Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: The Seventh Victim

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I'll slowly re-post the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting my review of the 1943 Val Lewton thriller, The Seventh Victim. The review was originally published on January 12, 2009.

After watching one of his films, a friend of Val Lewton asked the director, "What is this film trying to say?" Lewton's alleged response was simply, "Death is good." A hard sell to audiences even today; but Val Lewton produced nine horror films unlike anything audiences had ever seen back in the early 1940s. RKO Studios was looking to produce a series of horror movies to cash in on the trend that had made Universal Studios so much money in the 1930s. Lewton was hired to produce these films; but saddled with strict budgetary requirements and a string of titles chosen by the studio (ranging from the corny The Cat People to the unintentionally hilarious I Walked With a Zombie ... both recommended, by the way). Val Lewton chose to use these restrictions to his advantage, using shadow and ambiguous plotlines to suggest horrors that he could never afford to actually show.

In The Seventh Victim, Mary (Kim Hunter) is a young woman who goes to New York in search of her missing sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). What she uncovers is a cult of devil worshipers. At one point, it is revealed that, in their past, the cult has murdered six people in order to protect their secrets and Jacqueline may well become the seventh.

The Seventh Victim is a film that deals with contradictions. The devil worshipers, although portrayed as evil, are also pacifists (acknowledging that violence can turn on itself and accidentally accomplish good). It turns out that Jacqueline is both suicidal and fleeing for her life. By the end of the film, it could be argued that everyone gets exactly what they want; but none of them are happy.

Val Lewton's low-budget scare tactics are still effective today and still used (with varying success) in both low- and big-budget films. The use of shadows, both real and thematic, places The Seventh Victim in the film noir category of that time.  The sophisticated devil worshipers in Greenwich Village bear more than a passing resemblance to the Satanists who graced the screen some thirty years later in Rosemary's Baby. It's a moody piece that unsettles without any overt violence and well worth checking out.

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