I Run To Death, And Death Meets Me As Fast: X&HT Watched The Seventh Victim

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The crossing where the dark roads of horror and film noir meet is a place of fertile earth, where nightmares are easily grown. The ground, after all, is fertilised with a hefty dose of bone and blood. There are a ton of great films out there that take typically noir traits, and give them a shivery twist. Think of classics like Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs. David Fincher’s Se7en. Kolchak The Night Stalker. Hell, half the X-Files was horror noir. Think of a film where a hard-boiled tec takes on a case, only to find that he’s hunting down something with a little more of the night in it than he anticipated.

Back in the heydays of noir, the 1940’s, this crosspoint was wide and broad. Noir has always been black and white in both visual and moral terms, and like horror, is not overly concerned that good should always triumph over evil. Both genres cast a bleakly jaundiced eye over human relationships, and easily find and stress-test the weak points.

The 1943 film The Seventh Victim saw producer Val Lewton take the psychological horror that he had pioneered in the classic Cat People, and add a noirish feel. Deep shadows and slashes of light were already visual cues for hard-boiled film, and this was a look in which Lewton’s long-time cinematographer Nicolas Musuraka revelled. On The Seventh Victim, he and director Mark Robson went a step further, soaking every frame in pools of darkness.

The Seventh Victim begins as the sheltered world of our heroine, Mary, is quickly stripped away. She attends a boarding school, the fees paid by her only relative, her sister Jacqueline. Jacqueline has disappeared, and the funds have dried up. Offered the choice to stay in the school as unpaid help, Mary instead opts to travel to New York to find her sister.

Once in the Big Apple, the mystery only deepens. Jacqueline has given away the family business, and got into some very bad company. Mary is quickly snared in a web of lies and deceit, and the hunt for Jacqueline will lead her to question the motives of everyone who pledges to help her.

The Seventh Victim casts an eerie, uncomfortable spell right from the first frames. Mary is urged to leave the boarding school and not return by the headmistress’ assistant, who tells her that “you must have courage to really live in the world” – a creepy foreshadowing of future events. Jacqueline is described as a rare beauty by everyone she meets, a light in the dark city – and yet she is obsessed with death, and rents a room above the Dante Restaurant (a powerfully appropriate name) containing nothing but a noose and a chair.

The film contains sequences that are the match of The Cat People in terms of shadowy shocks. Mary and a private detective who has taken her case search the cosmetics factory that used to belong to Jacqueline, at night. The one room they haven’t entered is barred by a black rectangle of shadow at the end of a dark corridor. Both Mary and the detective recoil at the sight of it. They are right to do so. There is death in that room for one of them.

The final fifteen minutes, in which Jacqueline wanders the streets after being cursed by the Satanists who have swallowed her life and shattered her sanity, are as powerful as any horror of the era. Vulnerable and alone, Jacqueline is threatened by shadows that turn out to be harmless, only to have new real, threats loom out of the darkness. Trapped by her own crumbling will, Jacqueline’s escape route is clear to us all, yet still a punch in the gut when it happens. Mary starts to hope for the future, unaware that her sister has already closed the door firmly on it. It’s an astonishingly bleak ending.

Noir doesn’t often get this creepy, horror doesn’t often have this atmosphere. Fans of both genres should find much to admire in The Seventh Victim, even if it’s a little too cold-hearted to love.

Leading Man Clive put me up to this, but then he knows my proclivities better than most. It proudly appears under the banner of the annual Film Noir Preservation Blogathon, raising funds to get classic and wrongly forgotten movies back into shape so they can thrill and chill a brand new audience. Readership, I urge you to support this worthy cause, which as I’m sure you can imagine is pretty near to my heart.

You can donate using Paypal by simply clicking on the lovely lady under the lamp-post below. Be gentle though. She may look like a kitten, but this cat has claws.

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A Walthamstow Story (or two)

They say that you’re at least partly a product of your environment. Walthamstow, which marks the transition from East London into Essex, is the place I was born, spent a huge chunk of my most formative years, and made a home with TLC until we moved west in 2004. It’s a place that still fills me with mixed feelings, nostalgia mixed in with a sadness that the place has never really lived up to it’s potential. For a while, it was also the setting for some of my short stories. And Then I Woke Up is a Walthamstow tale, and so is the one below. They’re both pretty unpleasant. I’m not sure you can read anything into that.

The story I’m about to tell you features two of the ‘Stow’s most recognisable features – The High Street, one of the longest in Europe, and the old, grade 2 listed cinema. It’s now referred to as the EMD, but when I went it was called the ABC, and when my mum and dad used to go, it was the Granada. It’s been a fixture of the cultural life of my family for at least two generations then. The way it’s been treated over the past few years simply breaks my heart.

Read more about the cinema and the fight to save it at The Macguffins site.

Now, please to enjoy your Tale For Monday: a nasty little vignette that I call

SINGLES NIGHT AT THE ENGRAMART

(Advisory. I wrote this. There are swears and gore.)

Continue reading A Walthamstow Story (or two)

2011: The Cleardown

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The beacon is lit. The Gateway opens. The sleeper awakes.

A sense of peace and order descends on Casa Conojito as the Xmas deccoes are packed up and put away, signalling the end of all merriness and joy for the next eleven months. It’s been a straightforward clearup, as we went minimal on the froth, frippery and frou-frou this year.

The exception to that rule is, as ever, the unknotting of the lights from the tree, a process that requires the application of non-Euclidian geometry and much swearing to complete. I was quite proud of the amount of quantum entanglement I achieved this go-round. It was an exercise in four-dimensional shared-plane dynamics that took some thought and a tearful breakdown before I applied good old Gordian theoretics to the problem and took the tree apart with the lights still attached.

Even then, the bastard things were tighter than Kylie’s dress on New Year’s Eve. The final knot-form that the lights evolved to once I had finally freed them from the tree was unsetting, otherworldly. The bundle of green wires seemed to twist serpent-like in my hands as I stuffed them back in the box. ‘Twas if somehow the form had described a pathway, a map to eldritch other dimensions. A beacon that the dwellers of these side-shifted places could follow to find their way here.

I fear for what awaits me when I go back up to the loft next Christmas. I fear that the deity whose arrival we celebrate on December 25th will not be the one we usually greet.

Ho ho ho. Cthulhu fhtagn.

2011: New Day Rising

When I was young and foolish, I used to believe it was the height of cool sophistication to start New Year’s Day by putting the U2 song of the same name on at high volume. A totemic beginning to the New Year, I thought.

I know better now, and wouldn’t assume to sully the intelligence or patience of my dear Readership by forcing Bono on them while they’re still in a delicate place.

Instead, please to enjoy Leatherface rocking out to Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising.”

Aah. BRACING.

My 15 Favourite Horror Things

This is all Simon Aitken’s fault. He tagged me in a Facebook post, as part of an ongoing meme which seems appropriate for this, The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. In short, he challenged me and his friends to list our top 15 horror films, and give a reason why we like them so much. His list is here, and I can’t argue with any of his choices.

As I started thinking about my list, I realised that some of my favourite horror moments weren’t films at all. So, as it’s me, and I believe in doing things a little differently, what comes next is a countdown of my favourite horror things. I hope you’ll find some surprises. In no particular order, then…

Continue reading My 15 Favourite Horror Things