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November 2010

The Seventh Victim

cast: Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Hugh Beaumont, Erford Gage, and Tom Conway

director: Mark Robson

71 minutes (12) 1943
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Max Cairnduff


The 7th Victim poster

The Seventh Victim

Some films are much harder to review than others. The Seventh Victim is one of those films. As I write this, I'm still not sure if it's a flawed masterpiece or just plain bad. I'm not sure if it's a measured study in atmospheric horror, or just boring. What it definitely is; is one of RKO Radio Pictures' B-movie horrors produced by Val Lewton. It shares at least one character with 1942's Cat People, also produced by Lewton, and though it's definitely not up there with that classic it still has its moments and shows why Lewton is still remembered.

The Seventh Victim begins with schoolgirl Mary (Kim Hunter, in her first screen role) discovering from her headmistress that her sister Jacqueline has gone missing. The sister pays the school fees, and the only way Mary can remain is to become a teaching assistant. She decides though to go to New York to find out what's happened to her sister, and is urged on her way by an existing teacher in a scene that indicates some very strange power dynamics in the school (dynamics that are never afterwards explored, but that set the tone for much that follows).

In New York, Mary goes to Jacqueline's room, but finds it empty with a noose hanging from the ceiling. Jacqueline's business has been taken over by former employee Miss Cortez (Evelyn Brent) who claims Jacqueline gave it to her as a gift. Mary soon finds herself being assisted by a friend (and more than a friend) of Jacqueline's named Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), by failed poet Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), and by a private detective who takes pity on her after being warned off the case. When the private detective is murdered though, it becomes apparent that whatever's going on is serious and that wherever Jacqueline is she may be in a great deal of trouble.

The waters are muddied further by the appearance of Jacqueline's psychotherapist, Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway). He seems to know where she is, but is he protecting her or imprisoning her? Mary's investigations reveal that Jacqueline has become involved with a Satanist cult, and that she is now terrified of them. The air of peculiar menace established in the early scenes at Mary's school deepens, and soon the entire film becomes suffused with a sense of wrongness and unclear threat.

Whether you like The Seventh Victim or not is likely to come down to how much you value mood and how much plot. The reason for that is that it is great on one, and terrible on the other. The Seventh Victim is full of arresting imagery and some scenes have a great deal of power, the only problem is it doesn't make a great deal of sense.

I understand that before its release The Seventh Victim saw heavy cuts, with around 20 minutes or so being lost. I can't confirm whether the cuts actually were that extensive, but it does fit with what I saw on screen. The plot makes several unexplained jumps, character developments sometimes come from nowhere (Gregory Ward falls in love with Mary, but if he hadn't said so I wouldn't have guessed as there's no real build-up to it) and at times the film is genuinely confusing. On top of all that, there are too many characters for the running time and the acting is so understated that at times it risks simply being boring. Why then a six for the score?

Well, despite all the problems this film has it's not a failure. I've seen it argued that this is Lewton's best film, and while I don't agree (though with that extra 20 minutes back in it might have been) parts of it are extraordinary. There's a scene where Mary is taking a shower and a cultist appears, visible only through the plastic curtain, to tell her to stop investigating and go home. It's bizarre and frightening, and a clear precursor to the much more famous shower scene in Psycho (Hitchcock was a known Lewton fan).

In another scene the Satanists have Jacqueline cornered, but they are prohibited by the rules of their cult from using violence. The result is one of the most chilling depictions of Satanism I've seen in cinema, where they spend an entire night refusing to let her sleep and badgering her in the hope of forcing her to commit suicide by drinking a glass of poison that they provide. In later films, such as Rosemary's Baby or The Omen there are real magical powers at work, here there's no evidence of anything like that and the result is they are both more pathetic and yet more credibly evil than in many later film portrayals of similar groups.

Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) at first appears on screen only fleetingly. Later though Mary becomes a side character, supporting cast, and Jacqueline comes centre stage. Jean Brooks is excellent here, her Jacqueline both terrified of and fascinated by death. A scene where she is pursued through the night streets by what may be a member of the cult prepared to ignore their creed of non-violence is taut and memorable and, where Mary is an example of goodness and innocence, it's easy to see why Jacqueline could have been tempted to the decadent world she now wishes to escape.

In the end, this is a remarkable film. It's hugely flawed. The pacing is odd, the characterisation often unconvincing and the plot makes little sense. Against all that is the atmosphere, the mood and the sheer unusualness of it all. Films like this were never common, it's not so much ahead of its time as ahead of any time and, while it's undoubtedly something of a curiosity piece, it's one that's worth seeing for anyone with an interest in the wider fringes of the horror genre. I gave it a six, but I could justify a four or an eight just as well, and it's the difficulty of categorising it which in part makes it so interesting.

The Seventh Victim DVD comes with the film's original trailer.



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