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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