Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Seventh Victim: Val Lewton's Diabolic Horror

It was in the Forties that legendary producer Val Lewton was named the head of a unit at RKO charged with making low budget horror movies. These films would not only prove to be enormously successful at the box office, but most of them are regarded highly today. The horror movies of Val Lewton relied on the power of suggestion and atmosphere to create a sense of terror, in stark opposition to most horror movies of the time, which relied on more sensationalistic means to create frights. While Val Lewton would quite rightfully become famous for the use of suggestion in his horror movies, what is sometimes overlooked is that he often dealt with subject matter that had been left uncovered by other horror movie makers.

One need only look at Val Lewton's filmography to find films whose subject matter might be cliché now, but were quite novel in the Forties.  I Walked with a Zombie (1943) dealt with the then little explored subjects of voodoo and zombies. Bedlam (1946) dealt with the horrors of an 18th Century insane asylum. The Ghost Ship (1943) dealt with the time honoured trope of ghosts, but placed them aboard a ship. Of Val Lewton's films, The Seventh Victim (1943) numbers among the most original. While Satanists would become a horror movie cliché since the release of Rosemary's Baby (1968), they were virtually unknown in movies prior to the release of that film. Before The Seventh Victim, there were very few films that had dealt with devil worship (the most famous perhaps being Universal's 1934 film The Black Cat).  After The Seventh Victim, but before Rosemary's Baby, films dealing with Satanism tend to be equally few in number. With The Seventh Victim, then, Val Lewton once more explored a topic rarely covered by horror movies before.

Of course, The Seventh Victim would be historic in other ways beyond being among the first horror movies to deal with Satanism. Jacques Tourneur, who had directed Val Lewton's first three horror movies (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man), had been promoted at RKO, so Mr. Lewton could no longer call upon his services. Val Lewton then appointed Mark Robson, who had served as the editor on his first three horror movies, as the director of The Seventh Victim. The Seventh Victim then marked Mark Robson's directorial debut. The Seventh Victim would also mark the film debut of actress Kim Hunter, who played the lead role in the film.

The Seventh Victim centred on Mary Gibson (played by Kim Hunter), who is searching for her lost sister Jacqueline Greenwich Village in New York City. It isn't long before Mary learns that her sister was involved with a cult of devil worshippers called Palladists. Not only is The Seventh Victim one of the first horror movies to deal with Satanists, then, but it is also one of the first to place them in a present day, urban setting (over twenty years before Rosemary's Baby).  Like all of Val Lewton's horror movies made at RKO, The Seventh Victim grew out of a title given to him by the studio. Val Lewton's initial idea for the film was that of orphan trying to stop a murderer before she becomes his seventh victim; however, Mr. Lewton had a change of heart and instead went with the idea of an orphan trying to save her sister from a group of Satanists. Amazingly enough, Val Lewton asked the screenplay's writer, DeWitt Bodeen, to see if they could possibly get him into a meeting of a devil worshipping society.  Even more amazingly, Mr. Bodeen found such a group located in New York City's West Side. The particular group of Satanists that Mr. Bodeen had discovered were mostly old people, reciting spells against Hitler as they crocheted and knitted. It was from this meeting that DeWitt Bodeen developed the idea of the Palladists in The Seventh Victim as ordinary people who had for whatever reason turned evil.

Here it should be pointed out that the term "Palladist" was not merely a euphemism used because it was feared the term "Satanist" might be too offensive (although in 1943 it might well have been). The term "Palladist" has its origins in rumours regarding Freemasonry in the 1890's. Léo Taxil, fuelled these rumours with a series of pamphlets in which he charged Masonic lodges with devil worship and being part of the Palladism cult. (the term Palladism coming from Pallas, a name of the Greek goddess Athena). Taxil's claims would be taken up by others. A. E. Waite (one of the two creators of the Rider-Waite Tarot card deck) claimed in Devil-Worship in France, or The Question of Lucifer, published in 1896, that a "Masonic diabolic order" known as "The Order of Palladium" was  founded in Paris on 20 May 1737. He also claimed it was broken up by law enforcement authorities after only a few years. In calling the devil worshippers in The Seventh Victim "Palladists," then, Messrs. Lewton and Bodeen were tying the movie to older urban legends of an alleged Satanist society.

 Regardless of whether the devil worshippers of The Seventh Victim were called "Palladists" or the more blatant "Satanists," the horror of The Seventh Victim is the fact that it is set in the everyday world of Greenwich Village and its villains would raise no eyebrows if one passed them on the street. Many horror movies of the Thirties and Forties were set in distant regions of Europe and often in the past at that, so that American watching the films could reassure themselves, "Well, that would never happen here." Set in 20th Century New York City, with Satanists who could be one's next door neighbours, The Seventh Victim offered no such reassurances.

Not only is The Seventh Victim set in present day New York City, but it turns that place into a rather terrifying, if familiar world. Indeed, the film has been counted as a film noir almost as often as it has a horror movie. Between Mark Robson's direction and Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography, the overall look of The Seventh Victim is dark, full of shadowy corners and recesses. The attitudes of the film are equally dark. Not only does an air of paranoia pervade The Seventh Victim, but it is a movie in which despair, death, and suicide are part of everyday life. This is not the stereotypical Greenwich Village in which poets, artists, and beatniks dwell. This is a Greenwich Village filled with devil worshippers and hopelessness, one where a cafe can be called "Dante's" without it seeming the least bit odd.

While I consider The Seventh Victim to be one of Val Lewton's best films and one that is very effective as a horror movie even today, the film does have its flaws. The beginning of the film moves much too swiftly and at times there are far too many characters for the viewer to easily keep track. The Seventh Victim also seems disjointed at times, to the point where the plot does not always make sense. Supposedly some scenes that would have made things much clearer were cut from the film before it was released. In Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career, Edmund G. Bansak and Robert Wise theorise that the script for The Seventh Victim was written as if it was intended to be an "A" picture. Scenes were then shot and the film edited down to a more appropriate running time for a "B" movie.

Regardless, the few shortcomings of The Seventh Victim have not prevented it from being highly regarded in certain circles, nor has it prevented it from becoming a somewhat influential film. There is a possibly apocryphal story of British filmmakers David Lean, Michael Powell, and Carol Reed watching prints of The Seventh Victim that had been shipped by convoy to war torn Britain, and even bicycling the prints to special screenings around London. There is perhaps no way of knowing if the story is true or not, but given the later careers of the three men it could well be believable. One can see possible echoes of The Seventh Victim in such films as The Third Man (1949) and Peeping Tom (1960). Even if the story is not true, it would seem that The Seventh Victim would qualify as an early film noir and perhaps had an impact on the genre. Both its plot and its atmosphere resembles such later noirs as Murder My Sweet (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946).

In the end The Seventh Victim should be considered one of the most important works in Val Lewton's oeuvre. It mark a most auspicious debut for Mark Robson as a director. It also presaged horror movies dealing with the occult and devil worship over twenty years before they would become so commonplace as to be cliché.  And while The Seventh Victim is undoubtedly a horror film, its style marks it as an early film noir, a genre that would become much more common in the years following World War II. Above all else, while the film does have its flaws, The Seventh Victim is not only one of Val Lewton's most effective horror movies, but also one of the most effective horror films of the Forties.


1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I enjoyed your article highlighting the far-reaching influence of this "little" film.