The Seventh Victim: Horror, Noir and Satanic Cults

 


Val Lewton before producing The Seventh Victim, had already produced a few other films at his horror unit in RKO Radio Pictures: Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man had all been made with director Jacques Tourneur, and had all been somewhat successful (Cat People being a little more so), but with this film, he went with director Mark Robson, in his directorial debut after being an assistant on one of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and while Tourneur’s work was eerie, mythological and rich, what Robson brought to a Lewton production proved to be infinitely more sinister and frightening. Diving into strong themes such as satanism and suicide and hinting at taboo subjects such as homosexuality, The Seventh Victim cloaked a classic noir narrative with an eerie plot, and the result is what you would expect: a flop upon release, but a cult classic ever since.

The story revolves around Mary Gibson (played by Kim Hunter in her screen debut), a student at a boarding school, who discovers that her sister had disappeared in New York for months and stopped paying her tuition, so she leaves the school to go the big city and try to find her sister, but in the process, comes upon murder, a large mystery and a satanic cult behind it all.

The film plays like a film noir from a female perspective, that is one where the female characters are the core and don’t succumb to the classic stereotypes of femme fatale and redeemer: you could characterize a noir narrative as an everyday person caught in a web of crime and up against a seemingly unstoppable villain, and here, the character of Mary perfectly matches that description. Organized crime is swapped for a satanic cult and the simple idea of crime is swapped with cultist rituals, and that gives the story its horror themes. The film for the most part tries to juggle with the two narratives, and that is its biggest appeal and simultaneously, its biggest flaw.

A rocky post-production and several cuts to the film that shrank its runtime to just over an hour result in an inconsistent pacing: tense segments are scattered and separated by some rather dull scenes which proves threatening to the crucially gripping pacing a noir and horror film should have. Again, like Cat People the year before, The Seventh Victim was criticized for its performances, but I feel that an amateurishly naïve performance proves to be a lot more immersive in the case of a story like this.

An area where the film shines however is its cinematography, which is probably more noir than anything made before Double Indemnity: rich shadows, curious angles and beautiful compositions, The Seventh Victim is a joy to look at. From the opening sequence which is heavy in both symbolism and effect, the film establishes an incredibly moody feel that lasts for its entirety; every scene is shrouded in beautiful shadows and makes the large setting of New York feel as menacing, and in this case, as eerie, as any noir set in the big apple.

Val Lewton’s films are very heavy in their narratives, and quite morbid as well, they have the classic noir thematic of a character trapped in a web of crime, but the only escape for Lewton’s characters is death. In The Seventh Victim, it is amplified by satanic rituals and heavy symbology, and the film opts for description rather than depiction, which proves to be extremely more frightening: the strongest scenes are depicted through a sound, a reaction on an outside spectator or a mere hint, even the ending is done in the same fashion. Val Lewton’s son, in a 2003 interview, complained that the ending should have been just a few seconds longer to let it truly sink it. Maybe that’s true, but what we got was bone-chilling.

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