Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Seventh Victim

Dir. Mark Robson

A young woman frantically searches New York for her missing sister, only to discover her sibling was involved in a mysterious Satanic cult and now owes her life to them.

Combining elements of horror and noir, The Seventh Victim is a sombre, atmospheric and haunting film preoccupied with notions of death, loneliness, suicide and despair. Under the guidance of producer Val Lewton, director Robson conjures an atmosphere of hopelessness and oppression, heightened by shadowy visuals and an unshakable air of paranoia. Rife with a dark and morbid romanticism, the film sleekly unfurls and proves utterly gripping; all the way to its breathtakingly bleak denouement. Purportedly Lewton’s most personal work, The Seventh Victim is set in Greenwich Village and populated by academics, poets and writers who frequent trendy cafes and bohemian apartments. As well as the opening quote which establishes the downbeat tone – “I come to Death and Death meets me as fast and all my pleasures are as yesterday” - the film brims with references to poetry and literature, such as the name of Mary’s headmistress (Miss Lowood - the name of the school Jane Erye attended), and the name of the restaurant (Dante’s) above which Jacqueline rents a room in which to contemplate her dark fate.

The original screenplay, written by Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen, centred on a young woman who realises she is to be the seventh victim of a murderer. Set in the vast sprawling landscapes of the southern Californian oil fields, Lewton soon decided to scrap that treatment, opting to write a story about a Satanic cult and the woman who is doomed to die for betraying them. The Seventh Victim was also set to be the producer’s first A picture, as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie had been so successful. His insistence that Mark Robson direct was not taken well by executives who believed he was too inexperienced to handle an A budgeted project. Lewton’s loyalty to his former editor persisted however, and the film’s budget was eventually cut back to that of a B movie. This meant certain scenes had to be re-written and even edited out of the final cut, resulting in a slightly muddled narrative with the occasional plot hole. Perhaps Lewton’s disappointment is what fuelled the overwhelmingly bleak outlook of the film, the title and plot of which slyly subvert the number usually associated with good luck.

Deftly entwining elements of noir with horror, much as Lewton and co did with Cat People and The Leopard Man, the film is populated with tragic, flawed characters. Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), prior to the events depicted in the film, had an unquenchable thirst for life and living. It was her desire for new experiences that led to her doomful encounter with the cult. Her crime against them was growing bored; she is essentially damned by her own intrinsically capricious nature. That so many of the characters are trying in vain to help Jacqueline, who is so obviously condemned, adds to the sheen of futility and hopelessness that enrobes the film. Another element that contributes to the tragic flavour is actress Jean Brooks’ own heart-rending personal life. Never quite making it big in Hollywood she disappeared from public view before dying of problems stemming from alcoholism. Her performance in The Seventh Victim is startlingly effective. While she portrayed one of Lewton’s typically strong female characters (Kiki) in The Leopard Man, she is much more successful at playing the damaged Jacqueline; at once enigmatic and engaging, she steals every scene as the raven-haired, moon-skinned beauty. When Jacqueline encounters her terminally ill neighbour Mimi (Lewton stalwart Elizabeth Russell) preparing to go out for the evening to make the most of her limited time, the contrast between the two characters and their attitudes to death is powerful in an understated way.

Even minor characters, such as the teacher who beseeches Mary (Kim Hunter) not to come back to the school, but to find the courage to live life, are surrounded by an aura of tragedy and despair. The members of the cult are also interestingly drawn. Mainly middle class types, bored and in search of new experiences, the Palladists are presented as ordinary people who actually like Jacqueline and don’t really want to kill her; their abstinence from violence is what pushes them to try to force her to take her own life. Even this is initially unsuccessful. She is defiant and determined, but eventually succumbs to the stifling oppression of her predicament. This presentation of the members of a satanic cult as everyday, mundane people would be echoed by Ira Levin in his novel Rosemary’s Baby, eventually adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski. There’s a sense that there is no clear cut villain here. The members of the cult are as confined by the laws that govern their beliefs as Jacqueline is. This adds to the strangely tragic air that lingers throughout the film, and harks back to The Leopard Man’s central notion that we are governed by forces we have no control over. Eventually, a more sinister side of the cult is revealed when they hire an assassin to kill Jacqueline if she won’t take her own life. This is what pushes Jacqueline to act; she is determined that no one but herself should end her life and, no matter how futile, she desperately attempts to maintain control, evoking all manner of ideas about free will and self determination.

“Your sister had a feeling about life – that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it.”

A number of scenes stand out, particularly when Mary and her private investigator, Irving August (Lou Lubin), sneak into Jacqueline’s old cosmetics factory to look for clues to her whereabouts, only for August to disappear down a dark, shadowy corridor and emerge with a knife in his back. The scene that follows, in which Mary flees into the underground and she sees two men disposing of August’s body by pretending he’s a drunk companion in need of chaperoning is also wonderfully executed. Later, in a scene pre-empting Psycho, Mary is menaced in the shower when one of the female members of the cult comes to warn her to stop looking for Jacqueline. The scene is incredibly creepy; shoot from Mary’s point of view, naked and vulnerable, she sees the silhouette of the woman through the shower curtain; stark and domineering.

The Seventh Victim also boasts one of the best ‘Lewton walks.’ When Jacqueline tries to walk home alone after being allowed to leave the Palladists’ meeting, she is stalked by a hit man who emerges from the darkness of a doorway she passes on an eerily deserted street. This scene echoes earlier Lewton walks such as when Irena stalks Alice through Central Park in Cat People; when Betty and Jessica make their way through moonlit fields to visit a witch doctor in I Walked with a Zombie; and when Teresa is made to trek across the outskirts of town to run an errand for her mother in The Leopard Man. Shadowy lighting, smooth tracking shots and mounting tension combine to create one of the best stalking scenes of any Lewton production.

Tom Conway appears as Dr Judd, the psychiatrist who treats Irena Reed in Lewton’s first horror production, Cat People. Do the stories of Cat People and The Seventh Victim run in tandem with each other? Or does The Seventh Victim inhabit a space in time that precedes events in Cat People? Interestingly, Judd refers to the tragic fate of a young woman he’s been treating – is this Irena? While no definite answer is provided, his chillingly suave presence provides an interesting link to the world in which Cat People plays out.

The Seventh Victim is an uncompromisingly downbeat film, at odds with the usual ‘good overcomes evil’ outlook of other war time horror flicks, and it emerges as a minor masterpiece as interestingly flawed as the characters who inhabit its quietly desperate story. That it rewards repeated viewing is testament to its subtle nuances and masterful execution.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Alternative Cover Concept

I recently came across this beautiful alternative cover concept by Lorenzo Princi on an Australian website. While it’s, sadly, not an official cover design, I love it – it’s very reminiscent of the old Mondadori giallo book covers.
Check out more of the designer's work here. Beautiful stuff.

Shameless self promotion alert.

If you haven’t already picked up a copy, you can do so here.
And if your budget can’t stretch to £12.99 – well, these are tough times – you can pick up a cheaper copy on good ol’ Amazon.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Audiodrome#5: Malá Morská Víla (The Little Mermaid)

Head over to to check out the latest instalment of Audiodrome: Music in Film. This month my ears have mainly been awash with Zdeněk Liška’s eerily beautiful score for Karel Kachnya’s 1976 curio Malá Morská Víla (The Little Mermaid). Melodic orchestrations, choral pieces, strange percussive arrangements, song, and pulsing oceanic sound effects all swirl together to form a highly evocative and bewitching soundtrack indeed. And banish any notion that Malá Morská Víla is a schmaltzy, Disney-esque saccharine-fest; it’s a deeply melancholy and moody meditation on identity, doomed love and self sacrifice. That it was made during a period of extreme censorship in Czechoslovakia also speaks volumes.

Also! Paracinema Magazine has been nominated for a Rondo Award this year! If you're so inclined, you can head here and vote for it under "Best Magazine." And, while you’re there, think about voting for issue 11, The Women's Issue, in the write-in section for the "BEST MAGAZINE FILMBOOK, THEME OR SPECIAL CONTENT.” Support independent publishing! Thank you kindly.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Talkin' Italian Horror

When I was asked to have a chat about Italian horror films with Fred Macpherson from indie band Spector, I wasn’t going to say no. Any excuse to wax lyrical with a fellow admirer of Italo horror.

An extremely enjoyable and geeky conversation about Argento and Fulci ensued.

Head over to The Quietus to read it.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Leopard Man

Dir. Jacques Tourneur

When a publicity stunt backfires, a domesticated leopard escapes from a New Mexico nightclub prompting a desperate search to re-capture it. An ensuing series of grisly deaths is blamed on the animal; however nightclub performer Kiki and her agent Jerry soon suspect that it isn’t the leopard responsible for the violent deaths; but a deranged serial killer who uses the escaped animal as a cover for his heinous crimes.

After the success of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, producer Val Lewton reteamed with director Jacques Tourneur for their next collaboration, the RKO-assigned title of which was to be The Leopard Man. Rather than churning out a hackneyed variation on the werewolf film, in which a man transforms into a slathering beast before claiming his prey, the exceedingly literate Lewton chose to adapt Cornell Woolrich’s mystery-thriller ‘Black Alibi’: a twisted tale about a killer in a Mexican city using the fear caused by an escaped wild animal as a cover, or alibi, for his own vicious murders. A typically moody and thoughtful Lewton production, The Leopard Man sticks closely to its source material and unspools as an episodic noir thriller quite ahead of its time. While film noir was a genre still in its embryonic stages, The Leopard Man could arguably be described as the first horror/noir hybrid that revolves around the ghastly actions of a serial killer - bear in mind the term and concept of the serial killer wasn’t coined until much later. Its plot, detailing the deaths of several young women, also exhibits similarities with what would later become known as the slasher movie.

The overriding theme of The Leopard Man is the randomness of death and the cruel mystery of fate. The opening shot of a ball atop a spurt of water in a fountain highlights the underlying notions of the unpredictability of fate, and the lack of control people have over such matters. One of the characters, Galbraith (James Bell), comments on this spectacle, pontificating on the dominant theme of The Leopard Man: ‘We know as little about the forces that move us, and move the world around us, as that empty ball does about the water that pushes it into the air, lets it fall, and catches it again.’ At the end of the film, Jerry (Dennis O’Keefe) reiterates Galbraith's musings to Kiki (Jean Brooks) and quips: ‘That's the way it was with us, only we were too small to know it.’ Such philosophical foreboding abounds amongst the host of tragic and flawed characters in the film, most of whose true natures are gradually unveiled as the story progresses.

One of the most interesting things about The Leopard Man is its rather unconventional narrative structure. The main set pieces in the film involve the violent demise of three women, two of which are introduced to the episodic narrative by the third, a dancer called Clo-Clo (Margo). The sudden shifts in the narrative are cued once Clo-Clo interacts with these other women, or someone who will immediately lead us to them. The first shift begins when Clo-Clo leaves the nightclub where she works after she deliberately startled Jerry’s leopard, causing it to bolt into the night. As the camera follows her down a moodily lit street where men with flashlights are looking for the escaped critter, we can’t be blamed for believing that something bad is going to befall her. As she walks past an open window she greets a young girl looking out of it and the camera remains fixed on the girl as Clo-Clo continues walking out of the shot. The focus of the story then shifts to this young woman, Teresa, whose death is preceded by one of the most suspenseful and moody sequences in horror history. We follow her night walk to a store on the outskirts of town, as she wanders through empty streets and out into the fringes of the community, eventually having a horrific encounter under a shadowy train trestle that culminates in her death outside her own front door: safety just inches away. After a series of blood-chilling screams, her domineering mother relents and tries to open the door. There is a large thud and a steady trickle of blood seeps under the door into the house. This masterfully tense scene highlights one of the most characteristic traits of Lewton’s work: suggestiveness. As in Cat People, everything is conveyed to the audience by shadows and sounds, ensuring the viewer must use their imagination, which can usually conjure all manner of gruesome sights special effects at the time could not effectively depict. Events are thus rendered infinitely more disturbing then anything a low budget film could ever hope to show us.

Something black. Something on its way to you…”

Shortly after poor Teresa’s death we are reunited with Clo-Clo who, in a similar narrative twist, passes on some sort of curse or death-mark when she meets another young woman who will eventually connect us to the new focus of the narrative and the centre of another moody murder set-piece: Consuelo.* As she waits for her lover Raoul in the cemetery, Consuelo realises too late that she has been locked in. Wandering around the spooky locale she panics, remembering the fate of Teresa and the wild animal on the rampage. Like Teresa before her, Consuelo is a lone and vulnerable figure and much menace is elicited through the location and her predicament. Every tomb, headstone and tree potentially harbours a threat hiding behind it waiting to pounce. Unusual editing renders the audience as disorientated and panicked as Consuelo, who is eventually murdered by an unseen assailant. All we see is a tree branch moving under the weight of something, or someone, as they lunge from it upon the terrified girl.

That this scene and the scene involving Teresa’s death play out with no music only adds to their effectiveness; a lonesome howling wind is all we hear as these women encounter their killers.

Men who killed for pleasure. Strange pleasure.”

Interestingly, The Leopard Man also unravels as a sort of proto-typical slasher film, specifically in it’s, albeit off-screen and highly suggestive, depictions of the murders of several lone female characters as they wander around sinister and imposing dark spaces only to encounter violent death at the hands of a madman. Predating the likes of Psycho and Peeping Tom (both noted as major influences on the slasher flick) the narrative is essentially hung around these set pieces. The motive of the killer is also revealed to be rooted in a fascination with the aesthetics of fear. His morbid inclinations and urges are aroused by the sight of Teresa’s mauled body and he is compelled to stalk and murder several women. Just like in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), it is the look of fear on the faces of his victims that entices the killer and motivates his frenzied blood-lust. As JP Telotte notes in ‘Dreams in Darkness’: ‘In each situation an individual leaves the safety of her home to wander through a circuitous, ultimately imprisoning world within which there lurks sudden death.’ Tourneur himself described the film as a ‘series of vignettes.’ With descriptions such as these, the film’s narrative arguably foreshadows those of the Italian gialli made famous by the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento: where loose stories are draped around arresting and provocative set pieces featuring beautiful young women wandering around sinister, moodily lit spaces before being murdered. Argento himself paid homage to The Leopard Man (and Woolrich's novel) in his third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), with a scene in which a lone woman waiting for someone in a deserted park is locked in and (very untypically of Argento) murdered off-screen. Sergio Martino, whose gialli also drew inspiration from the likes of Woolrich, featured a similar scene in his first giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh.

Lewton’s films don’t boast monsters or obvious supernatural occurrences; the horror always emanates from the darkness of the human condition, the id, if you will, and is highly ambiguous. His productions could be cited as the first psychological horror films. Beautifully written and elegantly lensed, the ‘terror’ pictures he produced for RKO were also amongst the first to be based in contemporary times and settings (not the typically far flung gothic locales popular at the time) and very often the figure of terror was an ‘ordinary’ person. The Leopard Man is no exception. When its killer is revealed, he is a seemingly ordinary man who harbours morbid, and eventually murderous, tendencies. Prefiguring Psycho by about twenty years, this killer, like Norman Bates, is a mild mannered and soft-spoken chap who spends his days largely in solitude. Working as a curator in the museum, he fusses over old artefacts he’s collected – much like Bates who collected and stuffed birds.

Lewton was indeed a rare breed: a producer who helped rather than hindered his movies, and an even rarer example of a producer regarded as an auteur. His movies, most of which he also co-wrote (or re-wrote) using various pseudonyms, or completely uncredited, address such notions as psychology, sexuality, death and loneliness. The Leopard Man is often sorely overlooked when it comes to his work, and indeed the work of its director Jacques Tourneur. Unconventional and engrossing, it consistently rises above and beyond genre expectations and cleverly subverts various archetypes and narrative traditions associated with thrillers of the time. It remains a curious and fascinating entry in war-time American cinema.

* Unlike 'Fearing the Dark' author Edmund G. Bansak’s suggestion, that these encounters between Clo-Clo and other women who become victims of the killer are the film’s only traces of possible supernatural intervention, due to Clo-Clo being dealt the death card by her fortune teller friend, I would suggest they simply highlight the film’s underlying theme of the random nature of death and the bleak irony of fate. But hey, that's just my own humble opinion. It is also testament to Lewton's best work that the horror is ambiguous enough to allow one to draw their own conclusions.