In a new ongoing segment, VHS Revival delves into the archives of a lost art form.
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 in order to promote their pictures, employing canvas artists to turn their predominantly low-budget VHS Vehicles into the kind of visual spectacular that would leap off the shelves amidst an oversaturated market.
Some of those posters were exquisite in their conception, while others were not so great. Some perfectly captured the essence of their subjects, while others were a little more underhanded in their battle for shelf supremacy, depicting images and events that may have been popular at the time, but which really didn’t have anything much to say about the film they were in fact promoting.
Some of the best posters were fraudulent in what they were attempting to convey, while some of the lousiest were in fact the most honest. But back then it was all about the sell. Particularly in regards to the horror genre, which churned out so many slasher flicks post-Halloween it was impossible to keep up, and lacking the budget for widespread promotion it was the shop floors where the battles were won and lost. This was most definitely a case of choosing a book by its cover.
In the first of a series of articles, VHS Revival takes a look back at some of the most inspired horror posters of the 1980s.
Brain Damage (French Version) (1988)
I begin with a personal favourite of mine, a French poster for a low-budget satire called 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 known as Aylmer who forms symbiotic relationships with its victims by injecting a highly addictive hallucinogen into their brains. Once that irresistible carrot has been dangled, it begins to establish its dominance, sadistically starving them to the point of insanity and continuing to do so long after they have submitted to its demands.
So 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 of you with intentions of digging out this underappreciated treat, I don’t want to give too much away, but 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 tantalisingly at a character who would become one of the most iconic figures in horror movie history. There are a few versions out there but for my money the most relevant of the bunch is this promo poster which would perhaps be regarded as ‘version three’.
For one thing it includes the iconic image of Nancy sleeping as she gets set to do battle with the crude shadow which 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 a garish, unsettling 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, of which only one I have read, 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 only served to further detract from the movie itself, leading to one almighty letdown. But 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 skillfully defined. Its scares are scarier, its laughs giving one’s teeth a sharper prominence, and its setup allows for an infinitely richer experience.
The same can be said of its accompanying poster, a minor masterpiece of striking simplicity which once glimpsed can never be forgotten. We all know the story of quasi- suburbanite Jerry Dandridge – the sadistic vamp with the killer smile, 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, while the solitary, minuscule figure in the window smacks of 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 for sure, 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 in its elusiveness, and the contrast of stark blankness and infinitesimal detail only adds to the anonymity of the antagonist – an aspect that is paramount in 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.