Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Seventh Victim

Screw your torture porn: Give me the slowly building menace of a Val Lewton horror every time.
 The Seventh Victim is part of the series of darkly brilliant films Lewton produced for RKO. One would ask why a film now seen as a classic by a revered writer/producer would qualify as craptacular, but bear in mind that RKO was considered a bit of a second-class studio and this was horror back in an era where the genre was second-class by definition.
The Seventh Victim initially may seem like a conventional whodunnit--well, more accurately, a whereisshe--but it's got a deep streak of nihilism and a sense of doom hangs over it from the start, and not just because it opens with a trip to the principal's office. Our heroine, Mary, is summoned by the Head Dyke in Charge at her boarding school to be told that her tuition hasn't been paid and her older sister is missing. HDIC offers to let her stay on and work for her room and board but, as she leaves, HDIC's timid femme companion warns her: "Don't come back. No matter if you never find your sister. No matter what happens to you."
Mary makes her way to New York City and begins searching for her sister. She goes to the missing persons office of existential despair, where she runs across a rather weasely private eye type. 
She goes to the cosmetics company/spa that her sister owned to find that it's apparently been sold. The new Head  Dyke in Charge claims to have no idea where her sister is--but, as we saw back at school, behind every HDIC is a timid little femme who's willing to provide some information...
In a small Italian restaurant on Perry Street (the likes of which have been completely gentrified out of New York) she meets the couple who own the restaurant and who knew her sister , as well as writer's block-ed poet Jason. The latter joins in her search, the former spend a lot of time pouring wine and espresso and saying vague and wise things. (Definitely more useful in times of crisis.)
Mary also runs across Gregory, her sister's lawyer... and husband. She also makes the acquaintance of Jacqueline's psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd, who is played by Tom Conway. If Tom Conway seems like an ersatz George Sanders, it's because he's Sanders' younger brother. Dr. Judd has the same name and a similar demeanor as the psychiatrist in Lewton's Cat People--although Judd dies in Cat People, so we must assume that The Seventh Victim happens earlier in the Lewtonverse.
Another thing that happens often in the Lewtonverse is the "night walk," in which a character walks alone through darkened streets as suspense mounts and several false surprises are launched before the final, actual shock. We get several of them in The Seventh Victim, as Mary and Jacqueline each take their tense nocturnal stroll through the city.
Another constant from the Lewtonverse is the presence of Elizabeth Russell, who also appeared in Lewton's Cat People, Curse of the Cat People and Bedlam. Here she plays Mimi, a neighbor who is doing the slow fade from consumption.
Mary's search for her sister is mostly your classic hero's journey, recast as a noir film about a teenage girl's coming of age with a side dish of supernatural horror. Mary ventures into the big city, meets various allies and opponents, thinks of turning back but instead adapts to her new surroundings and plunges forward. She's played by Kim Hunter, who would earn an Academy Award as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and later play Zira in Planet of the Apes.
After some night walks and much fussing amongst the gentlemen, we discover that the "exciting and unforgettable" Jacqueline had fallen in with a group called the Palladists. Has she disappeared, or is she just hiding? And if she's hiding, where? And from who?
Jacqueline, with her black bangs, black fur coat and eternal pessimism--"I've always wanted to die"--is goth as all get out and clearly the coolest chick in the film. She's a bit like a cynical, death-bent Blanche DuBois wearing Bettie Page's hair and Louise Brooks' perfume. She is played by Jean Brooks aka Jeanne Kelly aka Ruby Kelly aka Robina Duarte--she changed stage names a lot after being discovered by Erich Von Stroheim while she was singing in the lounge at the Waldorf-Astoria. She made another Val Lewton film, The Leopard Man, but mostly worked in westerns and horror flicks, eventually dying of complications from alcoholism at 47.
But back to the film! It seems that "Palladist" is just a schmancy word for devil-worshipper. However, this group of Satanists isn't sacrificing babies or tormenting peasants or unleashing hordes of maggots--they're a pretty ordinary-seeming bunch, but their normalcy makes them even more chilling. Because it never is the fire-breathing horned monster that gets you: It's being ground down by the incessant nagging, the peer pressure, the adherence to nonsensical rules...
So much more enigmatic and chic than that silly pentagram-goat's head thing....

Like any fine art film, nightclub or romance, The Seventh Victim is all atmosphere and philosophy. It is said that when a RKO exec chided Val Lewton about films with messages, Lewton responded, "Our film does have a message and the message is: Death is good!"

Like all of Lewton's films, The Seventh Victim was under-appreciated in its time, but has since grown in influence and prestige: There are echoes this film in Psycho, Rosemary's Baby and numerous lesser flicks. It's not horror in the maniacs with machetes sense, but its eerie atmosphere and gloomy outlook will haunt you long after the credits have rolled.

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