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 to promote their pictures, employing canvas artists to bring their low-budget VHS vehicles to life.
In the second part of our series, VHS Revival looks back at some 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 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 50’s 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, completing 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 1980’s, 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 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 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.
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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