David Fincher’s Zodiac, which debuted in March of 2007, is a perfect example of blending genres. At its core, it’s a drama built on obsession. It’s also a police and newspaper procedural, family drama, and what we’re going to be looking at, effective horror film.
Fincher is not dishing out traditional horror fare. He terrifies us early to let us know the sheer brutality of the crimes. Once that is established, the film turns not to resolution, but to process. The scenes in which he does use horror elements are a masterclass in the genre. One of the most terrifying aspects of the crimes depicted is the randomness of them. Take for example…
The Lake Scene
The scene starts with a young couple picnicking at a lake. Part of what makes this scene so effective is that it takes place in broad daylight. Most horror scenes take place in the dark, usually with the villain jumping out from behind a corner or hiding in the shadows. This is all happening right in front of them.
At this point, we’ve seen some The Zodiac’s crimes earlier in the film. We know the impending doom for this couple, and there is nothing we can do about it. After being tied up and thinking this is a routine robbery, the male looks at The Zodiac’s gun and asks, “Just because people are going to ask, is that thing even loaded?” At this point the tension is basically bursting through our skin. The Zodiac shows him that the gun is indeed loaded, and we see the victims’ faces come to the realization of what we already knew. They are in real danger. They look at one another and try to convince themselves that everything is going to be all right. Just as that happens, The Zodiac pulls out a knife and stabs the couple repeatedly.
As mentioned, the most terrifying part of this was the complete randomness of it all. There’s a great line in The Strangers (2008) where the couple that is being brutalized asks their attackers why they’re doing this. “Because you were home,” one of the attackers replies. It’s the same for the couple at the lake. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it.
While the Lake Scene shows us horror through violence, there’s no better showcase of horror through suspense as…
The Basement Scene
This scene takes place towards the end of the film. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating a tip given to him that a man named Rick Marshall is The Zodiac. He meets at Bob Vaughn’s (Charles Fleischer) house to discuss the possibility. Graysmith points out that the handwriting on Marshall’s movie posters is the closest they’ve come to a match of The Zodiac’s handwriting. Vaughn’s reply is our first indication that something may be wrong. “Mr. Graysmith, I do the posters myself.”
Vaughn then invites Graysmith into his basement. Graysmith’s reply sends shivers down our spines “Not many people have basements in California.” This is playing off our knowledge that one of The Zodiac’s letters mentioned having a basement. We are now Graysmith in this situation. Our judgment says we should get out of there, but our curiosity won’t allow us. Graysmith follows him to the basement where he believes he hears noises. He finally comes to his senses and gets out of the house.
In this scene, Fincher plays to our knowledge about the case. Like Graysmith, we’re simultaneously putting clues together and experiencing the terror of the situation. There’s no violence whatsoever, and it proves to be just as terrifying as any of the scenes depicting The Zodiac’s violent crimes.
Whether it’s through the use of violence or suspense, Zodiac’s horror scenes remain some of the greatest ever put on film.