Monday, July 04, 2011

The Seventh Victim

Even if he was overlooked in his lifetime Val Lewton’s horror and dark suspense films are not only remembered today but also celebrated. His movies changed horror fiction from the more obvious monsters teeming on Universal's lot to the subtler and darker insinuations we can still see in the horror films of our own time.

There’s now a collection of Lewton’s finest films available on DVD. In this age of the auteur you might make the assumption that Lewton directed the films but he didn’t. He was the producer.

’I'll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting here: “In 1942, Lewton was named head of the horror unit at RKO studios, at a salary of US$250 per week. As head of the B-horror unit he would have to follow three rules: each film had to come in under a US$150,000 budget, each film was to run under seventy-five minutes, and Lewton's supervisors would supply the title for each film.

“Lewton's first production was Cat People, released in 1942. The film was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who subsequently also directed I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man for Lewton. Made for US$134,000, the film went on to earn nearly US$4 million, and was the top moneymaker for RKO that year. This success enabled Lewton to make his next films with relatively little studio interference, allowing him to avoid the sensationalist material suggested by the film titles he was given, instead focusing on ominous suggestion and themes of existential ambivalence.

“Lewton always wrote the final draft of the screenplays for his films, but avoided an on-screen co-writing credit except in two cases, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, for which he used the pseudonym "Carlos Keith", which he had previously used on the novel, Where the Cobra Sings. After Jacques Tourneur left RKO's horror film unit, Lewton gave first directing opportunities to Robert Wise and Mark Robson.”

Lewton was a sophisticated man familiar with all the arts and it was this intelligence that informed his films. I’ve watched most of his movies many times and I never get tired of them. They work as classic dark tales of vengeance and retribution and, most of all, as portals into terrifying worlds we only reluctantly enter. There are always moments in these pictures when Hitchcockian shocks slams us up against the wall (he revere Hitchcock). For me there are more of these shocks in “The Seventh Victim” than in any of the other Lewton films.

Victim is Lewton’s noir. Occasionally his films had lyrical, almost ethereal moments but not here. The plot details the plight of young Mary who is forced to leave an upscale boarding school because her older sister has not been paying her bills. Mary goes to New York in search of her sister Jacqueline who owned a profitable cosmetics company. But when she reaches the company she discovers that her sister has sold it to another woman and had not been heard of in some time. All too soon a shrink who’d been dealing with Mary—a sinister figure in his own right—relates that Jacqueline has taken up with some strange friends.

To say more about the story from this point I'd have to include spoilers. Story and style are one. Most of the city scenes are ominous and are Germanic in their dense shadow and faintly heard sounds. Young Kim Hunter, who went on to many other fine performances but had a troubled passage in Hollywood, is perfect as the wary naïf desperate to connect with her sister. And to protect her. She fears that her sister has been harmed in some way.

With the exception of a dozen scenes or so the tone is grim, even in spots morbid. This is a film about nothing less than death, about the essence and meaning of death itself. In the last few minutes of the picture we’re presented with an image that I remembered exactly from my childhood when I first saw it in a second-run house after the big war. In some ways it’s a bitter and brutal philosophical affirmation of the movie’s theme. This is what you’ll find in the city, it says, in the shadowy towers of privilege; this is extinction.

A number of critics consider this a prequel to "Cat People". Some consider it a sequel to Lewton's "Cat People." The latter makes no sense to me at all. But then we know how critics are, don't we?


Todd Mason said...

The saddest part for me was that the first time I took the opportunity to see it, it was a Turner "colorized" atrocity (if ever a film Did Not Need Colorization, it was THE SEVENTH VICTIM), so, being familiar with the Lewton Unit's work, I bailed on that showing after about five minutes, but it wasn't on home video yet and I didn't have the wonderful opportunity I'd had back in '82 to catch CAT PEOPLE and the weakest of the Lewton Unit films, THE GHOST SHIP, in a real theater for first viewing.

Inasmuch as CAT PEOPLE is no bones about it supernatural horror (unless you're willing to make some pretty big assumptions), and THE 7TH VICTIM (I'll have to look again to see if that's how the onscreen title goes) is, as you say, as naturalistically noir as it gets (despite that involvement of Satanists), the notion that they have some sequential relevance is pretty whack.

Todd Mason said...

My selection for Overlooked Films this week is not dissimilar, in a different sort of modest way, BLUE CHA CHA. It's certainly noirish in incident, for most of its run...

Mike Dennis said...

Lewton fans should check out THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION, a DVD boxed set containing nine of his films, all the great ones. It also has audio commentaries and a documentary on Lewton and his odd career.

I bought this one about four or five years ago, but I would imagine it's still available.

Todd Mason said...

It's still available, and in fact the second release of the box set was slightly upgraded in package from the initial release I picked up (including the Scorcese documentary), though some fans have complained that the transfers to DVD are inferior to those to laserdisc.

I complain (and not me alone) that the box should and could easily have included MLLE. FIFI, the Lewton Unit's espionage film, and the protest drama YOUTH RUN WILD, but they were left out for not being outre enough, or some such stupid reason.

Todd Mason said...

And, Mike, I'll watch FIFI any day of the week over THE GHOST SHIP, which is unintentionally ridiculous.

Todd Mason said...

Sorry, that's YOUTH RUNS WILD.