Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that leave audiences not knowing what to think.
The film noir genre is filled with tropes. There is usually a hard-boiled investigator, cynical, who makes questionable choices. Then there is the femme fatale, a woman so beautiful she acts like a siren, luring men to her, only to bring up about their destruction. The gender roles are clearly cast. However, Mark Robson’s 1943 horror noir film The Seventh Victim subverts the established roles and formula of the genre as it is joined with the horror element.
The Seventh Victim is about a young woman named Mary who leaves college to search for her sister, the mysterious Jaqueline who seems to have vanished. Mary makes the discovery that her sister has entangled herself in a Satanic cult. This week’s strange and fantastic tale features a disturbed woman who is torn between her autonomy and the pull of a secret society. The Seventh Victim is a progressive film that examines the ramifications of one woman’s surrender to depression.
Jaqueline Gibson is a successful business owner and has the kind of legendary beauty that makes her unforgettable to those who meet her. After losing their parents early in life, Jaqueline has taken care of both herself and her younger sister Mary. Mary, who is away at a Catholic boarding school, is surprised when she is called in to the office because her sister has failed to pay her tuition for the past six months.
Naturally, Mary is terrified and confused and wonders what has happened to her sister. She heads to New York to find some answers, but before she leaves she is given some portentous advice. The head of the school has offered to let her stay on and work at the school to pay for her tuition, but Miss Gilchrist, a teacher at the school warns Mary to leave and make her own way in the world. Miss Gilchrist confesses she stayed on at that school and has many regrets. She tells Mary “one must have courage to really live in the world.” Mary’s choice to stay at the school or leave and try life on her own plays into one of the themes of complacency versus independence.
Mary seems brave enough. She keeps her composure when she first hears about Jaqueline’s delinquent payments, she remains calm when she finds out that Jaqueline has sold her beauty shop to Miss Reddy. However, Mary’s search leads her to a room rented by Jaqueline, whose sole piece of furniture is an empty chair situated under a noose. The Seventh Victim opened up to some pretty harsh reviews. Critics had issues with the storyline among other things. Yet, there are several scenes including the shot of the noose that are brilliantly dramatic. Robson plays around with shadows in the film and certain scenes summon the tension of horror just by their stillness. The noose over the chair is one of those scenes.
There is an odd balance in tension. Distraught and looking for answers, she draws in a number of acquaintances all welcoming and eager to help her. Jaqueline’s empty room is located above Dante’s restaurant, a small mom and pop Italian place owned by a nice helpful couple. It is there she meets Jason Hoag, a poet, who is instantly smitten with her and vows to help her. Mary is not without her admirers. She also meets Dr. Gregory Ward, a friend of Jaqueline’s who is also looking for her. This friendship is particularly problematic. Gregory, while helpful, treats her like a child and in one scene he tells Mary to “drink her milk” instead of worrying. Mary quickly asserts that she will not be ordered around to which he laughs.
This is typical behavior in films of a certain era, men find it adorable when women take control of themselves. Gregory laughs it off and finds her a job. However, Gregory also confesses he loves Mary, but it turns out he’s also Jaqueline’s husband. I understand the critique about the storyline. This romance seems out of left field and Gregory just seems like an out of place character. Despite the romantic confession, Mary, like the audience, is too concerned about her sister to really care about his or the poet’s feelings.
The revelation of the Satanic cult is a bit anticlimactic, but there are layers of intrigue to them. The cult is made of affluent residents of New York’s Greenwich Village. Dressed in their fanciest outfits, they get together as the Order of Palladis. Firm believers in non-violence, they feel that Jaqueline has betrayed them by revealing their secret to her psychiatrist Dr. Judd. Dr. Judd has been helping to hide Jaqueline as she has already escaped the cult once before. The cult demands death and they demand it by suicide. They had kept Jaqueline locked up, psychologically torturing her, hoping she would kill herself, but she escaped. However, before The Seventh Victim is over, Jaqueline finds herself back with the cult.
In a fur coat and rocking the pointed Betty Page bangs, Jaqueline stares at a crystal goblet filled with poison. The tension in this scene is wonderful. The order of Palladis hovers around her begging her to drink the poison. Ms. Reddy reminds Jaqueline that she has always wanted to die to which Jaqueline replies, “not like this.” This scene reveals Jaqueline’s desire for death, but also her desire to retain her autonomy.
This raises many questions. How did Jaqueline end up losing herself in a cult in the first place? An intense hatred of Jaqueline is also revealed by the cult members. The most fascinating revelation is that of her friend Francis. Francis cannot stand the cult’s screaming at Jacqueline. She breaks down and tearfully begs Jacqueline to drink the poison. Jacqueline is about to drink the poison when Francis screams and knocks the glass out of her hands. “I was only ever happy when I was with you,” she sobs. Jaqueline doesn’t really react to her breakdown, but the depths of their relationship is exposed.
Jaqueline would not kill herself for the cult, but considered it for Francis. Reluctantly, the cult lets her go, but only so they can resume their torture on the streets. The film draws to an end after Jaqueline returns to her room with the noose. The film ends with the sound of the chair falling over.
The Seventh Victim is not a traditional horror film. There is a lack of blood and most of the violence is implied or occurs off screen. However, the acting and directing heighten the terror. While the cult is after Jaqueline, the scarier aspects of the film center around Jaqueline’s struggle with her mental health. Mary’s cheeriness and innocent nature also provide a sharp contrast to Jaqueline’s edgier persona. One scene that is particularly amusing is when Mary is sweetly singing to kindergarteners. She sings “Here is a candle to light you to bed, here is a chopper to chop off your head.” What’s her problem? Get some bangs (don’t do it, not everyone can pull them off) and make plans to watch The Seventh Victim with your sister, it’s the only way to save her from Satanists.
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