My Horror Movie Project Part 3: The Seventh Victim (1943)
In 1942 the highly innovative but extremely free spending director Orson Welles hadplaced RKO Studio in serious financial trouble. As a reaction, they ushered in a new production chief, Charles Koerner. Proclaiming that RKO would focus on “entertainment, not genius”, he created a B movie horror division to make films super fast, super cheap, and hopefully, super profitable. They tabbed story editor and novelist Val Lewton to produce projects with miniscule budgets and three week shooting schedules. About the only things RKO gave Lewton to work with were titles that they had test marketed like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, along with left over sets from “serious” movies like Citizen Kane.
The nine films Lewton and his collaborators created between 1942 and 1946 were highly successful and played a huge role in saving the studio. In Lewton, RKO got two things they likely hadn’t bargained for. First, he treated the material as a serious auteur. He dictated set design, worked with his directors to achieve a strikingly noirish visual style, and personally rewrote several of the scripts. The other thing Lewton brought was a brooding preoccupation with death and psychological darkness that permeates the entire series. One of the Lewtons that I hadn’t seen before, The Seventh Victim, is entry # 3 in my horror movie project.
Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) is dismissed from Highcliffe Academy when she is informed that her sister Jacqueline is several months behind in tuition and can’t be located. Mary heads to New York City to search for her, and along the way gets entangled with murder, devil worshipers, and a heavy dose of Lewton’s take on The Meaning of Life.
I have to admit that Val Lewton’s films present something of a dilemma for me. I totally admire how he took RKO’s shoestring budgets and lurid titles and developed a fresh take on the genre. Lewton finds his horror not in fantastic creations of “otherness” as offered at Universal, but rather in the troubled souls and minds of his very human characters. The Lewton series, along with the seminal British film, Dead of Night (1945), are arguably the beginning of the modern horror film.
Stylistically, he became expert at an aesthetic using that which is Unseen to build tension and spark the imagination of the audience. Famous illustrations of this technique like the swimming pool stalking scene in Cat People (1942) and the young girl’s ill-fated walk to get cornmeal in The Leopard Man (1943) are genre gems of lasting quality.
But I think my ultimate problem with Lewton’s films is that there is just too much Lewton. His personal vision is so despairingly dark that the audience is never allowed to come up for air, even for a moment. It is no accident that collaborators Robert Wise (The Haunting 1960) and Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon 1957) produced their best horror efforts after they were free from Lewton’s thematic agenda.
There are few films as relentlessly death obsessed as those in the Lewton series, but the The Seventh Victim shows Val at his most funereal. The film starts and ends with an excerpt from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets,
“I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;”
When Mary gets to New York to start the search she visits a morgue where the words, “He Calleth all his Children by their Name” are carved in huge stone letters on the front of the building. When Mary finds a job in a nursery school so she can continue looking for her sister, she finishes a kindergarten sing along with this festive verse,
“Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.”
Did I tell you Val was relentless?
Anyway, the movie evolves into two offsetting stories. First there is Mary, who is told by a young teacher to never come back to Highcliffe, and that “One must have courage to really live in the world.” Mary’s courage is tested by a New York that is full of unhappy, isolated people. Never one to pass up a literary allusion, Lewton names the restaurant where characters often meet the Dante, and Mary must fight through the hellishness around her not only to find her sister, but also to begin to actually grow up. Through it all Mary is essentially hopeful and remains steadfastly loyal to her sister.
Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks) is not on screen until well into the action, but with her Cleopatra hair style and ever present fur coat, she is a striking figure. You might say she is Lewtons’ alter ego, as well as Mary’s opposite. She rents a room above the Dante that she never uses. It contains only two things – a chair and a hangman’s noose. She had been a member of a satanic cult but when she tried to break away she became targeted as the seventh victim of the title. Jacqueline is fearful, drained, and erratic.
First time director Mark Robson had a tough act to follow in Jacques Tourneur, but does a creditable job. Along with Lewton’s excellent regular cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, he crafts some creatively tense scenes. Mary and a private detective named August break into La Sagesse, a cosmetics company that Jacqueline owned, suspecting that she may be in a room at the end of a long, dark hallway. As the anxious August vanishes from view, we see Mary from behind in the darkened building. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, the La Sagesse logo is briefly superimposed on the back of Mary’s top coat. Moments later, August staggers back to Mary and dies at her feet from a stab wound. We learn later that this logo is also the insignia for the devil cult. There is also a scene when Mary’s shower is interrupted by Mrs. Redi, the new owner of LaSagesse. It is shot from inside the shower, so all we see is a dark figure obscured by the shower curtain. She warns Mary to stop looking for Jacqueline, adding that it was her sister who killed August. The clever distancing of Mrs. Redi from Mary as just a shape and a menacing voice makes her seem all the more threatening, and Mary even more vulnerable.
SPOILERS FROM NOW ON –
Jacqueline’s story is played out in three sequences that comprise the film’s final thirteen minutes. First the cult abducts her, trying to browbeat her into drinking poison. When she appears to weaken and reaches for the glass, one of the other members slaps it away, exclaiming what I interpret to be as close to a declaration of lesbian love as could be permitted in 1943.
Moments later the cult sets her free, but only because they have arranged for a switchblade wielding hit man to intercept Jacqueline on her way home. After another tense Lewton Walk he does catch her, and just at the moment of attack a door flies open and a gang of costumed actors spill out, looking for a post-show party. The attacker flees, and Jacqueline stumbles back to the Dante. She walks upstairs and pauses before the room (number 7, of course) with the chair and the noose.
She is interrupted by the appearance of Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), an obviously ill woman who lives down the hall. They have the following remarkable exchange:
JACQUELINE (weakly): Who are you?
MIMI: I'm Mimi -- I'm dying.
MIMI: Yes. It's been quiet, oh ever so quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps coming all the time -—closer and closer. I rest and rest and yet I am dying.
JACQUELINE: And you don't want to die. I've always wanted to die -- always.
MIMI: I'm afraid. I'm tired of being afraid – of waiting.
JACQUELINE: Why wait?
MIMI: (with sudden determination) I'm not going to wait. I'm going out -- laugh, dance -- do all the things I used to do.
JACQUELINE: And then?
MIMI: I don't know.
JACQUELINE: (very softly and almost with envy) You will die.
The film’s final moments show Mimi, decked out in sequins, walking down the hallway. As she passes Room # 7 she hears a heavy thud. After a momentary pause she continues down the stairway and out into the night as we hear Jacqueline’s voice recite Donne’s lines one last time.
Despite my reservations, The Seventh Victim is worth seeing. Some film scholars consider it Lewton’s masterpiece. However, if you have never seen a Lewton produced thriller, I would steer you first to Cat People or a later Robson film, Isle of the Dead as an introduction to his unique style. Then, if you are not subject to bouts of depression, you might visit the bleak world of The Seventh Victim, a movie that says that the best thing about life is death.