Welcome to the latest edition of Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. I’ve gushed about Val Lewton in the past with examinations of Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944). It’s no secret that “the man in the shadows” is one of the most influential creatives of classic horror. But for June, I thought we might counter that summer sunshine with a look at one of his darkest films, 1943’s The Seventh Victim.
Horror Visionary at a Crossroad
After making a series of genre-defining, psychologically deep, and powerful horror films for RKO, producer Val Lewton was stepping into a new era. He was about to make his first film without his longtime collaborator, director Jacques Tourneur. Together with Tourneur, Lewton had made Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). All three were revolutionary horror masterpieces, guided by Lewton’s signature vision of ambiguous, existential horror, and crafted by Tourneur’s moody, noir-inspired direction.
Now, Lewton was ready to create his most personal film yet, with a new director by his side, first timer Mark Robson. Robson had previously worked as an assistant on Citizen Kane, so he had experience with groundbreaking cinematography and direction. Lewton was always a very involved producer, overseeing the filmmaking so closely that he is considered to be the auteur of his films. For this next film, Lewton worked closely with the new director.
The result, 1943’s The Seventh Victim, is Lewton’s most complex, personal, nihilistic, and divisive film. It was criticized at the time for its convoluted plot and was a box office flop, possibly due to its thoroughly bleak outlook on the world as much as its story. But today, we can regard The Seventh Victim as a bold and boundary-breaking horror film, flawed but a masterpiece nonetheless.
Devils and Depression
The Seventh Victim opens with a quote from John Donne, “I run to death, and death meets me as fast / and all my pleasures are like yesterday.” It’s a morbid start that sets the tone for the rest of the story.
Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) is a young woman living at a Catholic boarding school with tuition paid by her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). Mary is an orphan raised by her glamorous sister, who owns a cosmetics company in New York. When Mary is informed that her sister has stopped paying her tuition, she leaves for the city to find her and make sure nothing has happened.
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As Mary navigates New York City, she investigates the cosmetics company that her sister owned, shocked to learn that Jacqueline sold it months ago without telling her. Tirelessly investigating in Greenwich Village, she eventually encounters Jacqueline’s secret husband (Hugh Beaumont), her psychiatrist (Tom Conway), and a poet struggling with writer’s block (Erford Gage) who quickly falls for Mary and commits to helping her find her sister.
The set up for The Seventh Victim plays like a missing person crime thriller, fitting for the film’s noir sensibilities and Greenwich Village setting. In fact, the script was initially a serial killer noir before being rewritten from scratch by DeWitt Bodeen and Val Lewton.
The Seventh Victim shows a grim center from early on, as Mary investigates a room she learns her sister rented some time ago but never visits. After the kindly couple who own the Italian Restaurant downstairs give her the key, she discovers an empty room containing nothing but a chair and noose hanging from the ceiling. This is a film about depression, existential despair, and suicide. It’s relentlessly grim and therein lies the horror of it. Mary eventually discovers that her depressed sister, searching for meaning, had joined a cult of Satanists that operate in secret in Greenwich Village. The devil worshiper angle was inspired by a real cult that Bodeen stumbled upon while living in NYC, and predates the similar and famously unexpected plotline of Rosemary’s Baby by nearly thirty years.
The discovery of the Satanists leads to some of Val Lewton’s famously haunting horror sequences. In one, Mary and a private investigator explore Jacqueline’s former cosmetics company after hours. A foreboding, locked door frightens Mary, so the investigator explores it himself. We remain in the hall with Mary as her companion vanishes into the impenetrable film noir shadows that characterize Lewton’s horror films. The sequence is short, with no music and only subtle diegetic sound. Lewton rarely used music to build tension, lending to the unnerving power of his brand of horror.
Another sequence that stands out bears a striking resemblance to one of the most iconic horror scenes of all time. It’s the Pyscho shower scene without the stabbing, and it’s still pretty darn frightening. In it, a member of the cult breaks into Mary’s apartment and confronts her while she’s showering. We only see them in silhouette through the shower curtain in a shot almost identical to the iconic scene from Psycho. Instead of murdering Mary, the intruder merely threatens her. It’s bizarre and unnerving, and a clear inspiration for Hitchcock’s film.
Themes for Today
The Seventh Victim was criticized at the time for what contemporaries said was a confusing plot and a lack of focus. Some of this could be due to some expository scenes that were cut from the film prior to release. But I would argue that the dreamlike atmosphere only adds to the power of the film and that The Seventh Victim has a strong thematic focus that 1943 audiences weren’t ready for.
The film has a notable queer subtext that is undeniable to modern audiences. In fact, many critics of the time noticed it, though they reacted to it as merely a baffling plot choice. Jacqueline has a close emotional bond and implied romantic past with Frances (Isabel Jewell), a woman from her company and a member of the cult. It’s notable that despite the fact that they’re involved in devil worship, Jacqueline and Frances are portrayed with sympathy and their relationship has a rare redemptive effect that is not found elsewhere in the grim world of the film. This subplot has made The Seventh Victim a cult classic among the intersection of queer culture and classic horror fans.
The Seventh Victim has plenty of eerie sequences, but it’s the film’s existential despair that makes it horrific. It paints a picture of an isolating New York City, far from the glamorous urban dreamscape that many other films of the time portrayed. It’s a place full of empty alleys and lonely people who are grasping at anything that could keep them going. The climactic sequence has Jacqueline running from death past alleyways, brownstones and stage doors, only to finally reject life and walk toward mortality willingly. I won’t spoil it, but The Seventh Victim has one of the bleakest and most poetic endings in horror.
Throughout all of his films, Val Lewton examined crises of existence, mental illness, social injustice, and our collective fear of death. It was these timeless themes that made his horror so effective and paved the way for the modern horror film. But with its blunt and hopeless examination of mortality, The Seventh Victim is perhaps his most direct look at death.
Val Lewton’s films each predicted modern horror in their own way and The Seventh Victim was a noteworthy trailblazer for psychological horror dealing with depression and suicide, as well as having a queer subtext far ahead of its time. It won’t uplift you, but it will stick with you. And if that isn’t good horror, I don’t know what is.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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