I'm not sure if it entirely works. It's an intelligent movie, full of dark undertones and themes, but I didn't think everything in it was quite pulling in the same direction. The subtext ends up being just as important as the ostensible menace, if not arguably becoming the real text. You'll have plenty to think about after watching this, no question, but it's not as satisfying as some other Lewton movies as far as one's inner neanderthal is concerned. Don't imagine for a moment that it's a bad film, though.
Oh, and this review will be mentioning spoilers. Sorry. I'll give you plenty of warning, though. This is film noir as much as horror, in which we're looking for the sister of Mary Gibson (played by Kim Hunter). We start in an innocent (?) little school in New England or somewhere, but we're soon in New York and there Lewton works on our paranoia in deliciously subtle ways. Even now, after watching the film, I'm still not sure about who was and wasn't evil. Maybe your antennae will be twitching at the way an actor delivers their lines, or maybe it'll be an apparent inconsistency in what they're telling us. "The police would say you probably had a bad dream." You're just trying to stop her going to the authorities, aren't you? All this I loved. Urban paranoia might seem to be one of the easier genres to do well, but Lewton's doing it in a way that's a compliment to the intelligence. Eventually you realise the obvious, i.e. that the title is referring to six previous victims, and you realise that, yes, the plot's going as dark as you'd been assuming it was going to. The mystery's building up nicely...
...and then you learn the truth, after which things are never quite as strong. Personally I was more scared by the early parts of the film, when we were more in the dark about what was going on, partly by the nature of mysteries and partly due to a personal idiosyncracy of mine. That's just me, I'm afraid. However that said, there's still plenty to admire about the film's finale, while I was startled by the intelligence with which Val Lewton's addressing his subject matter. If anyone's wondering whether to watch this, you can stop wondering because that's a non-question. It's Lewton. Some things are just the law.
Okay, that was my spoiler-free preamble. I'll try not to ruin the film for anyone, but from now on I'll be discussing in a bit more detail.
This is a film of two halves: its themes and its bad guys. The former are what you're really watching, while the latter are what you think you're watching. Val Lewton's laying out his themes more explicitly than usual, bookending the film with two little speeches that are basically the moral of the story stepping into the mouths of a couple of minor characters. "One must have courage to live in the world." This film is full of people who've hidden themselves away to protect themselves and ended up dying inside, observing others' lives rather than in any way being part of them. Sometimes they've done it out of fear of the bad guys, but sometimes it's been a more trivial, everyday want of courage. It's easier not to take a chance. The end of the film in particular makes Lewton's metaphors literal, as is explained to us by a mortally sick Elizabeth Russell. "I'm dying. I've been so quiet, not going out. I'm going out to laugh and dance, and do all the things I used to do."
Interestingly all this applies just as much to our heroine as it does to her sister. Kim Hunter puzzled me for a while because she's delivering her lines with the kind of detachment that could be confused at first glance with a wooden performance. Hunter's not some "flash in the pan" nobody, though. This was the first film in a long and respectable career. She played both Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Zira in the Planet of the Apes series, for instance. What she's doing here is cold and distant, but sympathetic. She has a sweet smile, but she hardly uses it. Eventually I realised that she's sad. She's drifting through life like a little ghost, being polite and kind to everyone but never really engaging with the world. Lewton has a knack for flawed or damaged protagonists, writing characters where you'd expect a mere hero, and this one's up there with The Ghost Ship.
So that's the subtext. New York is a city of people who don't engage with other people and have forgotten how to live. However for those who haven't noticed all that, this is a film about cults.
That's the element I wasn't wild about. Movies about cults can go in two ways. These days you can hardly turn around in popular fiction without tripping over some Satanists, from The Devil Rides Out to K9 and Company, but personally I've always found them a bit silly. Even Rosemary's Baby doesn't really do it for me, to be honest. I don't get it. I look at these obviously deluded people and think "losers". It certainly wouldn't occur to me to consider them scary in any way, despite the fact that real life cults have done horrific damage to the people who've got involved in them. Normally movies just go for the blood sacrifices and the rituals, but what I like here is that Val Lewton's going for the psychological angle, showing us what might drive a girl to join up with people like this. Eventually it's almost a deconstruction of cults, with the script echoing a lot of what I've been saying. These people are intense, creepy and homicidally protective of their secrets, but they're not the real danger. Anyone can fight against a would-be murderer. It's your own damaged psyche that can really cut your legs from under you. Let's face it, in most cases, the people most at risk from cultists are the cultists themselves.
All this I respect. It's wonderful that someone put all this in a film. Unfortunately I have to admit that in the end, stupid cliches might have made for scarier villains. Lewton further loads the deck against his cultists by giving them some peculiar ideas on morality, which leads them to enact the film's most intense scene but again makes them seem less intimidating.
Then you've got the film making us guess who might be part of the conspiracy. However it can't keep us in suspense for ever... and this too means a reduction in suspense. D'oh.
The director, Mark Robson, isn't as renowned as Tourneur or Wise, but that doesn't mean he's not doing fine work. There are a couple of trademark Lewton scenes where someone's walking through darkness to what might be their doom. The corpse on the train is sinister, while I like the way our suspicions shift and flow as the movie progresses. Particularly interesting in this regard is Tom Conway's Dr Judd, whom we'd previously met in Cat People. He's as charming as ever here, but Lewton knows we'll be inclined to trust him and takes advantage of our good nature by making him staggeringly dodgy. "There are any number of other psychiatrists who can help your father. Dypsomania is rather sordid." We first see him possibly extorting cash on false pretences and it goes downhill from there. He's not the only link with Cat People, by the way, since Elizabeth Russell crops up in a small role (as before in Cat People and Curse of the Cat People) and is wearing the same outfit she wore in the former.
Apparently some scenes were cut before release, but the film doesn't feel hacked about. On the contrary, it manages to incorporate more than a dozen main characters and their subtle interrelationships, all in quite a fast-moving plot. Apparently there are also continuity lapses, alleged homosexual undertones and a message that can be interpreted as anti-feminist, but I didn't notice any of that. However I did notice the way Lewton makes a joke in Latin, refers to Cyrano de Bergerac and begins and ends the film by quoting John Donne's first Holy Sonnet. I also noticed the way the ending blasts the spirit of the Production Code into matchsticks.
The story I've read is that Lewton was told not to make a film with a message, but he replied that this film did have a message: "Death is good". This is definitely my favourite movie about cultists and/or Satanists I've seen to date, although I should probably give Rosemary's Baby another chance before pronouncing final judgement. You might enjoy it better if you imagine it as a horror-tinged noir than as a straight horror, but then again Lewton had never been a perpetrator of straight horror, had he? I'm looking forward to rewatching this. I'd have probably been calling it badly constructed (or at least eccentric) had it been nothing but a dumb cultist flick, but in fact it's pretty much the opposite. I can imagine this having become one of my favourite films in ten years' time, you know.