Sometimes I enjoy going to Wikipedia and scrolling through lists of movies released in past decades to see which have been almost completely forgotten. Auden famously wrote of books, “some are unjustly forgotten, none are unjustly remembered.” The same applies to movies. Most films which are forgotten are forgotten for a reason. They weren’t very original. They just didn’t work on a number of levels. But this doesn’t mean that some of them don’t retain something of interest.
A forgotten movie that caught my eye in the 1988 list was The Seventh Sign starring Demi Moore. It’s in the same genre of horror as Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen and probably didn’t make much of an impact because those themes had already been done. Generally speaking, horror went in three different directions in the twentieth century. There was the Lovecraftian direction of cosmic horror, in which humans are helpless against malevolent forces which exist in the universe. There was the Psycho and Friday The 13th slasher direction, in which protagonists are victims of deranged, weapon-wielding psychopaths. And there was the apocalyptic-religious direction of The Exorcist and The Omen.
The Seventh Sign is obviously the apocalyptic-religious direction. In a typically on point review Roger Ebert admitted, “I am not even sure I completely understood all of the details.” Basically Demi Moore plays a pregnant woman whose pregnancy seems to ominously fit in with portentous events happening around the world that mimic the apocalyptic signs discussed in Revelation. It’s a concept that had been done before and more effectively.
But the film has several elements that make it interesting even if, as Ebert said, it’s rather confusing. The portentous events, like dead fish washing ashore in Haiti, all happen in parts of the developing world. You can’t help but link this kind of storytelling with a subconscious Western anxiety about the effects of resource imperialism. Why, in a West that has moved away from strict Biblical adherence, should the book of Revelation continue to hold such fascination? Why has there been such a market for movies that speculate on a divine judgement and wrath which the “enlightened” West had supposedly evolved beyond?
The “signs” are all overseen by a mysterious figure played by Jürgen Prochnow, who moves into the garage Moore and her husband are renting out. I guess he is supposed to be Jesus, as the connection is made explicit in a flashback. But he comes across more as a creepy cult member, not a messiah. A priest played by Peter Friedman wanders around investigating these events as a representative of the Church. The interesting storytelling device here is that the role of the Wandering Jew has been transferred to a Catholic priest, who in turn is associated with a first century Roman mocker of Christ. A young Jewish man played by Manny Jacobs helps Moore’s character translate a key Hebrew manuscript. At the end of the film the kid is told, “write down what you have seen,” thus presenting him as a kind of 20th century Matthew. Whatever the film was trying to say, it certainly went to pains to undercut anti-Semitic traditions.
The music is quite enjoyable. A throaty and eerie chant often intersperses with fun eighties beats. The ending is a disappointment in that it seems both awfully contrived and makes little sense. At one point Jacobs’ character seeks advice from a priest played by John Heard(best known as Kevin’s Dad from Home Alone). Heard gives him the good mainstream Christian answer that the Revelation stories are symbolic and not to be taken literally. That’s good theology in the real world, but isn’t helpful in a horror film where apocalyptic forces are all too real and imminent. Sometimes people find God’s wrath easier to believe in than God’s grace. Given the events of the 20th century, that’s an understandable feeling. No wonder so many films reflect it.