January 6 - The Seventh Victim
A young woman in an all girls’ boarding school discovers that her tuition has not been paid in six months, throwing the stability of her life into question. But fortunately, this isn’t Picnic at Hanging Rock, and this woman’s headmistress is much kinder, even offering to pay her way to New York to track down the missing check-signer, who in this case happens to be the woman’s sister. As the woman turns to leave, one of her teachers follows her and tells her to not come back; it is time for her to be in the world, making me think that I’ve missed some important context about girls’ schools in the ‘40s. So begins The Seventh Victim, one of the strangest and darkest horror films in the catalog of early American cinema.
Young Mary’s search of New York for her missing sister, Jacqueline, is more noir than horror. She encounters shady characters, an ineffective police force, and a parade of men who I honestly found hard to keep straight. The plot is dense for its short runtime, and I understand why contemporary reviewers found the film baffling and confusing; I wouldn’t have minded a cheat-sheet. Jacqueline herself disappears and reappears like a regular McGuffin – perhaps she’s in the back room of the cosmetics business she recently sold, or she is taking shelter with her psychiatrist, bringing an enigmatic finger to her lips and vanishing again.
We soon learn, through some convenient library sleuthing and a scene of an ominous vote, that Jacqueline fell in with the wrong crowd, some silly Satanists! Closer to Victorian occultists than the Mansony commune-dwelling Satanists of our day, these Satanists are suave, well-spoken Greenwich Village dwellers. They have a very strict code of secrecy and any one who breaks it must die – in their order’s history, six have had this fate. Jacqueline would be the seventh. But the order has an equally strict dedication to nonviolence – unusual for silly Satanists. They plan to get around this by talking Jacqueline to death, that is, convincing her to commit suicide. She was always pretty depressed anyway, so it shouldn’t be too hard, right?
Beyond the talkyness of the mystery, The Seventh Victim is a gloomy mood piece, grasping for psychological and philosophical depth in a way uncommon to horror movies of the era. I did find myself bored through some of it (bad moviegoer me); it’s not a film that invites you in, especially if you’re not familiar with the cinematic conventions of the 1940s. But it’s worth sticking around for, for the moody style that presages the serious horror movies that would come after, for the very fact a movie this glum – and this dodgy with the Code – could be made at all. In recent years, this movie has justly gained a reputation as a cinematic pioneer, and is worth your time.
The Talent: Horror film scholars who cover the ‘40s love the fuck out of producer Val Lewton’s shadowy, thoughtful horror, representing some of the first “artsy” horror cinema in the US. My favorite of his remains Cat People. Many of the cast went on to such cultural touchstones as Leave it to Beaver and A Streetcar Named Desire but sadly Jean Brooks, who portrayed Jacqueline and in my opinion had the most screen presence of anyone even in her limited screen time, didn’t go on to do much after this.
Subgenre: Noir, mystery, with a dash of occultism
Story Type/Archetypes: Very much a solving-the-mystery kind of horror, with lots of running about to gather clues and uncover the secret society
Sense of Place: Though it is a favorite location of fish-out-of-water comedies, character study dramas, rom-coms, and superhero fight scenes, New York gets comparatively little love from the horror genre. Off the top of my head, there’s Gremlins 2, Inferno, Street Trash, C.H.U.D., Rear Window, and this movie along with its sister film Cat People. (That may seem like a lot, but think about all the horror movies that are set in Some Suburb Somewhere). Mary’s journey to New York is the reverse of most of the movies I’ve watched so far this month, which feature characters traveling away from cities and into the uncharted unknown. Still, I’m not sure how New Yorky it all feels – everyone seems to know everyone!
Mood: Settles on pessimistic, but it waffles
Are there heroes?: Gee-whiz Mary
encounters a variety of indistinguishable men, all representing various ways of
thinking about the world – we have a poet, a psychiatrist (very important in
horror, and in Satanic panics to come), and a lawyer. It’s a set-up for a few
philosophical convos. Also they all seem to be in love with Mary for some
reason. How old is she?
Who are the monsters (and why are they scary)?: For a while, I thought the Satanists might be depicted only vaguely as occultists, but they are confirmed specifically as “devil worshippers” towards the end. There are no rituals, human sacrifice, and certainly no evidence of Satan’s literal investment in the group. It’s much more about a nihilistic worship of evil.
This movie will freak you out of you’re creeped out by…: Secret societies, that one urban legend about the mom who disappears from her hotel room in Paris, psychological manipulation.
Is it a metaphor for something?: The speechifying of the screenplay wants to get at some deep ideas about why one might choose evil over good (although it’s not clear what evil means to the Satanists). Also, there’s a certain queer vibe – we’ll get to that.
Is there a twist?: Not particularly
What kind of ending is it?: A really fucking depressing one, let me just say. Shockingly for the Hays Code era, no one gets any comeuppance except the person who doesn’t much deserve it.
The girlfriend’s rating (i.e. how much would this upset my girlfriend?): PG-13, for just being a bummer really.
But how gay is it?: Ah so here we go. Jacqueline’s secret society, the Palladists, are based in Greenwich Village, are obsessed with secrecy, and are opposed to normal society, though we get very little information as to their actual activities. Are they a bunch of queers? Their membership includes a rather butchy woman as one of the head honchos, and it’s sweetheart Frances who is most attached to Jacqueline and tries to save her, so let’s just say perhaps…
And did it fit the daily theme?: As I’ve already mentioned, this is a fascinatingly different depiction of devil worshippers than what I’m used to. No out-of-control possessions or violence here. It’s extremely eerie in its incongruousness.
Goth Queens / Best Character: I’m adding this category so that I might add Jacqueline, along with Lady Sylvia, and Ruth the Witch to the Goth Queens Hall of Fame. I’ll make Picnic at Hanging Rock’s Sara an honorary member, though she is more of an Emo Queen.
Watch this if you enjoy: Classic film noir, striking and shadowy visuals, existential cinema.
Musical Accompaniment: Pretty standard-issue over-orchestrated ‘40s stuff as I remember. Not the movie’s strength.
Girlfriend’s Corner: This looked really neat, and I’m sad I missed it! Regrettably, I saw a number of very funny Twilight memes that commanded my attention instead. I think my choice was understandable, but I do have some regret over it.