If it’s a month with 31 days in it, you can be sure that Jules will be firing out the horror movie reviews.
So, following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August, Jules is once travelling across the pond this October with… you guessed it… 31 MORE Days of American Horror!
Director: Mark Robson
Starring: Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter
After making three stone-cold classics with Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton had established himself as a producer who could create magic with minimal resources.
Could he still capture lightning in a bottle without his genius director at the helm though? On the strength of The Seventh Victim alone, there’s absolutely no doubt at all that he could.
Even though RKO doubted his wisdom, Lewton brought in Mark Robson to direct. Robson, while already having assistant editor credits on Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificient Ambersons, as well as the three movies his producer had made with Tourneur under his belt, had never helmed a feature on his own.
Originally intended as a more straightforward murder mystery by writer Charles O’Neal, the plot was given a much more twisted makeover by Cat People writer DeWitt Bodeen after an encounter with some real-life Satanists.
The Seventh Victim is a unique, spellbinding film from the off, one that feels like a straight up noir to begin with, but takes so many twists and turns it’s dizzying, taking it away from what it seemed to be about and into darker, more philosophical territory. At its core it’s a love story still, but a love story about woman who’s in love with the idea of death itself…
Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) is a young woman at Catholic boarding school Highcliffe Academy, who learns that her older sister and only relative, Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks), has gone missing and has not paid her tuition in months.
Setting off to New York to find her, Mary l learns that her sister sold her cosmetics business eight months earlier, but her close friend and former employee, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), claims to have seen Jacqueline the week before.
Mary’s investigation leads her to Jacqueline’s secret husband, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont); a failed poet, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage); and a mysterious psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), as well as a rented but unlived in apartment that is unfurnished apart from a wooden chair and a noose hanging from the ceiling.
It emerges Jacqueline has been seeking treatment for depression stemming from her membership in a Satanic cult called the Palladists, who are now demanding she must die for revealing their secrets. Can Mary save her sister from the cult or does Jacqueline really need saved from herself first?
There’s a distinct pattern to Val Lewton’s horror output that sets him apart from the other producers in the genre at the time and The Seventh Victim once again ticks all his boxes.
Underneath a lurid title, Lewton’s approach would establish a very ordinary person, Ive who feels like they have a life when the camera isn’t on them, and slowly draw them into a world of horror and the supernatural, all the while keeping his powder dry by just suggesting at the horror encroaching on the lives of his characters.
It’s remarkable how much dread can be wrought from shadows and imagination, but you just need to be watch the gripping scene where one of the elderly cult l adhere breaks into Mary’s home while she’s taking a shower to see real terror from out of almost nothing. The Satanist in question is a middle-aged woman, merely whispering quiet threats, only visible in silhouette against the shower curtain, with the shape her hat suggesting devil horns. That’s it, nothing else, but it’s absolutely unsettling to say the least.
Later, when Jacqueline is sitting with the cult as they try to persuade her to kill herself, it’s a masterclass in understated menace. Jean Brooks cuts a striking figure, her jet black sharp fringe and stylish ensemble already setting her apart from this very bland, older Greenwich Village society Satanists that she’s found herself mixed up in.
Look at the high wings and back of the chair she’s been sat in, framing her like a painting, but reinforcing the closing in of the cultists on her already-damaged psyche. It’s unbearably tense, even though nobody is actually doing anything other than reminding her that she always wanted to kill herself, so why doesn’t she go ahead now? Her answer is wonderfully complex: “Yes, when I wanted to.”
Jacqueline looks like a vamp, but her body language betrays her mental state, shoulders drooped, nearly stumbling when she walks as if life itself was weighing her down, but still clinging onto life on her terms. She fears for her life being taken away from her, but does she actually want to be alive in the first place?
There’s a beautiful symmetry with her neighbour Mimi, who is terminally ill and looks it. The tragic woman is determined to go out on the town and seize every ounce of what life she’s got left, telling the young, vibrant and healthy (in body at least) Jacqueline of her plans as she stands outside that awful room of hers, the one she plans to use to throw away everything that Mimi so desperately craves. They’re both sick in their own ways, both doomed and destined to die alone, in a big city that’s swallowed them both up.
In her film debut, Kim Hunter makes for a strong lead in a story that could easily have her fade into the background. In her hands Mary is convincingly strong, knocking on doors and refusing to give up hope for her sister, but still feels like a young, frightened and lost girl, hopelessly out of her depth in not just an adult world, but one that’s much more sinister than she could have imagined.
It’s a world that Mark Robson wonderfully brings to life, modern and alive, but full of imposing angles and framing, from that first shot of the school’s staircase (previously seen on The Magnificent Ambersons) to the final, much less grand but infinitely more intense staircase leading from Jacqueline’s door.
Predating Rosemary’s Baby by some years, The Seventh Victim paints a terrifying picture of middle-class Satanism, where the nice couple down the hall could be devil-worshipping after a hard day at the office. Again, it’s Lewton a concept as innocuous walks home that turn deadly and tragic, doomed women – that the supernatural and the danger of imminent death are never far from even the most ordinary of lives. Devil worshippers in robes and goat masks are all very good, but real, terrifying evil? That’s the ones who look just like you.
What really makes The Seventh Victim though, is that when it comes down to it, it’s not about a Satanic cult in modern-day Nee York. Instead, it’s really about a young, woman who somehow draws people to her, both male and female (seriously, it feels like everyone is in love with her) but nobody can reach her, no matter how hard they try. She’s lost, she’s alone and the only thing she cares about is waiting for her in that sparsely decorated flat.
A classic? Most definitely. Val Lewton’s finest hour? Very, very possibly. It’s that good.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy