An interesting and surprisingly lengthy article inside the August 24, 1946 edition of Liberty Magazine, “Horrors!” by Joseph Wechsberg, takes a detailed look at the “fine art of spine-chilling” through the films of Producer Val Lewton and Horror Icon Boris Karloff at the time of The Body Snatcher’s release. While the classic Universal monsters from what Wechsberg calls “the School of Satanic Horror” would undergo an earlier and much more substantial revival, “Horrors!” zeroes in on many of the elements of Lewton’s body of work, belonging to Wechsberg’s “School of Gentle Horror,” which is trumpeted by today’s film scholars.
In explaining what goes into a "Lewton," Wechsberg first tells us of horrors past, describing some of the visual horrors found in The Wolf Man, Dracula, The Mad Ghoul, and Man Made Monster before stating that none of that kind of thing goes on in a Lewton, instead “The idea is to convey horror by suggestion, indicating that such things could perhaps happen.”
Lewton finds unintended laughter the worst possibility at a horror screening and sets out to avoid it from the start by quickly moving away from the tensest scenes to images as varied as a wide-eyed frightened child or simply a beautiful mountain exterior. He succeeds at distracting even the worst skeptics who might be tempted to razz the picture through this technique.
Another key to Lewton’s pictures is what he calls the bus. Wechsberg writes that his “pictures open in a leisurely way, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Then, when people least expect it, comes a sudden shock.” That would be Lewton’s bus, a term he coined after The Cat People where audiences went into a frenzy as a tense scene was broken up by the loud roar of a bus passing by. A bus could be a loud sound as in the literal example of The Cat People or other fundamental fears such as wild animals entering a scene or darkness sweeping over it.
Wechsberg calls special attention to Lewton’s sense of humor writing that “his horror assembly line is greased with good spirits.” When an RKO exec walked past Lewton’s laughter-filled office one day he was said to ask “What’s going on in there? They prepping a new comedy for Leon Errol?” The secretary replied that Lewton and company were inside working on The Body Snatcher.
After another RKO executive told Lewton his work was “swell … But it ain’t horror,” Lewton extracted revenge at a preview of Bedlam, where he sat behind the same man and tapped him on the shoulder during a particularly tense scene causing him to “emit a scream that was heard all over the lot.”
Lewton, who at the time of “Horrors!” had recently left RKO for Paramount, and Mark Robson, who then had directed Lewton’s last five films, had grand ideas to carry out on low budgets. In Bedlam they reuse a church previously seen in The Bells of St. Mary’s while in Isle of the Dead they estimated the cost of a required battlefield at a prohibitive $2,000, but worked around it by studying some of Goya’s old paintings and using their imagery to create the impression of a battlefield.
About midway through his article Wechsberg lists several of the successful elements of a horror film:
Horror pictures depend on technical perfection, startling sound and photography effects. The photography of chiller-dillers is done by the best low-key specialists among Hollywood’s cameramen. Sequences in graveyards, dark laboratories, voodoo dancing places, torture chambers, insane asylums are not easy to shoot. The camera has to seek out black spaces. Surprising light sources must be found. Brilliant black and white contrasts, dramatic side lights, silhouette effects, weird shadows, fog sequences, people walking through dark rooms with candles in their hands are the stuff that horror is made of.
As excellent as the coverage of Val Lewton is in Joseph Wechsberg’s “Horrors!” the piece does tend towards being overlong by tacking on a shorter section about Boris Karloff, the most interesting parts coming from legendary make-up man Jack Pierce, and then finishing with a disjointed overview of the history of the horror picture to 1946. But the coverage of Lewton is more extensive than any I’ve run across in general mainstream periodicals of his own time. Well worth the read.