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 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.
For the second part in the series, VHS Revival takes a look back at some more of the most inspired horror posters of the 1980s.
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 which was rather unique in its 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 have ever seen the movie you would know that the Killbots themselves would be a much harder sell to a teen audience bred on the likes of Jason Voorhees, unless of course it was a decade earlier and their target audience happened to be a bunch of geeky adolescents at a Doctor Who convention – but I digress.
Beyond commercial deception, there is little scope for insight in regards to the poster’s visual content, 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 scene which blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. For those who have seen the original uncut version of the movie, I presume I need say no more.
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, no more, no less, 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 once consumed takes brand loyalty to a whole new level by turning its bright-eyed advocates into protective zombies, and inevitably 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, while the alarmist title, preceded by a dehumanising definite article, completes the caustic celebration.
Stripped of its 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, ensuring that the movie reaches its target audience with a not-so-subtle hint at the flesh-melting special effects genre fans invariably clamour for.
As home video grew in popularity during the 1980’s, horror movie makers inevitably 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 movie Videodrome, while less relevant shockers such as Demons 2 and Pulse jumped on the bandwagon long after it had rolled toward the cliff edge of the outmoded. 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 effective marketing simplicity, a rare case of less meaning infinitely more. The composition of the piece is key to its blank potency, the girl’s bright isolation teeming with a sense of eerie foreboding as darkness dominates the borders. Her apparent intimacy with a seemingly inanimate object proves spellbinding, while offering a hint of the self-reflexive irony prevalent throughout. Poltergeist would go on to 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 line. A peculiar brand of liquor labelled Viper mysteriously appears in the basement of a local shopkeeper, who promptly sells the booze for a dollar a pop to the local homeless community with outlandishly messy consequences. The movie follows the lives of two of those hobos as they struggle to deal with the worsening effects of the fatal brew, while at the same staving off the threat of sociopathic Vietnam veteran Bronson, the owner of the junkyard in which they live.
This is another movie in the body horror vein, a zany, often ponderous story which works on a purely visual level, and which this poster encapsulates 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 movie’s, 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.