The horror…: “The Seventh Victim”

November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s difficult to view and appraise – without growing resentment – a film that is considered by some prominent critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum being chief amongst them) to be the or at least one of the crowning achievements in renowned B-picture producer Val Lewton’s relatively small but influential filmography. Said difficulty presents itself not too long after director Mark Robson’s “The Seventh Victim” hits its stride, if one can call it that – more like a slow, anergic trudge – and morphs into a resounding disappointment by the time the literally clunky final shot rolls around. The film is frequently noted for having a bizarre plot, an odd assessment of a narrative that can be synopsised thusly: high-schooler Mary Gibson (played by a serviceable Kim Hunter) goes in search of her death-wishing older sister Jaqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks looking very much like her surnamesake Louise Brooks), a cultist who has gone into hiding after evoking the bloodlust of her brethren by seeing a psychiatrist and possibly exposing their secrets. So plot-wise, this is no “The Big Sleep.” The film has also been praised for its noirish poetry though there is not one shot or sequence worth recalling, unless perhaps the creepy scene during which Mary Gibson re-encounters Lou Lubin’s dead detective in a deserted subway car, or the admittedly haunting shot of Jacqueline Gibson sitting in a chair, surrounded by black-clad ex-fellow Satanists, debating whether or not to commit suicide on their terms or on hers. Betsy Connell’s eerie jungle sojourn in “I Walked with a Zombie” and Alice Moore’s high-heeled jogs through chillingly empty New York City streets or her night-time pool swim in the brilliant “Cat People” evoke a thrilling and protracted sense of dread matched by nothing in “The Seventh Victim.” The soundscapes in the former two pictures, both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (for Val Lewton), are simply rich enough, detailed enough to complement the visual sparseness and simplicity that renders those films perfect for preying upon a viewer’s jumpy imagination. Conversely, “The Seventh Victim” seems somewhat deprived, as though the film begs that the viewer pretend to be terrified by the mystery of a missing woman or by the presence of the occult in Greenwich Village, rather than enticing them to give in to the terror that should already nag at them, incited by the contents of the movie itself. Where the best of the best B-grade horror productions from the forties and fifties – and all periods for that matter – circumvent their lack of funds/resources by turning want into ascetic efficiency and poetic minimalism and ensuring that silence and stillness manifest as resounding emotional disquiet, this 1943 film simply feels demoralised by its low-budget status.

“The Seventh Victim” seems to be frequently described within the same breath as being both a horror and a noir; perhaps a noirish horror or a horror noir? But where exactly does the horror reside? Assumedly, its credentials as a chiller are founded in its occult/supernatural leanings, but this picture desperately needs an injection of “Rosemary’s Baby” or even “The Wicker Man” where Satanism is concerned. The band of cultists at the centre of Jacqueline Gibson’s disappearance may be portrayed in the way that they are – refined in a callous way, bourgeoisie more than bohemian – in order to capitalise on the notion of ‘the banality of evil’; that these people are frightening precisely because they may very well be your folks’ lawyer or your aunt’s obstetrician but that they would also gladly feast on your dripping, severed neck (though they probably wouldn’t). This is exactly the case with “Rosemary’s Baby”, the only palpable dissimilarity being that there is a chasm of difference in the energy that the two respective groups of actors bring to their portrayals of ‘evil’ with an urbane face. This is not to say that every actor must dominate their scenes like Ruth Gordon does in Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but how can one be terrified by a tired band of tarot card enthusiasts – which is how Jacqueline Gibson’s mob come across, either this or the ‘passively’ powerful illuminati – or whatever demonic force it is that they represent, especially when their ineffectuality if confirmed in a hokey scene towards the end of the film in which the Lord’s Prayer is wielded like a paper sword against a dead adversary?

Maybe the noir angle is the most interesting element of the film, the depressive rut that Jacqueline seems to be in for the film’s entirety and which culminates in a final moment that so desperately wants to be bittersweet but which seems rather blah. It must be said that the idea of a key character who maintains a room with a noose and stool in place so as to maintain her sense of self-determination is worthy of sitting up and taking notice, and it is somewhat surprising to hear ‘suicide’ and similar terms bandied about with relative candidness in a picture from this period. One can only imagine that such a morbid outlook would have made hairs stand erect on the backs of neck and arms when the film first premiered, and that the deeply coy depictions of ‘sordid’ lifestyles and realities – lesbianism, the occult, suicidality and fatalism – would have made for a potentially potent stew of fear and dread in a then contemporary audience, but once this era-dependent effect is made redundant with time, the film must maintain its powers of terror on either an intellectual or a deeply primal level, or at the very least possess undeniable artistic merits, something that a film like “Cat People” does with such elegance and assurance.

The dismay this movie inspires is sadly not allayed by the acting. Jacqueline, when she appears, not only fails to live up to her apparently heart-stopping beauty but bears none of the eeriness of the titular character from Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, though it must be said that she is at least a moderately intriguing presence, the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the picture, perhaps apart from down on his luck poet Jason Hoag or Dr Judd, the psychiatrist. There is an element of exhaustion to the performances, particularly after the film hits its midway point. Movies from this period, especially American studio ones, display a certain type of acting that seems very conscious of blocking (the way in which actors move and position themselves within the confines of set and the camera’s view of it). In the best pictures from this period, this very ‘staged’ approach is simply part of the artistic fabric. There is a certain theatre, a formality and structure to the dance of actors around each other and across the set that compliments and is complimented by all other elements in these films; it can be like beholding a tango or waltz, appreciating how grace and beauty can be supported, even enhanced, by such stricture and rigid technique. But when there is something lacking – be it actors with range or presence, a screenplay with narrative originality or linguistic flair, or bold, visionary images – this ‘blocking’ becomes transparent and rote and it becomes clear how little else there is.

How many things are more disheartening than sitting down to view an apparent masterpiece and walking away having seen what you’d swear was a dud? It’s enough to make one doubt what one even considers good cinema.

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