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The Implied Horror of David Fincher’s Basements

The director rarely lets his films slip into full-on gore, but the possibilities he creates within his viewers’ imaginations are even more disturbing

Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

If you ever had a basement growing up, the thought of descending down the stairs for a menial task could feel like a perilous journey during which a ghastly creature hiding in the darkness could snatch you at any second. Never mind that every other time you’d gone down to the basement nothing happened—that’s exactly what the monster wanted you to think. A kid’s imagination is potent; and Hollywood has a knack for stoking that specific, universal type of fear and paranoia. It’s the basement, after all, where the Babadook ultimately resides. (At least from what I recall: The Babadook is a good movie and I plan to never watch it again.)

It’s within that space of imagining the worst possible scenario that David Fincher wrings the scariest moment from Zodiac, arguably the great director’s greatest achievement. In Robert Graysmith’s exhaustive search to unmask the Zodiac Killer, he meets a man who supposedly has a tip about the serial killer’s true identity, only to discover that two potential clues he had for the Zodiac—that the killer likely owned a basement, which is rare in California, and that he had a distinctive style of handwriting—are right in front of him. The stranger does own a basement; the handwriting Graysmith thought was the Zodiac’s actually belongs to the person whose home he just entered. That Graysmith is successfully lured into the man’s basement on a dark and stormy night only heightens the feeling that something really bad is going to happen. Obsessive curiosity and the search for truth supplant fear and Graysmith’s own survival instinct.

If you’ve seen Zodiac, you already know that Graysmith doesn’t meet his end in that basement—nor does the film offer any definitive answers about the identity of the most enigmatic serial killer of the 20th century. But consider Fincher’s masterful, dread-inducing buildup to that basement scene as the ultimate flex: In a movie where multiple Zodiac Killer victims are shown stabbed, shot, and killed on-screen, Zodiac’s most enduring moment of terror is a sly misdirect.

Fincher has made a career out of a calculated, inquisitive curiosity about human behavior—to use the director’s own words: people are perverts—and one’s capacity for self-destructive tendencies. And while Graysmith’s objectively precarious decision to follow a stranger down into his basement despite some obvious warning signs didn’t end up putting him in real danger, journalist Mikael Blomkvist isn’t quite so fortunate in Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Investigating the 40-year disappearance and presumed death of a wealthy Swedish magnate’s grandniece, Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist slowly uncovers proof that someone at the family’s large estate, which comprises an entire island, could be responsible for murdering countless young women over several decades. (Including, potentially, the missing grandniece, Harriet.) Enough evidence mounts that Blomkvist eventually suspects Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), Harriet’s brother, but is caught sneaking outside Martin’s home after breaking in to find more clues. Martin invites Blomkvist inside and offers him a drink, quickly deducing that the journalist knows more than he’s letting on. So Martin brandishes a gun and slowly escorts him down to the basement. You wanna talk ominous:

In Blomkvist’s defense, there’s not much you can do when someone’s got a gun pointed at you, but it’s what Martin says after restraining him in a makeshift torture chamber that gets at the heart of Fincher’s own interests. “Let me ask you something: Why don’t people trust their instincts?” Martin says. “They sense something is wrong, someone is walking too close behind them—you knew something was wrong, but you came back into the house. Did I force you, did I drag you in? No. All I had to do was offer you a drink. It’s hard to believe that fear of offending may be stronger than the fear of pain, but you know what? It is.”

The scene becomes more harrowing and grimly funny when, in a rare reprieve from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s thrumming score, Martin turns on his personal playlist with a rather dissonant choice: Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (also known as the song with the almost-hypnotic “sail away, sail away, sail away” chorus). It’s a soothing melody that one, uh, doesn’t quite associate with a basement torture chamber, but it underscores the fact that this is the only room where Martin feels like he can be his true self. The sleek, minimalist home he has on the far reaches of his family’s island-wide estate isn’t just a place for him to be isolated with his victims: It’s a reflection of how little he wants to show himself to the world. (As for the oddly specific choice of “Orinoco Flow,” Fincher told Entertainment Weekly that Craig scrolled through his iPod and recommended the song.)

It’s the matter-of-factness and underlying acceptance of his own depravity that makes Martin such a scary figure: He casually tells Blomkvist that he gets more aroused the more his victims realize they have no hope of escaping and looks genuinely befuddled upon realizing he’s never had a man in his torture basement before. The usual “methods” might need some improvising. (Between The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Casino Royale, Daniel Craig just can’t seem to escape a literally torturous scenario.) The primal fear in the protagonist when Martin wraps a plastic bag around Blomkvist’s head, as “sail away, sail away, sail away” keeps echoing tauntingly in the background, is palpable.

Of course, Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander arrives at just the right time, whacking Martin with a golf club and saving Blomkvist from a fate that is only implied to make, as his captor intones, a mess out of him. But as with some of the best moments of Fincher’s superlative career, including his excellent work on the small screen with Mindhunter, it’s the clinical approach of such horrifying implications that resonate far longer than a requisite gore shot. (Not that Fincher isn’t capable of those gross-out moments either, just look at what happened to Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl.) Like venturing down into a dark basement, David Fincher knows that sometimes the best thing you can do is let the audience’s imagination sail away, sail away, sail away.