By chance, I recently watched two films about devil worshippers, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), produced by William Castle and directed by Roman Polanski and The 7th Victim (1943), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson. What was interesting, besides picking these similarly themed films at random, was that both are set in New York City and involve a coven of devil worshippers (sometimes referred to as witches) of high society types who use psychological techniques, specifically persuasion and manipulation, against their main victim, in each case, a young woman.
In Rosemary’s Baby, the goal is to get Rosemary, played by the Mia Farrow to give birth to Satan’s son and in The 7th Victim, it is to persuade Jacqueline played by Jean Brooks, to commit suicide as punishment for divulging the existence of the cult and trying to leave it.
On a cinematic level, both films are masterly directed, acted (the cast of character actors in their supporting parts are amazing in each film) and use camera framing, camera movement, actor blocking, sound and lighting to great affect to tell their story. For example, below are two scenes from each film, both taking place on the “streets” of New York City, at night.
Check out the first three minutes of this clip from Rosemary’s Baby and its use of camera movement and actor blocking to enhance the deception of Rosemary in this story. It is shot outside the Dakota Building on 72nd Street in New York City (where John Lennon lived and was murdered):
Now check out this short clip from The 7th Victim and observe its amazing low key lighting, and its music and sound effects and how they help support the suspense of the chase. It was shot on RKO studio lots in Los Angeles and is supposed to be the Lower East Side of New York City:
Click this link –> The 7th Victim scene.
There is no doubt in my mind, that these two films, with their very dark subject matter, significantly accomplished a high degree of storytelling by their creative use of cinematic techniques.
On another level, the fact that both of these “devil worshipping” films were set in New York City reminded me of another film, Inferno (1980) produced by Claudio Argento and directed by Dario Argento. This film, the second of a trilogy continues the story of The Three Mothers, who in the mythology of the story written by Dario Argento tells the tale of Mater Tenebrarum, or the Mother of Darkness, the youngest of a coven of three evil witch sisters who are bent on controlling the world through the use of dark magic. The sisters are spread out in three different cities, the oldest in Germany, the middle sister in Italy and the youngest, in New York City. However, the representation of the witches and their coven, is highly supernatural, which makes it different from the first two films.
What really interested me about the first two films, were their similarities in theme. It was especially the use of psychological manipulation and the representation of the mental and emotional deterioration of the female protagonist in each film that caught my attention.
In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary, starts off in appearance at least as a childlike waif, and as the younger wife of a discontent, struggling actor, Guy, played by the great, John Cassavetes. Her character however, is naturally observant, intuitive and logical, often mulling over odd, minor details about her new residence and its occupants, but later succumbs to the manipulative, authoritative voices around her time and time again. It begins with her husband, then her seemingly harmless elderly neighbors, then her new doctor, etc. and this eventually leads her down a path of insecurity and paranoia (though possibly authentic in her case) and apparently to a horrific conclusion.
In The 7th Victim, we are informed of Jacqueline’s outgoing nature, self sufficiency and business savvy, mainly through her younger sister, Mary, as she spends the first part of the film in search of the now missing Jacqueline. When we finally encounter her, we discover a woman who has been so emotionally and psychologically abused by the scare tactics of her former cult, that she seems paranoid to the point becoming mute. In addition, any suicidal tendencies she has suppressed in her life, have been unleashed in the form of a prepared noose in a locked room.
In the end, both films used the theme of psychological manipulation and the mental and emotional deterioration of their female protagonists to signal their downfalls. Though on some levels, this is obviously reinforcing the popular notion that women are more emotionally sensitive and unstable than men, it is interesting that they framed their characters, one apparently with depression and the other during the course of a pregnancy, in potentially high emotional states. And in a cinematic era filled with unrealistic supernatural agents and psychotic murder seeking antagonists, it really made each story more significant in my mind.