VHS Revival looks back at some of the finest promotional treats of the 1980s
Back in the 1980s, a trip to the video store was an experience in itself.
In a era before widespread graphic design, movie production companies relied on a more traditional art form to promote their pictures, employing canvas artists to bring their low-budget VHS vehicles to life.
In the first of a series of articles, VHS Revival looks back at some of the most inspired horror posters of the 1980s.
Brain Damage (French Version) (1988)
I begin with a personal favourite: a French poster for low-budget horror satire Brain Damage, or ‘Elmer’ as it is known in this poster’s country of origin. If you haven’t seen Brain Damage — and many of you probably haven’t — it is the story of a leech-like parasite who forms symbiotic relationships with his victims by injecting a highly addictive hallucinogen into their brains.
Once that irresistible carrot has been dangled, the creature known as Aylmer begins to establish its dominance, sadistically starving his victims to the point of insanity and continuing to do so long after they have submitted to his demands.
And what does Aylmer want in return for his precious juices? The answer is deliciously portrayed in the poster featured here. Aylmer is an insatiable scourge who feasts on human brains with the unabashed glee of a kid in a candy store, jumping from enabler to enabler with a sardonic wit that this image encapsulates so deliciously.
For those intent on digging out this underappreciated treat, I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say that the effects of long-term alien drug use are positively head-splitting.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
After unearthing a lesser known gem, I’ll return to the classics and an image that hinted so cleverly at a future horror icon. There are a few posters for the original A Nightmare On Elm Street out there, but for my money the most relevant is this Graham Humphreys wonder, which would perhaps be regarded as ‘version three’.
Here we see Nancy sleeping as she gets set to do battle with the crude shadow that haunts the periphery of her dreams. There is also the introduction of the killer’s phallic, razor-fingered extension, while his victim’s cover-clinging melds into a suburban neighbourhood that has become lost in the recesses of Freddy‘s dreamworld omnipotence.
The fact that Krueger takes a certain prominence without dominating the canvas suggests an awful lot about the movie’s content, as does the row of oblivious house lights aligning Elm Street. Add to that the contrast of ethereal blues and stark orange and you have a movie poster masterpiece which oozes creativity. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Creepshow 2 (1987)
In truth, Creepshow 2 — a sub-par, tongue-in-cheek sequel consisting of three comic book-style segments — isn’t much of a movie, but it has one of the most memorable and befitting promo posters of the decade. The tales are based on shorts by author Stephen King, and although I am unable to attest to the other two, I can tell you that The Raft — perhaps the most enjoyable segment of the three — does nothing to live up to the story of the same name. This is in large part due to the necessity of making a slow and nuanced tale fast and throwaway for the purpose of a jump scare finale.
What the movie does get right, its minuscule budget, second-rate special effects and woeful acting not withstanding, is its sense of fun, and the creator of this particular poster was able to identify those strengths and sell them to its potential audience. It also sets the tone for the animated segments which tie the three tales together, and although hardly the most creative in terms of symbolism, what you have to admire is the technique on display; aesthetically, it is a joy to behold.
Inevitably, the quality of the piece served to detract from the movie itself, resulting in one almighty letdown. I suppose you can’t win them all.
Fright Night (1985)
Fright Night may not be as iconic or as fondly remembered as The Lost Boys, nor as marketable or brightly coloured, but as a movie it is much more skilfully defined. Its scares are scarier, its laughs giving one’s teeth a sharper prominence, and its setup allows for an altogether richer experience.
The same can be said of its accompanying poster, a minor masterpiece of striking simplicity. We all know the story of quasi- suburbanite Jerry Dandridge, the stylish vamp who takes a particular liking to poor Charley Brewster’s sweetheart after moving in next door. If not, everything you need know is prevalent in perhaps my favourite of all horror posters, complete with toothy titles and a spectacular cloud of bloodsucking ghouls, a solitary, minuscule figure oozing isolation and foreboding.
It’s certainly enough to give sham vampire killer Peter Vincent the willies!
Friday the 13th (1980)
I promised myself I would include at least one poster from the unceasing Friday the 13th franchise, and against all of my natural instincts I have gone for the original. I say this because I have never been a great fan of a movie that went on to spawn an incredible eight sequels, with a a couple of revamps and a spin-off crossover to boot. You might argue that it is the superior movie of the franchise, and you would have a point, but for me, Friday the 13th is all about the killer in the hockey mask, and that’s that.
There were some woeful Jason-led instalments, but at least the franchise had the good sense to reinvent itself as a meta-humour splatterfest, whereas the original was merely a sleazy, second-rate imitation of John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween. Similarly, there are perhaps better Friday posters out there, but I kind of owe the original instalment a little slack, and I choose to pay my dues by showing my appreciation for its promo art, which really is a wonderful example of attractive and resourceful movie marketing.
The image is pretty much self-explanatory, which is what makes it so striking. We have the looming figure, transparent and elusive, and the contrast of stark blankness and infinitesimal detail only adds to the anonymity of the antagonist, an aspect that is paramount to a movie whose twist is everything. We even have the classic Friday the 13th logo, and that can’t be a bad thing.
But enough praise from me. I’ve made my peace.
Chopping Mall (1986)
Here we have a prime example of the kind of savvy misrepresentation that was rife during the VHS revolution. Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall was a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi horror that was unique in conception, but those in charge of marketing clearly felt more comfortable slipping into the realms of the slasher with this sub-genre clone.
In reality, the film’s antagonists are a bunch of microwave/toaster hybrids called Killbots who roll around on tank tracks and shoot lasers. Nowhere will you find a robotic hand or a decapitated head in a bag, but if you’ve ever seen the movie you will know that the Killbots would be a much harder sell to an audience bred on the likes of Jason Voorhees.
Beyond commercial deception, there is little scope for visual insight, but the pun tagline captures the tone of the movie perfectly, and stripped of in-depth analysis it still remains one of the more striking images of the decade.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was one of the most ferocious horror movies of the decade. Named as one of the 72 horror flicks banned as ‘video nasties‘, it is an excruciatingly visceral descent into madness, with one particularly unsettling forest-bound scene blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
Whoever designed the movie’s poster understood the material completely. The overwrought anguish of the woman screams off the canvas, while the zombified hand around her throat is symbolic of the movie’s savagely fierce grip and unwillingness to let go. Its contrasting colours, split across the middle, fittingly depict the movie in its most simple and effective terms. The Evil Dead is a straight- up clash between good and evil, and from this lady’s hell-bound predicament, divine salvation seems just a touch out of reach.
The Stuff (1985)
Larry Cohen‘s acerbic satire on consumerism is a delightful treat as addictive as its gooey subject, the story of a parasitic entity which takes brand loyalty to a whole new level by turning its bright-eyed advocates into zombies and feeding on the unconscious remains of its exponents.
The Stuff is very much an ode to ’50s sci-fi schlock, a quality made evident by its promotional poster’s stark, informative warning, the kind used in commie-bashing propaganda of the same period. The alarmist title, preceded by a dehumanising definite article, completes the caustic celebration.
Stripped of Cold War parody, the poster’s featured image is a vivid triumph of warped horror, taking an ironic monster and transforming it into something that inspires terror. The image also hints at the movie’s flesh-melting special effects that genre fans invariably clamour for.
As home video grew in popularity during the 1980s, horror movie makers explored the idea of television as an irony-laden gateway, a literal portal to the fear they were purveying.
David Cronenberg would utilise the concept in a more salacious way for his 1983 meta classic Videodrome, while less relevant shockers such as Demons 2 and Pulse jumped on the existential bandwagon. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is perhaps the first and most memorable of this short-lived sub-genre.
Poltergeist‘s promotional poster is a devastating example of promotional simplicity; a rare case of less meaning infinitely more. The composition of the piece is key to its blank potency. At its centre, highlighted by an all-encompassing blackness, is the movie’s peewee protagonist, her bright isolation demanding closer inspection. Her static intimacy with an inanimate object proves spellbinding, hinting at the self-reflexive irony prevalent throughout.
Poltergeist would establish itself as one of the most memorable horror pictures of the decade, and this wonderful accompaniment is no different. A visual concept that is not only worthy of the movie’s success, but is in no small part responsible for it.
Street Trash (1987)
Street Trash is a wonderful Troma-esque horror flick whose ingenious low-budget special effects astound as much as its absurdity of a plot. A peculiar brand of liquor labelled Viper mysteriously appears in the basement of a local shopkeeper, who then sells the booze to the homeless community with outlandishly messy consequences.
The movie follows the lives of two of two hobos as they struggle to deal with the worsening effects of the fatal brew, all while staving off the threat of sociopathic Vietnam veteran Bronson, the owner of the junkyard they frequent.
This is another movie in the body horror vein, a zany, often ponderous story which works on a purely visual level. The poster encapsulates this with a grotesque accuracy that is truly spellbinding. The extravagantly coloured piece depicts the movie’s most notable and ironic death, while the contrasting tones are at once playful and morbid, its warped perspective leaping off the canvas like a grandiose work of street graffiti. Aesthetically, it is a quite remarkable representation of not only the movie’s content, but the misshapen, mind-bending style of what is a true oddity.
Street Trash will never top the list of the genre’s best movies, however unique its content. The same can not be said about one of the most mesmerising works of promotional art the industry has ever known.