Lewton at RKO

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The Seventh Victim

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 26, 2015

Another Val Lewton thriller from RKO. This is a real curiosity, a strange stop and start thing. (Plus it’s about Satanists, produced right in the middle of the production code period. What on earth?!) The protagonist, played by a very fresh-faced Kim Hunter, finds herself in a situation much like Jane Eyre’s—an unsympathetic boarding school and all. She walks out of that frying pan and into this fire; a situation that is loaded w’ dark portent, and populated by people who won’t tell her what’s going on. We empathize, since audience members empathize with protagonists. So far, so hermaneutically conventional. It’s in the imparting of information, and in the fact that none of the revelations seem to dispel the darkness at all, that The Seventh Victim most distinguishes itself. (If you find that a distinction, that is.)  

The downward spiral starts with that assistant instructor’s whispered urge for the Hunter character to get the hell out of there. This is very unsettling, and very effective. That feeling only increases, partly because of the very well crafted sequences that follow, and partly because of the elusiveness and uncertainty of the whole. The missing sister is a nice conceit, through which other effective and unpleasant things get introduced. (Downstairs to the Dante restaurant, eh?) The entire section with Mr. August, the P.I., is masterful. Finally, we might think. An adult, and a male adult. We’re going to get to the bottom of all of this! But then Mr. August becomes inexplicably, disproportionately afraid. Then he goes into that room, and emerges more frightened yet. And then he dies. With never an explanation! Here is the famous Lewton indirectness, his horror by implication. You film kids should try it.  

But this is not just technique. Ideas are attached, and they’re not particularly nice ones. August’s kindness gets him killed, and not a thing comes of it—at this moment, and in this film, merely generic and commercial horror suddenly descends into nihilism. The conventional wisdom is that after the Lewton cycle, A-grade American film horror kind of took a break, moved into sci-fi hybrids, never quite fully returning until Psycho and such. Maybe, but the seeds of a dire future are being planted right here. Roman Polanski may or may not know this film, but he certainly channeled it as his work turned more and more hopelessly infernal (cf. the dire conclusions to Repulsion, The Fearless Vampire Killers…, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant…)

When we finally meet them, the Satanists are so wan and affectless. Not at all what you’d expect. It’s another unsettlingly effective dramatic choice (forward to Jacques Tourneur’s Night of/Curse of the Demon [1957]). When it comes down to it the missing sister’s creepy husband and that poet are also pretty wan and affectless. Something isn’t right with these men, and with the burgeoning romances that they’re half-heartedly essaying. Apart from the not inconsiderable problem that the Hunter character is way underage, it’s like they keep forgetting the woman that they’re allegedly looking for. L’Aventura? Satanists or not, there are no lasting bonds here, and nothing seems to mean anything.   

Here’s a shower scene, in which that lady just walks right in on the other young lady! Now they’re hinting at gender-quakes; this is a very enterprising movie! Whirlwinds on the horizon.   

Eventually, Lewton & Co. decide to answer some plot questions for us. Here’s the missing sister Jacqueline, finally, and all the devil worshipers, and they’re requiring that she kill herself. Given this affair’s general hopelessness, it’s a bit of a surprise when the devil worshipers end up letting her go. But this is only to allow her to go through this terrific montage sequence, to experience this brief and very vivid infernal passage. Some prospect!: murder on the one hand, eating and drinking unto soul-annihilation on the other.   

In the next scene we get a surprising bit of Sunday School. The doctor and the poet meet back up with the bad guys, to whom they issue a rebuke. It’s about time that someone stated the obvious! This is muted, but compared with the context it registers as really bright. The Production Code probably demanded it, but so did the dramatic situation, and it really works. These non-Satanist characters briefly stir themselves, and we stir with them. They deliver a simple sentiment, but does it register! Forgive us our trespasses. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Frisson!   

The Seventh Vicitm ends with a structurally daring epilogue. They’ve gone and switched protagonists on us. Though we’ve lost sight of her, we guess that the Kim Hunter character is situated, and happily. And sister Jacqueline? You know how in Shakespeare’s tragedies the victor gets the last word? (Fortinbras in Hamlet, Albany in Lear, etc.) Well, here too, and pretty horribly. In the film’s final shot Jacqueline meets a tubercular neighbour on the landing just outside her door. The neighbour has been sickly and cowering, but now she decides to go out for a last fling before she expires. Mind you there’s no joy in it, no assertion of spirit in the face of mortality. Look at them both: The Sickness Unto Death. This final meeting of Consumption and Despair is so dark as to leave the taste of dirt in your mouth. The sickly woman goes down to degradation, while Jacqueline enters her room and closes her door and leaves us with the sound of the chair’s thump and the gallows drop. A text is superimposed on the screen. “I run to death and death meets me as fast. And all my pleasures are like yesterday.” John Donne as a spokesman for godless despair, eh? B movies!