Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Seventh Victim, The (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

In the early 1940s producer Val Lewton had become the go-to man at RKO in producing low budget horror films that both made decent profits as well as haunted audiences years after they were released. This early psychological horror delivers a story that delves into a world of spiritualists yet contains absolutely no rituals, special effects, or even on screen violence, yet delivers what some cinematic scholars believe one of the first horrors of its kind. Its material would test the boundaries of what censors allowed in American motion pictures of the time with its dark story, however would be eclipsed by the bigger budget pictures of the day.

The Seventh Victim is a low budget horror about a young woman who while in search of her missing sister, discovers her dear sibling is mixed in with a deadly, secerative satanic cult. When Mary (Kim Hunter) discovers her old sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) had gone missing she sets on a determined search to find her with sinister and deadly results. Mary’s search leads down a long rabbit hole of mysteries with the help of Jacqueline’s newly revealed secret husband Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) they discover Jacqueline’s association with a secret satanic cult called the Palladists that are on the hunt to kill her for her divulging revealing their existence to outsiders. Through psychological torture Jacqueline is driven to great emotional stress while fearing for her life. Ultimately the inner torture gets the best of her as she commits suicide as a way to relieve herself of this emotional torment.
An amazingly dark feature for the time period, this film is somehow troubled by its lower production value and poorer acting performances. Before psychological horror picture were even considered a possible sub-genre The Seventh Victim delves into a dark corners of the mind perhaps never seen before in mainstream American movies.

Now those words may make the picture seem outstanding significant, but in reality the film is a low budget horror that suffers from usual budget problems. However, the feature contains brilliance that lies underneath the surface. What producer Val Lewton does is take extremely low budgets and turn them not into gold, but at least a good bronze as the film has a lot going for it, as well as many areas of lacking.

Psychological thrillers have been seen many times over the decades, but what The Seventh Victim does is bring that same mental anxiety to to an area that can frighten the audience. In this horror we deal with a satanic cult, a mighty taboo subject in a Christian based American society. However, not once is there manifested any bizarre rituals or supernatural phenomena. Everything is rooted in a real life New York City and the people are just as normal can be, to the point an average movie of the time could be. What makes this a horror picture is the emotional taxing put on Jacqueline and how this non-violent cult tortures her mind to the point of fright she takes her own life. That is the terrifying notion that audiences would have been gripping their chairs over, the idea that person can literally forced to kill themselves.

For Lewton to make this feature appear as polished as it could be he recruited Mark Robson, an editor of his prior films, to head up this feature in his directorial debut. Utilizing to the best of his ability the recycled sets and pieces of various bigger budget RKO features gives this film a sense of greater quality. To add to the darker notions of the picture heavy use of shadows and contrast would give the film a noir value. However, Robson’s style does deliver a lesser creative use of camera, even though he does use light and shadow to give the film a hint of mystery.

The performances of the key players are quite lacking as it featured B- level actors. Kim Hunter who portrays Mary who guides us through most of the feature was making her film debut. Sadly her performance suffers from her amateur acting style, which is painfully soft spoken and overly sweet in a feature that calls for more emotion.  Tom Conway, playing the role of Dr. Judd, was becoming a regular of Val Lewton’s pictures as his delivery brings with him an air of sophistication. Jean Brooks portrays the troubled Jacqueline delivers great mystery to the role in her dark, quiet way. Thoughts are her performance may have been aided by the unfortunate circumstances of her home life at the time as marriage was falling apart and she was in stages of becoming an alcoholic.

The picture would be a rather short 72 minute feature which at times would feel a bit disjointed as many side characters come and go, never allowing stretches for them to become well enough known by the audience before their departure. It is said that the script was much longer in the beginning, but was heavily trimmed down before shooting, leading to these many side characters that appear to just spring up with little to now build up in their backstories. At times the feature just jumps around with very little revealed on screen to connect the scenes. Rather the feature relies heavily on exposition dialogue to fill in gaps when it can. Critics would note this perplexing notion about the feature, which led to poorer reviews at the time of its release.

Through the passing of the decades The Seventh Victim would be allowed more time to be diected and digested by audiences and critics. With the slow study of the picture, many came to appreciate the film for its underlying brilliance, evening coming to be picked by film lovers as being a beloved, dark psychological horror film ahead of hits time.

The feature would play with the boundaries of what was acceptable for American motion pictures. Aspects of the feature which that would usually be criticized by censors somehow slipped by the Production Code. The ending which had Jacqueline hanging herself would a be a shock to many contemporary movie watchers looking back at this period. To have that be the ending would be controversial in many respects then and today, but somehow this picture was allowed to feature this gruesome and frowned upon ending.

The Seventh Victim over the years would be massively overlooked by movie audiences as it is not one of the best produced features, even compared to its time and is buried many other notable motion picture. However future audiences continue to rediscover the surprisingly genius levels of creativity that lie beneath the low budget production quality. Those interested in horror films and classic Hollywood would greatly enjoy this feature as it stands profoundly different with its story. However, I warn you, it may be difficult to get past the acting of Kim Hunter and the at times bub par writing that one may have difficulty allowing themselves to get lost in the movie.

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