The Seventh Sign (1988) Retrospective

Around the world, unusual phenomena are occurring that bear resemblance to signs of the Biblical apocalypse; these include a mass death of sea life in Haiti and a devastating freeze in the Middle East, and at each of these locations, a mysterious traveler opens a sealed envelope just prior to the event taking place. The Vatican tasks Father Lucci with investigating these events, though Lucci advises that they are all either hoaxes or have scientific explanations.

Concurrently to this, Abby Quinn, a pregnant woman living in California, prepares for the birth of her child. Her husband, Russell, is a defense lawyer representing Jimmy Szaragosa, a man with Down syndrome, who is on trial for murdering his incestuous parents and claiming that he did so because of God’s teaching. Jimmy is convicted of the crime.

For additional income, Abby and Russell rent a room to the mysterious traveler, who identifies himself as David Bannon. Soon after, Abby begins to have terrible nightmares of a man resembling David being struck down by a soldier, who then asks “would you die for him?” of her. Abby also learns of the apocalyptic signs that have occurred, and combined with her nightmares and David’s suspicious behavior, she begins to worry that something terrible is taking place. She snoops through David’s papers and discovers an ancient note that leads her to believe that he intends to harm her child. When Abby confronts David about this, he tells her that God’s grace is empty and soon, no souls will remain to be given to newborn people. Abby panics and stabs David, only for him to shrug off the injury and claim that he “cannot die again.”

It becomes apparent that he is actually the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Abby’s nightmares are visions of his original crucifixion, and she is the reincarnation of Seraphia, the woman who offered Jesus water only to be turned away by Cartaphilus, who was Pilate’s porter who struck Jesus.

The signs of the apocalypse continue to unfold and eventually cause a giant storm. Abby connects with Avi, a rabbinical student who helps her understand the events. Father Lucci, who has come to California as part of his investigation, finds her and hears her concerns. However, while meeting with Lucci, Abby spots a ring on his finger identical to the one that Cartaphilus wore and learns that Lucci is Cartaphilus himself who was cursed to wander the Earth until Christ’s return to judge humanity. He intends to allow the apocalypse to take place so that his curse will finally be broken.

Abby flees from Lucci with Avi’s aid, and together the two of them find a Bible to learn what will happen next. They discover that the sixth sign will be a solar eclipse that will take place the next day, meaning that the fifth sign — the tortured death of a martyr for God’s cause — must take place very soon. Abby realizes that clemency has been denied to Jimmy and his execution will be the fifth sign. In a panic, she drives to the prison to stop the execution; however, Lucci has already infiltrated the prison. As Abby approaches, Lucci kills Jimmy and wounds Abby and is taken away by the guards.

The eclipse begins along with a catastrophic earthquake. Despondent over her failure to save Jimmy and the rest of humanity, Abby goes into labor and is rushed through the disaster to a nearby hospital. Despite the best efforts of Russell and the doctors to help her, the child’s heart stops beating as Abby gives birth, thus fulfilling the seventh and final sign, the birth of the soulless child. However, Abby has another vision of her past as Seraphia and remembers Cartaphilus’ question. Finally finding true hope, Abby answers the question in the affirmative—”I will die for him”—and reaches out to her child, who revives and holds her finger. Her soul is thus transferred to the child, saving him at the cost of her own life. This act of faith ends the apocalypse. Jesus appears in the hospital and tells Russell that Abby’s sacrifice has refilled the Hall of Souls, ensuring that humanity will continue to survive.

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Clifford and Ellen Green, the screenplay is based firmly on Judeo-Christian mythology. “There is a story that in heaven there is a place called the Gulf, and the Gulf is the Hall of Souls,” elucidates director Carl Schultz. “The Hall of Souls is where all of the souls are kept, and every time an infant is born, a soul is given out to it. But there are only a finite number of souls in heaven, and when the last soul is given out and the Gulf is empty, then it’s the end of the world. And that. basically, is the theme on which the whole film is built.”

The director wants to discourage comparisons between his film and such religiously-oriented thrillers as The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. “Those films are structured on similar themes, so I guess you could put The Seventh Sign in the same category, but it’s a very unique film, still,” he believes. **One element that sets this film apart is its moral implication, that the world in which we live is what we make it, and if we want to change it and make it better, then it’s up to us to do so.”

Tri-Star evidently agrees with Schultz’s categorization of the film, which was filmed under the title The Boarder. This moniker apparently suggested a slasher/horror flick to audiences, and the Seventh Sign tag was popped on the film to more fully reflect its mystery content, not to mention the fact that the studio wanted to avoid confusion with the 1982 Jack Nicholson movie The Border. The Seventh Sign is a more accurate title, says Schultz. It gives more promise of what the film is about.”

As the story becomes more involved with Prochnow’s origins and purpose, there are storms of rain and hail, a mysterious bridge that Prochnow reveals and lots of artificial ice and snow, all courtesy of the DreamQuest opticals people and physical FX man Phil Cory. In addition, makeup masters Reardon and Yagher contribute some bizarre prosthetics for a priest character and give Moore a convincing pregnant appearance. Here again, though, Schultz likes to make it clear that the production has avoided graphic excess.

Actually, it seems only fitting that Schultz avoids horrific associations in his first American project, since his biggest success in Australia was an intimate drama with the slasheresque title Careful, He Might Hear You; at least one movie magazine overviewing the slasher genre listed it as just such a film. Born in Hungary, Schultz has been working in Australian movies and television for many years, and his best known credit Down Under, aside from Careful, is probably the miniseries The Dismissal, on which he worked with Mad Max creator George Miller, “That was a very interesting way of working judges Schultz of the project, which dealt with a 1975 upheaval in the Australian government. There were three or four writers and directors working together from the film’s conception through to the end. That kind of collaborative work was very enjoyable.”

Like many successful Australian directors, Schultz never attended film school; instead, he began as a cameraman and worked his way up. There is a good film school in Australia, but very few people have come through that school so far,” he reports. Most people have drifted into film, like George Miller, who was a doctor. My background was largely working up through various jobs. and most people in the business there work that way. They get a job. whether it be editing or on the set, and work on through.”

Although many Australian filmmakers, like Miller and Peter Weir. have launched very successful careers for themselves in the United States, Schultz says that he did not actively pursue work in this country. Rather, it was Tri-Star that came to him with an offer to direct. I was going to work with Tri-Star a little earlier, Schultz recalls. “There was another film that I was going to do with them, and I got to know the people there. That film fell through, and when this one came up, they offered it to me.” And how did the director of a personal, small-scale film like Careful wind up assigned to an FX-laden thriller like The Seventh Sign?

Schultz himself isn’t sure. You should ask Tri-Star, I suppose. I guess there was something in Careful that had a sense of mystery and scale that they liked.”

Once production began, Schultz found it easy to adapt to working on a major studio project, and working with a name cast for the first time didn’t faze him. Anybody who’s good at their job is good at their job, and I find it easier to work with people of talent and ability,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how big or small they are, how well-known or unknown they might be. To me, talent is the important thing, and the actors we had were wonderful. Jurgen Prochnow was a gentleman and extremely good to work with, Demi Moore was very dedicated, Michael Biehn really got into his part. Schultz also heaps high praise onto the relatively unknown actor Peter Friedman, who plays the priest. He may be unknown so far, but he is a wonderful actor.”

Schultz had no problem dealing with the many FX he had to film. “I’ve done films with similar effects before, not quite on the same scale, he allows. But each effect is a challenge in itself. I’ve done films in Australia that have involved storms. and explosions, and many other things, so I wasn’t a total stranger to it.” Again, Schultz gives nothing but high marks to his collaborators. describing the FX teams as “exceptionally good.”

Despite a good experience working on The Seventh Sign, Schultz is in no hurry to claim the United States as a permanent filmmaking base. I intend to work in Australia, or Americat, or England,” he offers. “It doesn’t matter where, as long as the project interests me.” He cites as one advantage of working in his home country the ability to have more control over his work: he did not have final cut on Seventh Sign. “One benefit is that filmmakers there have a certain amount of freedom which is difficult to find in America now, where everything is very much more studio-controlled.”

He’s also in no rush to return to the thriller genre, either. ”I don’t consider myself to be a genre director, he frowns. “I look at each story on its own merits, and depending on that, I decide if I want to take it. I don’t want to limit my choices to any particular genre.”

While THE SEVENTH SIGN doesn’t pretend to be an effects-oriented film, it does contain several notable visual effects-designed, in the words of Dream Quest Images’ Eric Brevig, “to punch up the dramatics” of the story. Visual effects supervisor Mike Fink hired the Simi Valley-based outfit to create photographic effects that fell into two categories: matte work and effects animation.

Mattes painted by Bob Scifo included two shots of an Arab village encased in ice, with plates shot by Tim McHugh in Death Valley, and the interior of the Vatican, where Father Lucci meets with the Pope’s underlings, filmed at the Los Angeles Wilshire Ebell Women’s Center, with actors sitting before a false wall.

Dream Quest also provided what Brevig termed “incidental effects” involving the moon’s change of colors and p.o.v. cutaway shots of the coming solar eclipse. For the former, they took an image of the moon and experimented with moving liquids in cloud tanks to find a look to satisfy director Carl Schultz, who wanted the moon to look fantastic rather than real. Since it was planned as a p.o.v. shot of young Avi (Manny Jacobs) looking at the night sky, the effect was then matted in behind a window frame. Brevig and Fink said they were surprised to see an early, inferior test of the “moon shot” (with visible matte lines) in the final cut, rather than the over-the-shoulder-shot they thought would be used.

Animation effects are prominent in the scene where Abby (Demi Moore) stabs David (Jurgen Prochnow) with a knife, releasing a flood of brilliant white light (courtesy of several aircraft landing lights positioned below the camera). For the close-up, where she withdraws the instrument, a prosthetic body was used, behind which was a 10-K light, which put interactive light into the shot as Moore pulls out the blade. Split-scan artwork done on an animation stand made it appear that beams of light shoot out from the point of the wound, and Moore’s hand was rotoscoped so that it would be silhouetted by the light.

Originally there was to be a sequence wherein a “bridge of light” appears between Abby’s house and David’s garage apartment-called forth by David as a test of her faith. Abby balks at the challenge, putting out her foot as if the “bridge” were cold ocean water and watching her foot fall through due to her crippling fear. Her dog Ace, however, effortlessly scampers across it. To accomplish this bit of action, the animal was put on a piece of highly polished plexiglass (stationed above the camera) and coerced to the other side. The light bridge was animated, as were tiny puffs of light under his paws as he ran.

The scene was cut for two reasons: first, because, according to Brevig, “It was decided that it was dramatically redundant or it undercut the impact of the scene where Abby stabs David.” Also, the audience giggled when Ace did his cosmic tightrope-walking act-a reaction considered inappropriate.


Carl Schultz

Ted Field
Robert W. Cort

Clifford Green
Ellen Green

Demi Moore as Abby Quinn
Michael Biehn as Russell Quinn
Jürgen Prochnow as The Boarder
Peter Friedman as Father Lucci/Cartaphilus
Manny Jacobs as Avi
John Taylor as Jimmy Szaragosa

Jack Nitzsche

Cinefantastique v19n01-02 (1989)

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