Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 17 October 2005
Source Warner Brothers DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
The Seventh Victim is one of producer Val Lewton’s least-known horror films. Unlike some of the more famous others, it was not directed by someone who became a well-regarded genre auteur, and it does not star a genre icon like Boris Karloff. It is considered by aficionados of early horror films, however, to be one of the best — if not the best — of the nine thrillers Lewton produced for RKO.
Leaving the anticipation generated by the tantalizing title in suspension for the time being, the film starts out as a seemingly mundane (almost banal) missing-person thriller. It is only when the pervasive morbidity of the story begins to surface that the film begins to reveal its artistry. Suicide and the death drive (if one cops to that strange invention of Freud) are prevalent motifs in the film, and the general driving force of the narrative is that of an overwhelming and irreversible descent into death. The real horror of the film is not in a group of devil worshippers (who, for the most part, keep to themselves, dress nicely, and refrain from violence), but in the idea that one might be possessed by a powerful and inescapable urge to die by one’s own hand no matter how valiantly one struggles against it.
Amid all this Thanatos, though, there is a nice moment of comic Eros in the form of one character’s visit to the public library to discover just what sort of books Satanists read. As the interlocutor flatters a toothsome librarian into divulging the reading habits of her sinister patrons, she reacts, slightly shocked and just a wee bit embarrassed, with, “Most of these books are on the closed shelf. You’ll have to get permission.” Reconsidering, though, as the flirtation continues, she capitulates with, “Well, since you’re over twenty-one…” It is the little moments like this, along with the allusions to the likes of John Donne, Dante, and Edmond Rostand, that make the film more than just a 71-minute fright-fest. It is clear that it was designed to appeal to an intelligent film-going crowd out for a thrill as well as those just looking to get the bejeezus scared out of them. That the film ends on such a wickedly pessimistic note is further proof that Val Lewton was not just out to rake in some easy cash for his studio, but was really hoping to make something of lasting artistic value. The fact that we are still watching and enjoying his films more than sixty years after he made them only underscores his success in this venture.