In addition to the usual reviews and comments you would find on a horror movie blog, this is also a document of the wonderfully vast horror movie section of the video store I worked at in my youth.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Killer Portraits

Last week, the second semester of The Black Museum lectures finished up with one I had been looking forward to for a while.

Film scholar Andrea Butler took us through a comprehensive rundown of the history of film poster art, starting with its origins and continuing through the decades. And all with a common theme.

“How do these artifacts of popular culture guide us in a historical look at the genre? Monsters are made into icons and audiences are able to connect with them within the same frame of the cinema and get close to that unknowable other, but without threat. How we want to see our monsters is intertwined with the cultural and political climate of the era that produced these posters.” -Andrea Butler.

She began with a familiar story about being enraptured as a kid, by the explicit and lurid VHS cover boxes in her local video store. Being too young to view said movies, she would have to make up her own scenarios. Years later, when she was able to finally watch these forbidden films, she realized that her imagination was often scarier than the real thing. That is when she became fascinated with the role that poster art plays in marketing a film.

Moving onto the origins of the film poster, she pointed out that early instances focused more on the act of watching a film rather the film itself, as it was still considered a novelty. It was not unusual to see the cinema audience featured prominently in the advertisement.

As with pretty much any media, it did not take long for marketers to realize that sensationalism got butts in the seats, so posters depicting acts of violence quickly became popular. This led to the Hays Code being instituted in 1930.

Butler then brought up the Hollywood star system that bred horror icons Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff, who became forever connected to their onscreen monstrosities, Dracula and Frankenstein.

The fourties, which saw the atom bomb, the Roswell incident and later the Cold War brought with it the birth of the B movie. As a result, there was a shift in focus on poster art from the actors, to the monsters and mutants they were battling.

This over-the-top cinema led to the rise of Bill Castle and gimmick cinema, which was in itself an attempt to get viewers away from their television sets – the new entertainment novelty in the fifties.

From there, Butler introduced the birth of the American serial killer when the ghastly real-life crimes of Ed Gein were discovered in 1957. The first was Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho three years later, but many would follow, like H.G. Lewis and Roger Corman.

In the mid-sixties, the Hays code was eradicated which was when things, as Butler stated, “got really interesting.” Led by George A. Romero, American genre film of the sixties and seventies, fuelled by the Manson murders and Vietnam, became the playground of the human monster.

To be honest, Butler covered so much ground during this section of her lecture, I wouldn't be able to do it all justice. However, I will pass along her visual representations of some trends that appeared during this era.

Nature run amuck. (Right click to enlarge)
Death framed in the holidays they represent.
Urban terrors from beneath. (Right click to enlarge)
Mad scientists (Right click to enlarge)
The female body represented as something else.
Showcasing the killer.

During the slasher craze of the eighties, the killer gradually shifted from villain to anti-hero. Butler needed to look no further than horror's three largest slasher franchises to illustrate her point. I'm sure you'll notice how the focal point changes over the years.

Right click to enlarge.

Then the nineties happened. It was a decade of diminishing returns, with posters to match. We're still struggling with the “floating heads” syndrome brought on by the Scream franchise – which Butler actually pointed out was a phenomenon that had its origins with the star system of the thirties & fourties.

However, there were some bright spots of artistic merit in the nineties.

It took a good half-dozen years of the 2000's to shake off the decade that preceded it, but good art, spearheaded by companies like Mondo, has made a comeback. These guys have been knocking it out of the park over the last five years or so with current and retro editions of film poster art.

Lastly, Butler showed off a recent interview she did with Toronto based artist Ghoulish Gary Pullin. And much to my elation – because it saves me having to transcribe it – here it is below.

Butler concluded her talk by saying;

“Remember, in order to battle with monsters in the real world, we must familiarize ourselves with their fictional counterparts in all their forms and incarnations.” -Andrea Butler.

This was a fantastic installment of The Black Museum and my favourite so far – and I've seen some doozies. To finish strong, here are some more awesome posters that were showcased during the show.

The Birds (Polish)
Art by legend Saul Bass
Blood Beach (Italian)
Friday the 13th (UK)
Surprisingly American, surprisingly recent (2011)

That last one I actually won at the show, just to make the evening even more awesome! Consider me already signed up for season three!

No comments: