The Seventh Victim
Horror fanatics discuss Val Lewton like he’s a sort of shadow-obsessed God. The producer of low-budget, WWII era horror films renowned for their innovative use of lighting to create a supernaturally spooky tone, projects like Cat People and The Leopard Man aren’t lumped together with the schlocky frankness of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman or The Mummy. They’re held in a sort of shimmering prestige: Martin Scorsese considers the Lewton produced Isle of the Dead to be the 11th scariest horror movie of all time; Leonard Maltin believes I Walked with a Zombie is an exceptional forage into B-movie terror. But maybe I’m harder to please than most.
I prefer coffee-stained cinematography to slimy gore when it comes to the genre, but no matter how I look at it, I consider the films of Lewton to be ingeniously shot, but not much more than that. Sure, there is a building dread that causes our adrenaline to genuinely pump (especially in comparison to other chillers of the time), but I’ve never been truly frightened by one of his films; many act as though they’re as disturbing as the untamed throes of modern horror. With the exception of the excellent Cat People, they are well-made, if forgettable, B-movies. Maybe I’m just not as much of a Lewton aficionado as I’d like to be.
This shouldn’t suggest that his films are bad; they’re anything but. For the 1940s, they’re more stylistically daring than anything in the decade. They rely solely on their photography and ghostly atmosphere, a dangerous move during a time where most studio heads would have an easier time pasting Frankenstein makeup onto the latest macabre personality.
The Seventh Victim, which is probably Lewton’s second best film after Cat People, goes into the darkest territory of all his films combined. This time, island roaming zombies or lady panthers are not the villains. Satan worshippers are. The climax is not a seismic relief but a distressing suicide, an ending unthinkable when happy endings were at their historic peak. The Seventh Victim takes risk after risk after risk after risk, a series of dares that should pay off. But with its low production value and upsettingly short running time (a mere 71 minutes), things feel cluttered. There isn’t quite enough room to develop the story into something earthshakingly haunting; the plot twist comes by so quickly that it doesn’t hit us with nearly as much fury as it might have liked to. But if it were produced by anyone other than Lewton, it certainly wouldn’t have the staying power it so proudly boasts. With its nightmarishly inky corridors and ingeniously characterized villains, it leaves a frightening taste in our mouth when the story offs itself before anything too stimulating happens.
Kim Hunter portrays Mary, a naive young woman who is getting her education at Miss Highcliff’s boarding school. Before the film even has time to explain itself, Mary is called into her headmistresses office. It seems that Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), Mary’s older sister and only relative, has not paid for her tuition in months. Facing financial hardship, the school offers Mary a choice; she can either stay by working as a student aid, or she can find a different place to learn.
Mary, wary of the school’s clingy ways, decides to take on the real world. She figures she’ll find Jacqueline in a short amount of time, and, with enough education on her side, will be able to find work for herself. But after just a few days of searching, Mary begins to realize that Jacqueline isn’t simply on a vacation or something charming like that. She is involved in something hideous, something unspeakable; and after committing a crime, she may have to pay for it with her life.
For a film with satanists as its antagonists, The Seventh Victim is a surprisingly mature movie, where the foes are not fire-breathing devils but rather people you could pass by on the street without even noticing something strange. As Mary descends into a progressively alarming situation, we can’t help but be even more frightened than she is; she believes that she’s going to reunite with her sister in harmony, but we know that something much more evil is circling around her whereabouts. In a way, this is the most unsettling thing about the film. Because we know so much and because Mary knows so little, we instinctively want to protect her. But like her sister, we know that we’re much too far in over our head to make any major changes.
The story may not stick with you, but its images will. In her brief appearance, Jean Brooks, covered in thick furs and surrounded by an onyx mane, makes a statement, looking like an apotheosis of the crossroads between good and evil. The infamous shower scene, an obvious precursor to the carnage of Psycho, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion that only enhances the indirect jolts of the film. Cat People, along with The Seventh Victim are the best films to come out of the Lewton cannon; shame about the overrated others. B+