please spare me the wurgly bits

THE suzi feay COLUMN
I HAVE been looking vainly for someone to share my disgust at the new Brad Pitt movie, Seven. From the opening scene, where the camera cruises over acres of bloated, discoloured flesh, a corpse's mottled face, seething cockroaches, rotting food and a bucket of vomit, it's the latest and most graphic example of autopsy sleaze.

The film features a highly literate and sophisticated serial killer (yeah, yeah) offing nasty characters who represent the seven deadly sins. Leaving aside the fallacy that people who murder other people are intelligent, cultured and imaginative (here we should silently contemplate the image of Frederick "Grockle" West for a few moments), the movie is not even coherent by its own dim standards. A fattie represents Greed, a drug-dealer Sloth, a prostitute (rather unfairly) is Lust and so on until the "twist" ending makes a nonsense out of even this trumped- up theme.

Copycat, due in the spring, is even worse: the story of a serial killer (you don't say) whose modus operandi keeps changing because it turns out he's doing cover-versions of famous slayers' greatest hits. This sordid spectacle, which looks forward to the happy day when we can graze through autopsy pix on the Internet, mixes fantasy and reality in the most irresponsible way: "Oh, he injected her with Draino! He must be re-enacting the Buono and Bianchi murders." What do its stars, Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter, intelligent, principled actresses both, think they're playing at? Well, Hunter as the female detective does sob: "This job never gets any easier" to a sympathetic male colleague, and Weaver, as the agoraphobic psychiatrist stalked by a thrill-killer, gets enough beatings for her role to count as a convincing portrayal of female masochism, but significantly, neither Siggy nor Holly end up as flayed meat on a table.

Action director Katherine Bigelow recently pointed out that women don't necessarily identify with other women on screen: when we watch Lethal Weapon 2, we're up there with gung-ho Mel rather than pallid Patsy. (To illustrate the point, her latest, Strange Days, features a see-thru'-the- killer's-eyes rape 'n'murder combo - thanks, Katie.) But I hope I'm not the only woman who finds viewing impossibly skewed by a concern for the victims which is so clearly not felt by the film-makers.

I can't help thinking that if film after film portrayed, say, Jews or Koreans being sadistically dispatched, we would all know that something very odd was going on. Stumbling out of a pre-Christmas screening, I remarked to a male critic that I had a problem with a film where, of the four main characters, the women wind up dead and the men are left standing."Well, that's your thing," he drawled dismissively, as if it was simply beneath his notice that one woman was demonised and the other victimised, and that compared with the men they had all the individuality of subway tokens.

Seven has been praised for its restraint, but nothing is left to the imagination. We know what hideous device is used on the prostitute, and how it is introduced into her body. It is seen as restrained because it never portrays the act of murder, only its messy aftermath. This is, of course, perfectly in tune with the times. Ever since Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison, coolly contemplating morgue shots, body horror is the order of the day. Patricia Cornwell serves up great slabs of slice'n'dice fiction, Damien Hirst saws animals in half, Mona Hatoum takes photographs of her insides, and the latest crime series features a sexy pathologist. There is something depressingly materialist about all this. At least when the ancients peered into entrails they were looking into the future.

Why are we so fascinated with wurgly bits? In the Middle Ages, bodies frequently were hacked, racked, pierced, burnt, hanged and ripped apart; presumably because of their belief in the soul, people tended to be both less squeamish about and less horrified by physical destruction. The Faust legend was the apogee of horror: the loss of one's soul. Today, when the afterlife is a myth and being thin the highest spiritual state, to be dead and unsightly must be our greatest terror.

It would be nice to blame health guru Leslie Kenton for all this - in her most philosophical work, Time Alive, she states: "Your body ... is not - as our Greek philosophical inheritance would have us believe - an appendage to the soul. Far from it." But we should look further back, to the Marquis de Sade and his horror of copulation for procreation's sake. (This is why he was such a fan of anal sex - plus it was against nature, which he always enjoyed.) "I learned that this is a world of bodies," he drools in Adrian Mitchell's peerless translation of the Marat/ Sade. Angela Carter pointed out that Sade did a big favour for women with his enthusiasm for contraceptives and clitoral stimulation. But he changed forever the idea that the vagina is the conduit to infinity, that the body is the shelter of the numinous, that we are not just fascinating bags of guts.