that stretches back through numerous Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels. The distinguishing feature of the trend is that setpiece bizarre murders and the special effects trickery used in their extra-narrative creation take centre stage. In Se7en, we never see the murders, just the artfully posed results. Now, with considerably less panache, Hollywood gives us the all-too-aptly titled Copycat. Here, another anal-retentive serial killer embarks on a programme of mass murder with apparently pure artistic motives. Like a forger dashing off a Picasso, the Copycat killer recreates the signature murder styles of such precursors as the Boston Strangler and Jeffrey Dahmer. All this is designed to impress shut-in serial killer expert Sigourney Weaver, just as Se7en's killer is more concerned with messing up the heads of Freeman and Pitt than he is with his actual victims.

Real serial murderers, whose only film avatar is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, tend to be pathetic transients re-enacting a private ritual, solipsists who could not possibly have an aesthetic sense. But movie madmen are different, and tend to draw on the 19th-century melodramatic tradition best expressed by the title of a 1930s John Barrymore movie, The Mad Genius. While Beethoven and Van Gogh might be deemed certifiably insane, their inner violence was either channelled into their work or (in Van Gogh's case) against themselves. In movies, however, it's a different story: a parade of murderous sculptors (Mystery of the Wax Museum, A Bucket of Blood), painters (Color Me Blood Red, Blood Delirium), musicians (The Phantom of the Opera, Hangover Square) and actors (A Double Life, Theatre of Blood) carry over their professional concerns into private passions. They kill for materials, so corpses can be drained of blood pigment or impressed into re-enactments of Shakespeare's bloodiest moments.

The American cinema, like the British melodramatic tradition, has always mistrusted genius: Erich Von Stroheim, the original genius director crushed by the philistinism of the Hollywood system, spent his declining years as a B-movie villain, often taking the role of the murderous ventriloquist (The Great Gabbo) or scientific researcher (The Lady and the Monster). In the 1940s, as the craze for psychoanalysis swept Beverly Hills, films were full of educated psychopaths played by the likes of Clifton Webb, George Sanders or Vincent Price. Often, these caddish killers would (like Webb in Laura) discourse on art and taste, taking pride in their suspiciously modern furnishings and modernist paintings, when not shotgun-slaying kittenish protegees on the point of deserting them.

Vincent Price, a second-string George Sanders in Laura, played the disfigured sculptor coating bodies in wax in House of Wax, the 1953 remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum, and made the role of the artist-murderer his own. He returns to sculpture in Diary of a Madman, embedding Nancy Kovack's skull in a bust, and throws the ultimate Warholian party-as-art bash in Masque of the Red Death, in which pestilence is colour-coded. However, Price's greatest contribution to murder art comes in The Abominable Dr Phibes. A mutilated vaudeville organist with a flair for Deco furnishings - in Dr Phibes Rises Again he redecorates an ancient Egyptian tomb with Fred and Ginger bas-reliefs and installs his Wurlitzer among the sarcophagi - Phibes has a grudge against the 12 doctors who let his wife die. Nearly doubling Se7en's score, he executes a series of style crimes based on the Twelve Plagues of Egypt, unleashing boils and locusts through Heath Robinson-like penal colony devices. The films were masterminded by Robert Fuest, who had learnt to stage death in style on The Avengers, whose amazingly callous heroes were forever casually observing the contorted corpses of anonymous victims. Price, madder than ever, followed up with Theatre of Blood, the ultimate artist's revenge fantasy - modelled perhaps on the 1940s B-movie House of Horrors - in which a demented matinee idol dispatches the entire critics' circle as payback for years of cutting reviews.

At some point in the late 1970s, this cheerful mass slaughter was thrown into relief by the emergent phenomenon of serial murder. Noted in the cinema as early as Dirty Harry, with its sub-human hippie Scorpio, the rash of true-life case history horrors and post-Halloween stalk-and-slash react against the stylised black humour of the Dr Phibes films and tries for a gritty, street-level feel. Seventies and Eighties movie monsters like Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason (Friday the 13th), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Leatherface (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) are blue-collar morons set beside Price's elegant geniuses. Their films eliminate the distance found in The Abominable Dr Phibes, relegating the fictional murderers to intermediaries and asking us to admire the artistry of the film-makers who stage death spectacles, or even the art directors on the Chain Saw household who make furniture of human bones or stick an overstuffed rooster in a canary cage.

The current wave of fantasised serial killers are certainly more ingenious and articulate than the mute Jason or Michael or the wisecracking Freddy. The trend is almost entirely down to Thomas Harris, creator of Hannibal Lecter, author of Red Dragon, filmed by Michael Mann as Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, filmed by Jonathan Demme. Lecter, played coolly by Brian Cox or luridly by Anthony Hopkins, is a Phibes-type, concerned with style in carnage. He also pre-dates Se7en's killer by being less interested in his killings than in tinkering with the minds of the FBI agents forced to consult him in their pursuit of other killers. Again, murders are not so much crimes as artefacts: pace the posed dead families of Manhunter, itself the most aestheticised film of the 1980s, and the moth-in-the-gullet corpses of Lambs.

Confrontational art has used images of beauty in decay for centuries, but these entertainment films are problematic. They embed such images in more-or-less conventional narrative, which at once defuses their power and privileges identification with the living characters (good or evil) over memento mori corpses. Copycat, a typical product picture, loses its way in warmed-up cop and buddy cliches. Its worst aspect is that the star system leads it to the offensive but all too common failing of treating its victims as throwaways, of suggesting that Sigourney Weaver's claustrophobia is more important than the agonising deaths of anonymous extras. Murder is not Art, but representations of murder can be: Se7en and Manhunter, though not problem-free, are remarkable for their chilly integrity, constantly forcing you to ask yourself how you feel about what you're watching.

n 'Copycat' is scheduled for release in the UK in April

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing