'Seven' celebrates 20 years

Story highlights

  • "Seven" premiered 20 years ago Wednesday
  • The dark, bleak film was an unlikely hit, still has staying power

(CNN)Even now that you know what's in the box, "Seven" hasn't gotten any less creepy.

The film, about a serial killer who uses the Seven Deadly Sins as a blueprint for his crimes, opened 20 years ago Tuesday -- September 22, 1995. It was, to some extent, an unlikely hit: murky and grim, with a downbeat ending and the gloomiest settings this side of "Blade Runner."
It also helped cement the stardom of its cast, especially Brad Pitt, who was trying to shake the heartthrob image he'd been saddled with since the previous year's "Legends of the Fall" and 1992's "A River Runs Through It."
    It also featured rising actress Gwyneth Paltrow (who began a 2½-year relationship with Pitt on the film) and the sneaky (and uncredited) Kevin Spacey, involved in his second twist ending of the year after "The Usual Suspects."
    They joined the always-steady Morgan Freeman and co-stars R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree and John C. McGinley.
    And it made the name of director David Fincher, a music video star who had helmed just one previous feature, 1992's "Alien 3."
    For all that talent, "Seven" wasn't completely embraced by critics, even those who admired its craftsmanship.
    "First-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker eschewed constructing a real story with characters we care about in favor of shock value," wrote Jami Bernard in the New York Daily News.
    "Amid the biblical carnage of a movie that seems to be driven by an esprit de corpse, Freeman's characteristically understated brilliance is the saving grace of 'Seven,' " said the Philadelphia Inquirer's Desmond Ryan.
    Its studio wasn't a fan of the ending, either, in which Pitt's character gets a gruesome special package delivery. Nor was Fincher: He wanted the film to cut to black after (spoiler alert!) Pitt's character shoots the killer.
    But it was a box office smash out of the box (sorry), ranking No. 1 its first four weeks in release and making more than $300 million globally, two-thirds of that overseas. It's since been recognized as a classic, on a par with the Oscar-winning film it was often compared to in 1995, "The Silence of the Lambs."
    If there's a downside to "Seven" 20 years on, it's the copycats it inspired -- not least the annoying typographical practice of using a number in place of a letter. But if that's "Seven's" only sin, maybe it's not such a bad world, after all.