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 third part in the series, VHS Revival takes a look back at some more of the most inspired Science Fiction posters of the 1980s.
The Thing (1982)
In his prime, John Carpenter made some of the most memorable movies of his era. So consistent and diverse were his works that it is quite impossible to choose an outright best, but when it comes to the accompanying artworks – of which there were also many greats to admire – that choice becomes a little easier. At least in my opinion.
The poster for The Thing – a superior remake of 1952’s The Thing from Another World – is one of the most iconic of the entire genre. The looming silhouette, its face fragmented by a flash of blinding splinters, sums up the entire movie with a sublime, spoiler-free proficiency. Complete with furr-lined hood, this figure could be any one of the doomed outpost crew of the Antarctic, while the exploding blankness reveals no one at all. Add to this a fading blanket of stars and fractured background and what we’re left with is a kaleidoscopic work of great beauty that hints at the distorted horrors to follow.
The Terminator (1984) (Japanese Version)
Schwarzenegger burst onto the Hollywood mainstream with his role as the irrepressible killing machine sent back in time to stop mankind in its tracks, and the intimidating pose used for the movie’s promotion tells you everything you need to know about Arnie’s wonderfully heartless performance.
Here we have the Japanese version, a country renown for their wacky versions of Western movie posters, but in this case they made the unusual decision of deviating only very slightly from the original. As is typical of the country’s marketing style, those responsible added a small still from the actual movie, but asides from that minute difference they wisely chose to retain much of what is a truly iconic poster.
So why not stick with the original American version? Put succinctly: language. For a Japanese native, my reason for choosing this particular version would be made redundant, but viewed through foreign eyes there is something much more appropriate about the Japanese written language when it comes to cyborg killing machines. You can put this down to sweeping stereotypes about technology, or just plain ignorance regarding another culture’s means of communication, but the Japanese spelling of The Terminator looks infinitely more advanced in my eyes, and infinitely cooler.
Back to the Future (1985)
In terms of unique aesthetics and cute symbolism, Back to the Future pales by comparison to much of what you will find out there. Even so, it is arguably the most iconic promotional poster of the decade, one which oozes 80s excess and energetic appeal. From the outmoded fashion to the ostentatiously emblematic DeLorean, to the neon pastels and dramatic trail of blazing fire, this is a visual time capsule whose importance as a window into the times cannot be overlooked.
Such was the poster’s perfection in capturing the essence of the movie that the same image was used for both sequels, each adding an extra character to the hectic fray, and not to be underestimated is the importance of the film’s logo, a title of warped perspective which sums up the fun nature of its time-travelling escapades. Like a timeless pop record which is impossible to stop humming along to, this is an image ingrained in the minds of every kid who grew up in the period it so effortlessly defines.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is a strange one for me. There is no denying that it is a first rate movie; a masterpiece of remote subtlety whose neon landscapes make its source material – Phillip K. Dick’s satire on the human condition Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – positively unambitious.
My problem lies not with the movie itself, but with my inability to accept Ridley Scott’s vision and Vangelis’ spellbinding original soundtrack as a package. I fell in love with that album long before I did the film, and because of this the images seem detached from the sound somehow. They are perfect for the movie, spectacularly so, but for me the damage has unfortunately been done.
The poster I have no qualms with, a futuristic neo-noir masterpiece which is a fitting tribute to both one of the finest movies ever imagined, and one of the most incredible musical experiences I have personally ever witnessed. The poster’s futuristic cityscape, viewed from above, hints at the kind of grandiose setting that has perhaps never been equalled, while the contemplative Rachel represents Philip K. Dick’s question of what it is to be human. Science fiction has never been richer.
Terry Gilliam’s story of a bureaucratic state gone mad is quite a familiar one. George Orwell’s 1984 is perhaps the most famous, but a plethora of writers had explored similar dystopian landscapes by the time Brazil came around, and in a world of ever more sophisticated and subtle forms of media-driven control, the movie’s extremities were perhaps in danger of becoming a little outmoded.
But Gilliam’s masterpiece is all about presentation, its grey conformities counterbalanced by luscious set designs and warped perspectives, while heady dreams and extravagant characters weave with a seamless illogicality that lays waste to its stifling underbelly. It’s accompanying poster captures that very juxtaposition. While the neon title casts a fleeing angel’s shadow upon endless rows of filing cabinets, a single document escapes its dreary confinements to give chase, floating like the movie’s central character towards a fate that is both startlingly elusive and painfully inevitable.