Halloween 2017: The Seventh Victim

As always, assume this discussion (of a film over seventy-years-old!!!) contains spoilers.

Every Halloween I always promise to myself that I will watch all the old horror films that I feel I should have watched.  As a fan of the genre, I have watched precious few of the early horror films and even fewer of the 1960s and 1970s fare and am unable to hold my own in conversations about Hammer films.  But I have to confess that I can never get through older films with legends like, say, Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, without wishing I was in space with two robots sitting next to me.

It was a simpler time.  I know that. What frightened people eighty to ninety years ago is going to seem a bit quaint and possibly silly to a modern audience. I guess I am a result of growing up with John Carpenter’s Halloween films and the Friday the 13th and Hellraiser franchises, which are now cheesy in their own way, come to think of it.  So I’ve been looking for an old horror film I can watch without mockery and I came close with The Seventh Victim.

I learned about The Seventh Victim watching a documentary about horror films – it may have been Nightmare in Red, White and Blue but it’s been a while.  I filed it away mentally because it sounded interesting – the description of “a woman who dreams of death meets a woman desperate to live” or words to that effect plus a possible Satanic cult and of course I would eventually want to see this film.

Not sure where the “robbed of the will to love” part comes in…

It wasn’t entirely as described but it was still interesting.  Made in 1943, it presented a very calm and genteel look at human evil while using some tropes that I have come to associate with Hitchcock and Polanski. The femme fatale was surprisingly fragile, the teen sister looked like she was in her thirties, and all the men were sort of… dumb and/or sappy, but I think this film worked so well because it had elements of some of the more sophisticated horror movies, fare that genuinely unsettled me the first time I saw it.  Christopher Lee as a vampire and Boris Karloff as a mummy never scared me, even as a kid, but Janet Lee in a shower and a cabal of Satanists in a swanky New York apartment seeking their heir did.  Before I discuss this film, here’s a quick synopsis:

Mary Gibson, attending boarding school, finds out her older sister Jacqueline has gone missing.  Jacqueline is her only family and has not paid Mary’s school fees so Mary decides she needs to try to find her sister.  She travels to New York and discovers her sister had given away her cosmetic factory and salon to an employee called Esther Redi.  She manages to trace the man whom she ultimately learns to be Jacqueline’s husband, Gregory Ward, and with him and a very sketchy psychiatrist, whom I think was the same psychiatrist in Cat People, and a dopey poet they manage to find Jacqueline.  Jacqueline, who killed a private eye who was looking for her, is in hiding from both the law and a cabal of Satanists who think she has betrayed them by telling the psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, about them.  Only six people have crossed this cult before and all were killed, and Jacqueline is to be their seventh victim, giving us the title of the film.

Though some of the characters were hokey – seriously someone needed to punch the stupid poet – this short, melodramatic little film was pretty good.  Kim Hunter played Mary, the naive and innocent girl gone to the big city alone to find her sister. The terrible hair and fashion of the time made her look so much older than she was, but Hunter managed to pull off a neat balance between terrified virgin and intrepid girl scout on a mission.  She stays in New York, Gregory Ward helps her get a job, she takes a room over an Italian restaurant (called Dante’s) and is pretty resilient without being too plucky to be unendurable.

Early on, Mary is helped by a private detective who realizes that Jacqueline is being held in a locked room at her salon, and she accompanies the PI to the salon at night and is too terrified to open the door herself.  The PI reluctantly does it and she hovers in the shadows, frightened to her core, and later we learn that Jacqueline was indeed in that room and was convinced a member of the Satanic cult had come to kill her.  The PI drops to the floor, having been stabbed with a pair of scissors, and Mary runs away, leaving him there. Initially, this scene seemed off, but later I realize how well it worked because what was Mary to do?  He was dead, she couldn’t have removed him, and she had no idea how he came to be stabbed – was the killer still there?  The fear and flight were the right reactions.

Gregory Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont (yep, Mr. Ward later became Ward Cleaver), knows he is being cuckolded by Dr. Judd, but is so taken with Jacqueline’s exquisite beauty and cluster-B tendencies that he supports her even on the run, though when he finds out she is a killer he encourages her to turn herself in.  He also finds himself falling in love with Mary, probably because she is so uncomplicated.  He abetted Jacqueline’s craziness to a shocking degree, and she was nuts, no two ways about it.  Jacqueline was obsessed with death and suicide.  Because she was so interested in death, she rented a room – over Dante’s restaurant – and the only things in the room were a noose and a chair.  Gregory Ward kept up the rent on that room because he was besotted with what sounds like the mercurial nature of the personality disordered.

Interestingly, everyone felt Jacqueline was one of the most beautiful women they had ever seen.  When we finally meet her, it’s a hoot.  She’s a bog-standard proto-goth, down to the dyed-black hair and uneven baby bangs.  Her affect is utterly flat, she seems to get by on her quirkiness (death obsessed, continually telling charming lies, being the sort who would get in deep with Greenwich Village Satanists and then rat them out in therapy), and given that this film is ostensibly about finding her it matters very little when she is found.

Her hair proves how mysterious she is.

Dr. Judd, Gregory Ward, the poet whose name really doesn’t matter, and Mary finally track Jacqueline down and drag her back to Mary’s apartment to stay until Gregory can arrange a good time for her to turn herself in for killing the PI. But they don’t count on how intrepid the Satanists are.  They find Jacqueline and escort her to their lair, which is an apartment and filled with a cast of characters we met earlier during a party (the woman who owns the apartment has one arm, inexplicably), and give her poison to drink.

But this cabal of Satanists are civilized.  They will not kill her.  They will just pressure her to commit suicide unless she refuses and then, maybe, they will kill her.

Most civilized Satanic attempted murder ever!

Unsure why this cabal exists – they seem to just like having parties and talking about being bad while not actually being bad – but among them are Esther Redi and an extremely emotional hairdresser who worked for the salon Jacqueline owned.  When Jacqueline seems to be close to drinking the poison, the hairdresser loses it and breaks the glass and the cult sends sullen, affect-less Jacqueline on her way, only to follow her and try to kill her.  Jacqueline gets away, desperate to live, and races back to Mary’s apartment above the restaurant.

It is here that she encounters the dying woman who wants to live.  We had seen glimpses of Mimi, the coughing, dying wraith who lives in the building with the poet and Mary, but this is the first time she speaks.  Jacqueline, so paranoid she sees this sick woman and is fearful she is part of the cult, demands to know who she is, and Mimi explains that she is dying and that she is tired of being sick.  She wants to go out dancing and drinking and have fun, if only for one night, and then she might end it all.  She will only kill herself because she so wants to live and is sick of not enjoying life as she slowly dies from her illness.  Jacqueline, having refused to kill herself and having fought to remain alive, sees Mimi and rushes to her rented room and hangs herself.  Don’t ask me why.  Not the reaction I would have had. Conveniently her death clears the path for Mary and Gregory to be together, and Mimi does indeed dress up and have a lovely night on the town.

I was rather surprised by the way the Satanic cult was handled.  The cult called themselves Palladists – presumably a name that nods to Pallas Athena – and looked like a 1940s bridge tournament was being held.  The only one who seemed the least bit odd was the woman with one arm.  Otherwise they seemed perfectly normal, got up to little that was evil – killing only those who threatened the cult and adhering to non-violence whenever possible – yet operated in such secrecy that one was certain that some horrible stuff had to have gone down at some point.  One does not keep a 1940s exemplar of borderline personality disorder locked away in a room for months and later plan her death for squealing if one’s dopey cult does little more than hold interesting salon-style soirees and occasionally hail Satan.

You can tell they are evil because of the lighting.

The cult reminded me a bit of the Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, another New York Satanic cult that would not have raised an eyebrow initially, consisting as it did of daft old ladies like Ruth Gordon.  Ultimately we saw what the cult that impregnated Rosemary Woodhouse was about, but in the 1940s I supposed filmmakers had less leeway to present Satanic evil to its fullest cinematic glory.  In a way, if you know real life Satanists, the vast majority likely live lives not dissimilar to the lives of the Greenwich Village Satanists in The Seventh Victim, hosting tea parties and discussing the human will.  Leave out the stalking and killing part and it was a surprisingly modern approach to Satanists.  But since the stalking and murder were a part of this cult, it definitely harked back to Rosemary’s Baby – those who are genuinely evil in your midst may be the last people you would suspect.

Then there was the shower scene.  Janet Leigh being stabbed to death in Psycho was more than fifteen years away from hitting the silver screen, but I’ve seen it, as have most horror fans, and that scene definitely colored how I viewed Mary’s shower scene.  Mary had gotten her hair done at the salon her sister once owned, and had pumped the hairdresser for information about Esther Redi.  Esther Redi finds out and goes to confront Mary.  Mary lives in a single room over Dante’s Restaurant, and shares a bathroom with other tenants.  She is in the shower, complete with shower cap to cover her freshly styled hair, when Esther Redi enters the bathroom, which presumably Mary forgot to lock.

We do not know much about this cabal of Satanists that Esther Redi belongs to, but it is never good when a young girl is caught at such a disadvantage.  The shower curtain is clear so we can vaguely see Mary’s essential outline from Esther’s perspective.  However, from Mary’s perspective, all we can see is Esther’s backlit shadow towering over her.  But thankfully the Palladists are, at their core, gentle Satanists and Esther simply warns Mary away.  But the menace was clear – Esther could get into the bathroom, and presumably into Mary’s room, and had no trouble sneaking up on the naive teen when she was at her most vulnerable.

The use of showers in horror films is a ringer – it’s almost too easy – young person, generally a woman, naked and defenseless, becomes an easy and titillating target for the killer/supernatural monster.  But I note that in mostbest shower scene in a horror movie lists,” the lists don’t include any films prior to 1960’s Psycho.  Did this shower scene in the 1940s cause viewers the same apprehension it did me?  Did that menacing silhouette have anything close to the same baggage then as it does post-Psycho?  As I went looking for stills to demonstrate the scene, I found this snippet of the film on YouTube. The person behind this account clearly felt the same way I did.

This was not a terrifying film, but there were enough modern signifiers – a death-obsessed woman whose appearance was a precursor to more modern female death junkies/manic-depressive dream girls, Satanists that were not goat and baby sacrificing lunatics and judicious use of shower-menace – that it set far better with me than early monster movies and seriously hokey Hammer films (god, I want to enjoy Hammer films but they are just so purple and over the top and it makes me feel like a crappy horror fan that I sort of recoil when I hear the names Christopher Lee or Ingrid Pitt).  I recommend watching it if you can find a copy.  It’s not too hard, because you can stream it from Amazon.

If you watch it, let me know what you think.  Feel free to make fun of me for not liking Hammer films.  I’m used to it.

Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory

Author: Mary Woronov

Type of Book:
Non-fiction, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There is nothing particularly odd about Andy Warhol, but the majority of the people who made up the Factory are very interesting and quite strange. Add to this that Woronov’s prose is unusual (in a glorious way), and this book just had to be discussed here.

Availability: My copy was published by Journey Editions in 1995. Other editions are available, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read Ultra Violet’s Famous For 15 Minutes just after finishing Woronov’s book, and I think the comparison between the two made me understand that Woronov’s book was odd. Ultra Violet was a conventional woman drawn to unusual people, and her memoir, while interesting, makes it clear that her scene was far more interesting than she was. Though if I think about it, I should not be too hard on her – better than anyone else I have read, she seems to understand why Valerie Solanas just needed to shoot Warhol.

Woronov, however, outshines those around her in the Factory. She writes with an icy fire, a remarkable combination that seems to encapsulate who she was at the time (and may well still be – aside from knowing her work as the principal in Rock N’ Roll High School and the female lead in Eating Raoul, I know little about her beyond this book). Her tale is not just a perfect capture of a moment in history, but it is the odd tale of an odd woman with an odd mind. Oh, I have such a girl crush on Woronov now and intend to read everything she has written and see every movie she has been in.

Before I begin, I have to admit that I’m not a Warhol fan. I don’t condemn those who love him, but I find him tiresome. He was an amazing parasite who convinced his hosts that it was beneficial to them that he consume them and give little back. When they finally objected to him leeching them dry, he finished his hosts off and yet people find it easy to remember him fondly. Clearly he must have been very good at it because he attracted such a collection of genuinely talented people while making mass market prints of soup cans. Not to say the man was not a marketing genius but he was no artistic genius, though these days one is hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. In that regard he definitely was a visionary. But let it not go without saying that I am not a fan. I find the people he surrounded himself with infinitely more interesting than the man himself.

Woronov’s tale of her time in the Factory is a sharp slice of a tin-foil covered history. An intense woman, she seemed naively charmless, and that, of course, was her charm. She “whip danced” with Gerard Malanga, performing with the Velvet Underground in the early Warhol presentation called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Also, she was in the only movie Warhol made that does not make me fall into a boredom-rage-sleep, Chelsea Girls (though I have to admit I saw it so long ago that I don’t remember much except reacting in surprise that no one stabbed Brigid “Polk” Berlin). She paints a picture of herself as a cold, imperious young woman, sexually aloof even while engaging in provocative dancing with whips, under pulsing lights. But even as beautiful, aloof and talented as she was, she was not immune from the mercurial, nasty nature of Warhol.  In many ways, her story was probably the same story of many of the women involved in the Factory.

The book begins with a young Mary being saved from drowning. During a day at the beach, Mary and her mother swam out too far and hit a riptide. Mary was sure she was going to drown but her mother somehow saved the day. Back on the beach, drained from the experience, Mary has a surprising revelation:

I started shaking. I just couldn’t stop no matter how many blankets they gave me, but Mom, she was happy again, her body glistening white against the fallen night. It was like old times – people fussing over her, me feeling pathetic, worried over nothing. I hated it. Every time she looked back at me huddled in my blankets, that strange smile would curve her lips, her eyes would glitter again, and my gratitude at being alive shriveled. She knew what she was doing all along. She had done it before, swimming out too far, scaring people so they paid attention to her, and now letting me swim into a riptide so she could save me. I hated her.

This isn’t just angst. It’s foreshadowing. I seems a perfect encapsulation of the Warhol experience for many people.

Woronov’s brain is a crispy, knife-edged place and this is a very bestial, feral book.

There is Violet, my dog – my violent temper – the kind of thing you get a reputation for, and I must also confess to being the abused owner of a rage rat. This rodent is a voice in my head that never shuts up. I don’t know how I acquired it. I suppose it was given to me at an early age by some malicious adult, or perhaps every head comes equipped with one – you know, the “rodent included” plan. I’ve already packed these two in their traveling boxes; others are too prehistoric to catch, nobody would want to go into the black waters where they live. And there are also animals I don’t want to catch; rather I’m afraid of them catching me, like coyotes that carry insanity like a plague. I’m afraid they will find out where I’m going and follow me. Every time I find a new animal, like my party squirrel or my comedy crow, I give it a cage and a feeding schedule. And of course there are the rabbits – little habits that I’ve stuffed into every possible space in my suitcase – habits of speed, junk, pills, and any other poison I can get my hands on.

Either this passage grabbed you with both fists and shook you a bit and you need no explanation as to why I found this so amazing, or it meant nothing and any explanations would be meaningless.

The Postcard Killer by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey

Author: Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Did I Read This Book: I have a weakness for true crime. There was once a time when I could have told you the name and victim count of every serial killer from recorded time to present but I have since lost that ability as serial and mass murder became sort of commonplace in the Internet and on television and I lost interest via excessive immersion. However, I still appreciate a good true crime yarn, especially about a killer I have never heard of before.

Availability: Published by Thunder’s Mouth Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The case of J. Frank Hickey was a fascinating read. Though I disagree with the assertion the author makes, that Hickey was the first man ever captured as a result of profiling, that does not render this book any the less absorbing and hard to put down.

Because I discuss books in depth, there is no way for me to discuss elements of this book that would not spoil elements of it for some readers. I think this is a book worth reading, and if you think my many words will ruin aspects of the book, stop reading now. Just go buy the book. It’s not going to be a book that inspires a lot of thought or cause much internal contemplation – it is simply telling the tale of a sadistic man who killed 100 years ago, and as true crime goes, it is better than most.

J. Frank Hickey was a man who confessed to three murders, and if contemporary knowledge of serial killers is of any use, then it is very likely he killed far more than those he confessed to. As a young man, he killed an older drunk whom he feared might take his job, and a couple of decades later, he killed a newsboy. The book focuses, however, mainly on the murder of Joey Joseph in Lackawanna, New York. In 1911, Hickey lured the seven-year-old boy with a trip to a candy store, then took him into a multi-seat outhouse outside a saloon and strangled and raped the child. He then threw the boy’s body down one of the outhouse seats into the latrine below and went back into the saloon and drank. No one ever suspected him and he very well might have gotten away with the murder had he not overplayed his hand: He began to send taunting postcards to the family.

This is where I contend that Hickey was not caught by profiling. He was caught because newspapers ran copies of the postcards he sent in the hopes that someone would recognize the handwriting, which is exactly what happened. Two separate men recognized Hickey’s handwriting and it was downhill for the police from there. It was a capture due to police exercising certain procedural discretion, not because of profiling.

Three things stand out the most for me in this book. First is that Hickey, likely needing the thrill that finding the body would cause, became frustrated when the local police chief failed to find the boy. He sent a postcard to the chief of police telling him point blank that Joey Joseph was in a cesspit, giving the exact location. He did this within a month of the murder. The police chief sent a couple of cops to check out the outhouse and they peered into the filth below, unable to see much. They did not drain the cesspit, they just looked. Had the police performed even the most casual due-diligence, Joey’s body would have been found sooner. But the chief of police patted himself on the back, finding a silver lining in his cloud of incompetence: Had they found Joey’s body sooner, Hickey would not have written more postcards and they might not have caught him. It took over a year for Joey’s body to be recovered once the police finally pumped the cesspit and found him.

Second is how Hickey toyed with the family. Not even Jack the Ripper or the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, letter writers both, taunted directly the victims of their killings. Neither did the Zodiac Killer, who remains uncaught to this day. But Hickey did. His postcards were not as horrific as the letters sent by Albert Fish to the family of his victim, Grace Budd, whom he tortured and then ate, but they were upsetting enough. He said that since Joey’s mother was known as a nervous, unstable woman, he could not bear the torture she was undergoing and hoped his letters to the family, confessing the murder, would lead to finding the boy’s body. More likely, he did not receive the catharsis he needed when Joey’s body failed to be retrieved from the muck and needed some release via upsetting the Joseph family. However, if that was his goal, it backfired for a long while as the elder Joseph did not initially turn the letters over to the police, hoping against hope the letters were hoaxes and his son was alive somewhere. But he also sat on the letters because he feared that if the police knew his son was murdered, they might stop looking for the boy.

Third, I had no idea the life of a newsboy was as horrible as it was until I read this book. Young children in urban areas, sent out to sell papers by families barely scraping by, were of course open prey for pedophiles. Some even became prostitutes, selling themselves for meals and sometimes just the price for admission to a cinema, to be in out of the cold. Joey Joseph was not a newsboy but one of Hickey’s admitted victims was, and reading about the terrible life these children faced, the poverty, the potential victimization and similar, has made me want to read more about the topic. Newsboys seem a romanticized part of history in many large American cities and it was appalling and interesting to see how that romance crumbles under the most casual scrutiny. It seems to me, on many levels, that kids selling the news have always been natural victims. From newsboys to boys abducted as they delivered newspapers on their bike routes in more modern times, it seems odd that the technological advance that so many fear imperils children helped stopped one of the perils – the lone child peddling the news.

All in all, a very interesting, well-written book.