I’ve never been very keen on horror films from the classical Hollywood era, which have always struck me as too quaint and creaky to be really effective. (My favorite horror film to come out of this period, Freaks , is so anomalously twisted and weird that it seems to have arrived from another planet altogether.) It’s my contention that, with a few exceptions, the horror film really gets good in the 1960s, the ground having been broken by Psycho—the first modern horror film. One of the reasons why many earlier horror films may be so ineffective is that they’re often male driven; while there’s usually a female love interest who briefly falls into the clutches of the villain, these films tend to pit male villain against male hero—a fatal misinterpretation of the dramatic appeal of the genre.
The horror film has its origins in the Gothic fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which it found its first source material: the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s saw multiple adaptations of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Poe’s tales. But even as these stories, most of which center on the figure of a male monster, have become canonized within the horror genre, they obscure the fact that Gothic fiction often centers around the figure of a woman in trouble, to borrow the tagline of David Lynch’s Inland Empire (a horror film if ever there was one). A woman in trouble: it could just as easily describe any number of horror classics, from Psycho to Carrie, A Nightmare on Elm Street to Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby to Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead to Alien, The Haunting to The Innocents. The horror genre, in other words, is really all about The Girl—something that the modern horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, which repeatedly make women their central characters, begin to understand. This narrative convention, which on some level suggests the appeal of representations of female vulnerability, has also allowed The Girl to make the horror genre her own. The monster movies aside, the horror genre is really a female genre in which the fears and desires of women are transformed into the realm of fantasy and nightmare. While related genres (action, sci-fi, westerns) have remained more firmly masculine, horror has consistently lent itself to female-driven narratives, a theory to which recent accounts of the "Final Girl" attest.
Which explains why The Seventh Victim (dir. Mark Robson, 1943) strikes me as one of the more compelling horror films of the classical Hollywood era. Produced by Val Lewton (whose other credits include the similarly female-driven Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie), it’s the story of an innocent teenage girl’s search for her sister (pictured above), who has fallen into the clutches of a group of Satanists. Not unlike Rosemary’s Baby, it involves a sheltered young woman’s attempt to make sense of a strange and terrifying urban environment. Wandering through the streets of New York, pursued by murderers, desperate to save her sister’s life, Mary undergoes the kind of traumatic initiation into womanhood that the horror film stages over and over again.