VHS Revival looks at some of history’s most unconventional movie posters
Promotional posters are an essential part of any successful movie. Not only do they offer the public its first visual insight into an upcoming picture, they help to promote its genre and theme, as well as the marquee attractions whose job it is to convince moviegoers to part with their hard-earned cash. Posters can make or break a movie. From the crudely drawn, minimalist posters of the late 19th century, the art form would grow in both scope and impact, employing illustrators and artists as visual connotations and conceptualization came to the forefront, altering the process from mere advertising to storytelling and subliminal appeal. There are some posters which get lost in translation, however, the kind so baffling that you can’t help but stare in fascination, and in doing so either laugh out loud or continue to stare, wondering what on Earth the artist was trying to achieve and still never quite understanding.
In this article, VHS Revival looks at a selection of foreign posters which failed quite spectacularly in their attempts to promote American movies.
Please take a moment to prepare yourself…
An American Werewolf in London (Japan)
Well, the Japanese totally missed the point here.
While An American Werewolf in London was an offbeat horror comedy with several instances of the zany and surreal, this looks more like a poster for the seemingly endless Carry On series, lowbrow romps of racy innuendos and cute double entendre.
This is made most explicit by an image of a randy wolfman with his head up the uniform of a nurse, who seems to shrill with the kind of slapstick titillation that was the hallmark of such movies, while an image of the protagonist and his dame cuddling inside a wine glass being filled with water is simply baffling. Compare this with the original poster featured below – a work of great economy which concentrates on the horror of Rick Baker’s Oscar winning special effects, along with a delicious pun of a tagline – and the whole affair seems even more farcical.
A true oddity that could only be the brainchild of ‘the land of the rising sun’.
Bullitt (East Germany)
Bullitt is one of cinema’s most iconic movies. Featuring the great Lalo Schifrin’s coolest ever theme, it also starred one of history’s most iconic leads, and the film’s original promotional poster keeps up the trend with a slick and stylized exercise in 60s cool.
Then we have this zany eyesore…
During the cold war, Germany was divided as a nation. With Eastern Europe under Soviet control, communism would distance itself from Western decadence, and if you compare this poster with the American version featured below, the two are very much indicative of those opposing philosophies.
Grey and devoid of exuberance, this character looks more like a worker from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth than he does McQueen’s dashing, cinematic lead, while the zany eyes suggest a man possessed, or at the very least at the end of his tether. A truly astonishing work of anti-marketing from a period of great oppression and stoic order.
For anyone who has ever read Stephen King’s novel Cujo, it is the beautifully told, intensely violent and very real story of a much cherished dog who slowly succumbs to the afflictions of rabies and sets upon those who loved it dearly. It is a heartbreaking story, and one of the writer’s finest.
This Ghanian poster does very little to encapsualte the story’s themes.
You have to smile, but not only does the artist’s depiction of Cujo appear to consist of two breeds of dog glued clumsily together, the mutt in question has a very docile and harmless aura, with doe eyes and a torso which seems grossly overfed and lazy. Not only does it look placid and devoid of terror, its owners seem largely unconcerned by their pet’s deadly disease, while it is clear that this crapulous canine has something of a penchant for ketchup.
Compare this to the original poster for the 1983 movie adaptation, an ominous work of subtle brutality which encapsulates the movie’s central theme, and its African equivalent looks even more puerile in its ineptitude.
Romancing the Stone (Poland)
Yes, you read correctly.
Another nation inhibited by the lack of creative freedoms existing on one side of ‘the iron curtain’, Poland was notorious for its bizarre and downbeat representations of Western cinema during the cold war period, and this poster for 1984’s Romancing the Stone was no exception.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the movie was a non-stop thrill-ride of romance and adventure, headed by the never-so-dashing Michael Douglas and the scintillatingly sexy Kathleen Turner, who would swing through jungles and leap ravines on their quest for a precious stone, while the comically seedy Danny DeVito did his utmost to beat them to the punch.
The original poster (featured below) is a wonderful example of the eye-catching canvas art of the 80s, an action packed depiction of a fun and friendly romp, and then you have the Polish version: a skull on a black background with an alarming red line cutting through it.
The Birds (Czech Republic)
Here’s a strange little number from the Czech Republic.
The antithesis of Ghana’s depiction of the movie Cujo, nobody can doubt the artistic credentials of this particular poster, which looks like something you might see adorning the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel; that, or the witty, illustrative interludes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a piece that is half Leonardo Da Vinci, half Terry Gilliam.
This would have been quite a feat were its purpose not to promote Alfred Hitchcock’s frenzied and knowing horror, and this is perhaps an example of an artist with a little too much creative freedom.
The original poster – while being of an era when those involved with the movie were perhaps the most important promotional element – still manages to convey the film’s frenetic terror – while Hitchcock’s presence nods to the director’s knowing sense of wit.
Aesthetically beautiful its Polish equivalent may be, but naked angels and surreal, spear-wielding birds are wholly unnecessary, resulting in a poster which is ultimately ineffective and downright confusing.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Turkey)
This Turkish effort is suffering from a rather serious case of mistaken identity.
We all know the story of Randal McMurphy, the delinquent bright spark who commits himself to a mental institute in order to avoid jail time, only to realise that for some unfortunate souls the ward is in some ways worse than prison. Played by a wonderfully magnetic Jack Nicholson, McMurphy takes offence to the sadistic regime of Nurse Ratched and sets about liberating the oppressed patients to his own eventual detriment.
The original U.S. poster (featured below) is a wonder of creative simplicity, focusing on the movie’s central character and the cheeky cheer he so zestfully personifies. Its Turkish equivalent struggles to achieve focus, and in fact fails to even focus on one particular film.
If you look closely you will see that the central picture, although featuring Jack Nicholson, is actually an image from The Shining, with prison bars replacing the door through which the famous ‘Here’s Johnny!’ line was born. His terrified wife, cowering on the other side of that door, can be seen to the bottom left of the poster, her startled face positioned just above what looks like a young Christopher Lee, while to the right there appears to be a scene from The Planet of the Apes.
So yeah, just a little confusing.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Ghana)
Freddy Krueger is arguably the most recognisable character in modern horror. With his pizza-inspired face and bladed fingers the dream-stalking murderer with the sadistic smile and gunslinger stance was simply unmistakable. Or at least he was, right before this little number hit the public consciousness.
Here, Krueger is portrayed as a feral creature with a deformed hamster claw and twisted pork pie hat, while his menace stalks not the suburbs of Elm Street, but some giant moonlit metropolis. The likeness of final girl Nancy is perhaps even worse, and with a tongue like Reagen from The Exorcist she is either getting some kind of perverted kick from the wolf hand sticking out from the plughole or is even more sick and demented than our antagonist. Oh, and the movie is simply entitled ‘A Nightmare’.
A woeful effort by any standards, and one made even lousier when compared with the sleepy, hypnotic artistry of the original. One can only marvel.
Army of Darkness (Japan)
To be fair, the Japanese have designed some of the most wonderful movie posters in history, and this is particularly eye-catching, as well as being impossibly creative. When it comes to Japanese posters of American movies, some of them do tend to get lost in translation, however, and this poster for Army of Darkness is exceptionally barmy, even for them.
For one thing, the poster is as hectic as a Where’s Waldo puzzle, with a Monty Python style collage of neon colours that takes the movie from Medieval times to a modern Japanese metropolis. There are also Campbells Soup tins – the kind immortalized by Andy Warhol – which I think are supposed to symbolise the movie’s star, Bruce Campbell (surely!). There is also a paper shopping bag containing French baguettes and a chainsaw floating on the horizon, while a floating yellow head says ‘Moooonn!’. It is perhaps ironic that this paragraph has descended into a verbal collage of its own.
Is this incredible work of imagination better than the original poster featured below? Probably not. But it’s arguably the closest yet.
The Fly (Poland)
This is an interesting one – a poster which takes minimalism to a whole new level.
The original 1958 version of The Fly was a campy affair which saw a mad scientist turn into the world’s twitchiest insect, a schlocky spectacle which gave us a man’s body with a human-sized fly’s head. This was ’50s B-movie pap at its most ridiculous.
The 1986 remake was much more ambitious, and as you would expect from a Cronenberg film, rather icky to boot. It was the story of an ambitious scientist, who in his wanton quest to succeed went through a painstaking physical change which played on the fears of a generation squirming under the non-discriminatory afflictions of an AIDS epidemic.
The above poster lands somewhere in-between. On the one hand it is rather unambitious, with a man’s head simply stuck on a fly’s body, but if you think of the period in which it was made it is quite high-tech, its appearance similar to that of an 8-bit video game, which makes it almost certainly a product of those halcyon Nintendo days. Why the creature is wearing lipstick and spitting urine is certainly less clear.
Technological obsolescence aside, it does nothing to convey the nature of Cronenberg’s graphic triumph, and when you compare it to the original (below), it is something of a tepid affair which could be advertising anything but the subject matter, unless one stops and strains to think about it. But even then…
Star Wars (Hungary)
Perhaps the coolest of all bad movie posters, but one which more than warrants inclusion.
Star Wars is perhaps the most widely recognised movie franchise the world has ever known, and there are dozens of posters from all over the world, most of them resembling the original in at least some way, but this Hungarian effort takes the proverbial biscuit.
Something akin to the Panther Science Fiction art of the ’60s and ’70s, this is actually a rather accurate representation of the original Star Wars movie, with a larger-than-life Darth Vader taking centre stage beneath an exploding Death Star. There is also a pretty good image of a an X-Wing fighter rushing toward its goal.
Of course, then you notice a three-eyed dragon creature with tusks holding the kind of Arabian sword you might find in Aladdin, and all plausibility goes out of the window.
Still, it’s pretty fly in my opinion, even next to one of the most iconic posters of our time.