Director: Andrew Kutzer
I’m not normally a one for watching completely amateur (in a non-judgemental sense) movies - fanfilms in other words. They’re all very well and good for those who like them, but I have enough films to watch already, thank you very kindly. But I’ll make an exception for this 17-minute Aussie short, partly because it’s not a fanboy love poem to some big-budget cinematic franchise, but mostly because it has been written and produced by my old mate Russell.
‘The Seventh Victim’ is a famous short story by one of the great SF writers, Robert Sheckley, who sadly passed away last December. He tended to write SF that bordered on, or toppled over into, satire (Sheckley’s influence on the works of Douglas Adams was something that Adams himself tended to gloss over).
‘The Seventh Victim’ itself has quite a history. First published in Galaxy magazine in 1953, it was filmed in Italy in 1965 as The Tenth Victim, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress (the title possibly changed to avoid confusion with the 1943 Val Lewton picture). There was allegedly an Italian TV version in 1979 too and there was a radio dramatisation in 1957 as part of the series X Minus One. Sheckley himself novelised the 1965 film and wrote two lacklustre sequels to it in the late 1980s, by which time his copious and rather notorious consumption of certain substances had severely dulled his literary edge. A new version, also called The Tenth Victim, was was announced in 2001, allegedly to star Catherine Zeta Jones; Brendan Fraser was reported to be aboard the project two years later. Although this never came to anything, when I interviewed producer Ed Pressman last month on the set of Mutant Chronicles, The Tenth Victim was still very much part of his portfolio of in-development projects.
The actual plot is relatively simple; most of the science fictional aspects are in the setting. In the future, war and crime have been eradicated by the introduction of legalised murder, co-ordinated by the Emotional Catharsis Bureau (ECB) which pairs up killers and victims. About one third of the population take part, but very few killers make it into ‘the tens’ - kills in double figures. There are also gladiatorial combats and ‘death races’ to entertain the populace.
Stanton Frelaine (Darren Maxwell, director of Alone and The Psychology of Killing) is assigned his seventh victim and is shocked to discover that it’s a woman, Janet Patzig (Audrey Lamont). He can’t back down or refuse the assignment. Well, actually he can but that would mean that he would be reclassified as a victim. (We learn at this point, as an aside, that killing innocent bystanders, even accidentally, carries the death penalty).
Frelaine has a ‘spotter’, Ed Morrow (Geoff Tilley), who tracks down his victims for him and the two are soon parked in a car watching Patzig drink tea at a cafe table, seemingly oblivious to her status as a victim. Unable to carry out the hit for both practical and emotional reasons, Frelaine instead approaches Patzig and the two strike up a nascent romance. But when they go back to her flat, Stanton finds out that this ‘unsuccessful actress’ is not all she says.
It’s a fairly corny plot with a twist ending that can be spotted miles away but it was probably fresh and original in 1953. Russell Devlin’s script does a good job of sticking to Sheckley’s story, embellishing it with TV clips including a show which interviews successful killers and a TV debate in which one of the pundits is played by director Andrew Kutzer (who also provide an announcer’s voice). The script's weak point is towards the end, when Frelaine is momentarily left alone and indulges in an entirely unnecessary voice-over monologue in which he voices his contradictory feelings towards Patzig. We are told about the character’s predicament instead of being shown it. Actually, we are shown it as well, in the form of a montage, and the scene would work perfectly well with just images and music. (The film’s music is variously lifted from episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits plus Holst’s Planets Suite.)
Devlin worked hard on this short, racking up credits as not only writer and producer but also DP, props, sound, lighting gaffer and title sequence. He shot the film on video and it shows, and some of the interior scenes suffer from bad sound, as so often with this level of film-making. There is not really anything by way of special effects. The acting is surprisingly good, especially from Maxwell whose character undergoes a complete transformation during the film’s short running time.
Sheckley’s works were the basis of several other films and TV shows, notably Freejack and Condorman, and towards the end of his life he wrote spin-off novels based on Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 and Aliens as well as an unpublished (allegedly unpublishable) novelisation of the computer game Starship Titanic. Back at the start of his career he wrote episodes of Captain Video! Ideas from ’The Seventh Victim’ can be seen in the excellent Series 7: The Contenders but it can be argued that the subgenre extends all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game.
Russell sent me two discs, one with the director’s version, one with the producer’s version. There is relatively little difference, just a couple of bits of dialogue and some different takes in certain shots. I slightly preferred the former but that may just be because I watched it first. Also on the discs was a trailer, a stills gallery (which include innumerable posters, one of which announces that ‘nobody will be admitted after the first 17 minutes’), a spoof music video, various out-takes and a half-hour ‘scrapbook’ of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes footage in lieu of a proper Making Of. Also included is the (public domain) X Minus One radio version, the opening announcement of which forms the start of this film.
Seventh Victim is not an authorised adaptation. It was produced shortly before Sheckley died but he was not aware of it (mind you, he probably wasn’t aware of his slippers for most of his last decade). It has been screened at a couple of festivals/conventions to considerable acclaim and the team behind it are now working on larger and more ambitious projects.
MJS rating: B+