VHS Revival brings you some of the finest promotional treats 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 parasitic entity that forms symbiotic relationships with its 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.
Though blockbuster features would have considerably larger funds at their disposal, many of the most striking or memorable examples of promotional art came out of the VHS market, which would depend on promotional art to sell inferior productions in what would quickly become an oversaturated market. Some of those images were far superior to the movies they represented, but exploitation director Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage more than holds its own.
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 British quad that would come to be known as version three, though in my opinion it is easily number one.
By the late 1980s, Fred Krueger had become horror’s first bona fide rock star, a series of increasingly preposterous sequels focusing on overblown practical effects set-pieces and the kind of cringeworthy puns that smacked of corporate ambition, but back in 1984 Wes Craven’s once in a lifetime dream concept breathed new life into the flailing slasher genre thanks to the filmmaker’s resourceful artistry and the inimitable star turn of horror legend Robert Englund.
The above poster encapsulates the original concept so well. Here we see final girl 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 this the contrast of ethereal blues and stark orange and you have a movie poster masterpiece that oozes quiet symbolism. 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 trio of tales featured are based on shorts by author Stephen King, and though 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 though 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. Still, this is one of the most fondly remembered posters of the era, and a prime example of the power of promotional artwork.
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. Thanks to Tom Holland’s delicious commentary on the decline of Gothic horror and the rise of video nasties, its scares are scarier, its laughs louder, and its setup allows for an altogether richer experience.
The movie stars Roddy McDowall as a thespian ham whose steak-wielding escapades stretch no further than a series of shoddy reruns on late-night television. That’s until toothy suburbanite Jerry Dandridge moves into Charlie Brewster’s neighbourhood and forces him to reach his true potential.
The accompanying poster — one of the most memorable of any era — is a minor masterpiece of striking simplicity. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Fright Night, everything you need to know is prevalent in perhaps my favourite of all horror posters, complete with toothy titles and a spectacular cloud of bloodsucking ghouls, a solitary figure of quiet isolation standing ominously beneath.
It’s certainly enough to give Peter Vincent the willies!
Friday the 13th (1980)
I promised myself I would include only one poster from the 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 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 madman in the hockey mask, and nothing will ever change my mind.
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 straight-up derivative of John Carpenter’s far superior Halloween. Similarly, there are perhaps better Friday posters out there, but I kind of owe the original instalment a little slack (it is one of the most memorable films in the slasher sub-genre after all), and I choose to pay my dues by showing my appreciation for this wonderful slice of promotional art, a fine 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 home video revolution, and a prime example of the importance of promotional art in the low-budget VHS arena. Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall was a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi horror that defied convention, but those in charge of marketing clearly felt more comfortable slipping into the realms of the slasher with this sub-genre promo 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 those who have seen the movie 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.
Produced by the wife of schlock master Roger Corman, the movie has garnered a huge cult following in the years since its release thanks to some absurd visuals and a screenplay with its tongue buried firmly in its cheek. The above poster is also one of the most sought after among low-budget horror fans, and certainly one that’s high on my own personal my chopping list.
And no, that wasn’t a typo.
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. A marvel of grungy sound design, the movie is one of the most memorable ‘nasties’ of a largely shoddy bunch, and would even inspire a quasi-sequel that rehashed events with a view to overcoming the censorship no-nos of the MPAA and BBFC.
A UK variation by promo art legend Graham Humphrey’s is perhaps superior in conveying the movie’s grungy feel and breakneck horror, but this US one sheet is perhaps more iconic, and does a fantastic job of selling the movie and its themes.
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, and 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 kind of 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. Of all the movies to use television as a conduit for otherworldly malevolence, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is perhaps the most memorable.
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. Carol Anne Freeling’s static intimacy with an inanimate object proves spellbinding, and is a beautiful representation of one of horror’s most iconic scenes.
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: after a peculiar brand of liquor labelled Viper mysteriously appears in the basement of a local shopkeeper, the unscrupulous chap decides to flog it to the local homeless community with outlandishly messy consequences.
The movie follows the lives 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 that works on a purely visual level. The poster encapsulates this with a grotesque accuracy that is truly spellbinding. The extravagantly coloured piece depicts the film’s most notable and ironic death, 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, but the same can not be said about one of the most mesmerising works of promotional art the industry has ever known.