A strange, sinister, and melancholy descent into loneliness and tragedy, The Seventh Victim is an anomaly among the films of its time, even other Val Lewton productions. Instead of setting out from the real world and slowly finding ourselves drawn into the supernatural, this film peels away the paranormal bit by bit until we’re left with a very human source for despair, making the already baffling ending even more horrifying and morose.
A young woman (Kim Hunter) searches for her missing sister (Jean Brooks), her only remaining family, who, unknown to her, has become involved with a group of devil worshipers in upscale Greenwich Village. The Seventh Victim is part of the Val Lewton cycle, a series of horror films produced by RKO in the 1940’s that involved ordinary people drawn into the strange and supernatural; only this film eschews that formula to provide an all-too-human face for evil. It’s difficult to discern where the plot is going all the way up to the abrupt ending, but the uncertainty makes for a strangely captivating little movie.
The Seventh Victim is a complex and compelling noir mystery wrapped in a horror film. The mystery of what happened to Jacqueline, and later, how to untangle her from the Satanists’ web, is full of secret spouses, shady business dealings, and shadowy secret societies. The devil worshipers are an odd, kooky bunch who seem slightly remorseful that they’ve chosen to hail Satan, until a bizarre and tragic turn of events sucks the fun right out of our sophisticated group of villains. Then the film’s true core is revealed and it is one of genuine despair. About looking at life and looking at death and being unsure which of the two one prefers and which to choose.
Though plotted as a traditional noir mystery, the emphasis of the film is on atmosphere. A pervasive sense of dread hangs over the movie from the moment we’re introduced to the noose, and its shadow looms over the remaining runtime, a disquieting sense of inevitability tailing the characters at every turn. The characters in this film, whether hero or villain, are lost souls. They’re wandering around looking for meaning and grasping for answers. Some of them find safety at boarding school, others in psychological medicine, some in religion, and some in romance. No matter where these characters align, we know that reality is too depressing for them to handle, and so what we’re seeing play out is a confused, desperate grab for stability.
Even the Kim Hunter character, naive but mature Mary, is filmed and presented through a dreamlike gauze, making complete empathy for her character unobtainable. Hats off to director Mark Robson, the RKO production team, and Val Lewton for keeping this steady, ethereal aura throughout, maintaining that consistent tone of dread, especially since the film was mangled so much from conception to completion. Like most 40’s movies, the film hints at rather than shows, leaving the viewer to fill in jagged gaps with unseemly possibilities. Unlike other contemporary films of the time, however, it ends on an unsettling and unexpected note that is devastating, bleak, confusing, and brutally pessimistic.
The Seventh Victim is a beguiling and rewarding movie; unlike other films of its ilk at the time, like Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the heart of this movie is a black one. The arresting images and morose mise-en-scene undercut both the 40s melodrama in which this film existed amongst, and decades of future horror and experimental film-making. I’d bet good money David Lynch is a fan, as kernels of this movie can be observed fully popped in Mulholland Drive (2001)and Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017). Though the odd one out in terms of influential horror films from the 1940’s, it is still without a doubt amongst the greatest offerings of that subdued and curious decade.
The Seventh Victim
5 – Totally Terrifying 4 – Crazy Creepy 3 – Fairly Frightening
- 2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror