Val Lewton worked at RKO Studios in the 1940s and proceeded to turn it into the most important Hollywood studio in history besides Universal relative to the impact on horror film. While RKO operated on a much stricter budget than Universal, that lack of resources turned out to be a positive impact. Lacking the money to build the gothic sets that characterizes the Universal horror movies, producer Val Lewton instills his horror films with a sense of dread and foreboding by building suspense upon what is not seen. The most important titles for the horror movie poseur to know about Val Lewton are “Cat People,” “The Leopard Man” and, most importantly, “I Walked with a Zombie.” These horror films work precisely because they stimulate the audience to fill in the missing information by forcing them to use their own imagination. Lewton and his directors refrain from showing the actual attacks of the Cat People and one of the most intense scenes in horror movie history is the extended sequence in “The Leopard Man” when a young Mexican girl is trying to make her way home before she is attacked. The film uses sound, imagery and editing to make you think you are witnessing a horrific murder when, in fact, you see even less than is seen during the shower scene in “Psycho.”
Alfred Hitchcock is considered the man who changed the face of the horror movie monster to those who are not even poseurs. Poseurs must go beyond the face of things if they want to discuss horror films with those who go beyond being a poseur. The rise of the human psycho to replace vampires, wolfman, mummies and other denizens of the night represents an enormous sea change in horror films. While the repressed is still rising to the fore of consciousness and must still be either assimilated or annihilated, the humanization brings the horror monster closer to us and therefore in a way actually increases the terror. One of those German Expressionist horror films, “M,” may well be the prototype of psycho horror, but the poseur needs to become acquainted as well with Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter.” What the poseur needs to focus on above all else in the transformation of horror film creatures from bloodsucking counts and feral humans is how the gruesome fear comes to look more and more like what everyone sees in the mirror. Repressed anger, sexuality, primal drives and haunted psychosis could no longer be immediately identified by its strange and often foreign external trappings. The boogeyman and guy next door could suddenly no longer be told apart.
The poseur should understand that regardless of whether the horror film features a vampire in gothic clothing or a serial killer who looks like Tom Hanks the intent is to instill fear. A horror film that fails to scare is really no horror film at all. But scaring a person is so easy that to spend millions in the effort hardly seems a wise expense. What separates a horror film from jumping out from behind a door and saying Boo! is that the aim beneath fright is the stimulation of a primal emotional response. When speaking of these responses, the poseur will do well to keep in mind that studies have found that horror films can produce genuine anxiety, cause problems with sleeping and generate otherwise unexplained aggressive behavior not just in children, but in adult viewers. A horror movie has succeeded only when it allows the viewer to face down the fear of facing repressed desires and accept that certain authoritarian modes of expression are an absolute necessary to maintain order and avoid chaos.