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 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 1980’s.
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 named Aylmer, who forms symbiotic relationships with his victims by injecting a highly addictive hallucinogen into their brains.
Once that irresistible carrot has been dangled, Aylmer then 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.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut
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