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Monday, August 15, 2011

Decades of Exploitation: The Art of the Movie Poster Part 1



The movie poster has always been an attractive and instrumental tool for separating potential patrons from their cash and luring them into a darkened theater to be entertained for 60 to 90 or more minutes. Over the years the quality of the movie poster has changed to suit the times and drastically so in today's climate where so little work goes into producing them with a far less hands on approach from decades past. This extends to the visual palette of the home video market as well in relation to videocassettes, laserdiscs and DVD's.

The movie posters of today are virtually interchangeable, barely discernible from one photocopied image to the next. The HARRY POTTER movies are a wildly popular, maddeningly lucrative series of films and the posters for them are almost identical. They all feature the principle actors posed in this way amidst a dark, foreboding background. One thing that can be said about poster "artwork" in today's market is that as bland and displeasing as they are, they seem to have little to do with the making or breaking of a movie especially in this day and age where TV's are everywhere. Computers and cellphones now have the capacity to find out what's new at the bijou without having to read a newspaper or venture down to the local theater to take a gander at the marquee. Like the artists that designed them in years past, today's "artists" are just as disconnected as the selective images on the glossy paper.

The marketing used to push a motion picture product today is mostly a lifeless endeavor built around what amounts to vain portraits of the principal cast members--a motley clutch of uncommonly handsome, bodaciously built young men and women arranged in a bland, boring fashion. Other times, it's some vague, somewhat ambiguous single image with either the title, or just a potential date of release surrounded by wasted space, a motif that likely gestated since the release of ALIEN back in 1979. Granted, these teasers are just that, but the work that went into creating a painted portrait--by hand--that captured the essence of a motion picture has gone the way of practical special effects these days.


Beginning with JAWS (1975) and snowballing with STAR WARS (1977), the blockbuster slowly edged out the ballsier promotional gimmicks of the exploitation hucksters whose moneymaking lifes blood rested on a grand and gaudy ad campaign. Notice the surrealism in the poster for Spielberg's still terrifying killer shark film to end all killer shark films. An ominous, gigantic, toothy beast prepares to make a meal off of a scantily clad female. Shades of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) are apparent in this modernist approach as well as a stark sense of depth with an increasingly blackened look of the sea the further down the image you go. All painstakingly done by hand.

The painted artwork for STAR WARS--one of many--features a mainstay of fantasy artwork from the likes of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. Instead of a barbarian, or futuristic centurion flanked by a barely dressed, voluptuous and possibly chained female, we have a toned Luke Skywalker thrusting his "sword" heavenward while a slinky and well formed Princess Leia features just below him. Showing off some skin, Leia clutches a laser gun as opposed to latching onto Luke's leg. The background features a hovering, ghost like image of Darth Vader while the Death Star looms further in the background. A fleet of spacecraft heighten the action element and the sight of R2 D2 and C3PO enhance the otherworldy qualities. It's a perfect poster with an equally iconic fairy tale tag adorning the border at the top. It's also one of the last great visual spectaculars that captures the flavor of the designs of old--modernizing it, but paying tribute at the same time.

As the 80s wore on, the once thriving industry of designing artwork for movies began to change dramatically before slowly showing signs of fatigue till the 90s made the style all but extinct. Literally everything is done with computers these days and the use of a hands on approach becomes a less lucrative venture with each passing day. The use of designing a poster by hand may be lost, but the use of "clutter" appears to be making a little noise as of late. Everything goes in cycles so here's hoping the visualized art of poster design returns in a big way someday.


In decades past the methods of promotion weren't always done by posters and lobby cards. Everything from a barker outside the theater hyping the product, to flyers and radio spots were all utilized to sell a feature. But posters have outlasted the assorted gimmicks and tricks of the trade by virtue of their simple, yet potentially grand visions of "the film you are about to see". The descriptive nature of a film was etched to canvas by the hand of an artist relaying what the paying audience would hopefully find attractive about what was "now playing".

Sometimes trash peddlers would use deception to enhance the elaborate images on a one-sheet to imply additional thrills that didn't always end up on the screen, but damn if they didn't make for an exciting visual feast! The above poster for SAVAGE! (1973) is one such occasion where enhancements were employed to beef up the marquee value of a low budget picture.


Above: British quad for iconic Bondian imagery from FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981); Insert: Unusual Italian locandina for SILVER BULLET (1986)

Almost like comic books, movie posters weren't thought of as a collective hobby once upon a time. The limited number of promotional materials were supposed to have been returned, shipped off to the next location where said film was to play, or destroyed. Few, if any really thought much about mass producing the marketing tools used to sell the studios product. The standard size for a poster (in America) was 27 x 40 (give or take an inch), but dimensions differed from one country to the next such as Hong Kong where the standard size was around 20 x 30 with minimal variances. Of course, there were other posters such as the Australian Daybill, the Italian Locandina, the British Quad and the massive bus stop poster as well as two and three sheet posters which, as far as the US is concerned, seem to have been phased out in terms of production these days.


Movie poster production meant that various designs and multiple versions would be created for promotional purposes. Some titles would accrue a wide ranging variety of painted artistry, but arguably the most intriguing aspect of poster design was the way foreign territories chose to market their imports and vice versa. Many times overseas companies would highlight certain elements in a film that wouldn't be touched on in its American counterpart. Sometimes a poster would contain shots of action not in the finished product and some of the foreign conceptions would eliminate such things. Minor adjustments might be made as well that retained much of the original work. Take the examples below for instance....

The Spanish poster for TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) accentuates in a gothically medieval style what the film entails and the potential for terror to be shown on the big screen. The shot of Lone Fleming is an artist conception taken from the actual film, but they've added some undead Templar Knights munching on her that doesn't happen--at least not to her--in the finished film.

Compare that with the AIP poster under the title THE BLIND DEAD. Comparisons are made with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) even down to the poster being in B/W. Also, there's no sign of the skeletal, robe enshrouded Templars on this ad. Instead, the resurrected and quite zombiefied Maria Elena is showcased menacing a frightened woman in a mannequin factory (a truly creepy scene in the movie, too!) again reiterating the NOTLD connection AIP was gunning for.

The 1975 Amicus production of THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT features a sprawling three dimensional design highlighting everything of interest in the movie. It's a perfect example of "clutter", or the "Hero Sandwich" as movie poster--crammed with all the meats, cheeses and other condiments found throughout the movie populating every conceivable corner of the ad campaign. You'll notice both major and minor tweaks between the English ad and the Spanish artwork. The AIP poster contains several items that aren't in the movie. These are a giant manta ray (that appears to be firing a laser beam!), a giant octopus and a diving bell with scuba divers nearby. B/W shots from the film are also inserted in the right corner.

The Spanish poster on the other hand flips the above water action to the right side of the poster, alters the font of the title and swaps it over to the left side. This foreign interpretation also erases the non existent, but exploitable elements of the AIP version and also erase the B/W inserts replacing them with artists paintings of the actors from scenes in the film. Also, the Spanish poster accentuates the volcanic eruption making it far more prominent and spectacular in its explosion. Both posters, however, keep the image of an underwater Tyrannosaurus Rex(!) as well as giving him an extra claw. Both posters are gorgeous and capture the adventure inherent in the movie.

This magnificent poster for the New World production of THE ARENA (1974) sums up the theme of women empowerment (see chapter below). Everything you need to know about the film is featured on this poster with the main focal point being Pam Grier and Margaret Markov. Oddly enough, when the film was marketed for Southern markets, Pam Grier appears white in the ads! This wasn't the only time a person's skin color was tampered with for a movie posters visual scheme, but the foreign promotion seemed to indulge in similar tactics.

Here is the Italian poster for the same film. Italian actress Lucretia Love is billed first followed by a Pamela Grier then Margaret Markov. Oddly enough, Grier, the co-star of the film, isn't featured on this poster at all. Markov is prominently displayed, though. African Americans were regularly featured in Italian sword and sandal movies yet they rarely, if ever appeared on the artwork for the films themselves. It just makes for an odd design considering Grier was a much bigger name at the time, but then, this was the Italian release. Whether a big movie or a small one, blatant with details or vague, what really caught the eye were the illustrations advertising the movie and in many cases, the designs are what got people interested in loosening those purse strings.


The look of movie posters of the 20s and 30s was very stagey--replicating that silent film look--often with big, bold letters and a distinctive color scheme of pastel or dark, almost opaque vividness in their coloring. This was especially evident in the horror posters of the day. These images were smooth, meticulous artist conceptions that many times reflected the dark, Depression Era time period, yet rich in detail. They were akin to cels used in animated cartoons. One of, if not the main central figure would be prominently displayed while a victim, oftentimes female, would be shown in peril. Granted, during this time, a poster wasn't necessarily the 'main attraction'. Going to a 'Movie Palace' was an experience that included much more than seeing a film, the advertising was just one of the cogs in a massive projector wheel.

Posters for adventure-fantasy-horror pictures were usually very exploitable in depicting the saucier elements promised. Unusually, one of the main poster ads for the controversial ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) showcases not the mad doctor, but the Panther Girl (she's hyped on many of the films promotional materials) and features male characters in need of some form of rescue.

The same can be said of one of the numerous campaigns for the even more eyebrow raising feature, FREAKS also from 1932. In this poster, you see the main villainess with her intended prey in her grasp, but with a look of gladness on his face as opposed to endangerment. Some of the films other publicity materials reinforced the controversial elements that resulted in the film being banned for decades for its sensitive subject matter.

The movie posters of the 1940s, while mostly retaining the look of the previous decades dark, pulp style posters, expanded on the 'cel animation' look updating it with a more vibrant selection of colors than had previously been used. Take one of the posters for DR. CYCLOPS (1940) for instance. It has the ingredients of a catchy theme--looming image of the main antagonist with bad intentions towards a frightened and helpless female, yet the colors stand out more than those of the previous decade. A more comic book approach was steadily beginning to take hold with more defining features on the intricate portraits of the onscreen creatures and their victims. Aside from that, the visual palette was similar, just with more clutter and bigger impressions of the performers.

One thing that will be noticeable when looking at posters from this time period is how startlingly similar they are to what passes for movie promotion nowadays. On many of these 1940s ads there's a collage of faces adorning the image in various settings much in the way actors mugs are displayed in the posters of today. The one difference is that these are painted impressions and not photographic shots of the actual performers. Also, you'll notice that a painted shot of the actor as the monster is used as opposed to the human form. Monsters were big business during the 1940s although they would soon peter out from over exposure towards the end of the decade.

Actors such as Karloff, Lugosi, Atwill and Chaney ruled the genre scene during the 40s with an increasingly tiresome slew of all too familiar monster movies populated with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and a new creation, The Wolf Man. Some of these movies attempted to inject new life into tired cinematic bones by teaming up the various monsters onscreen. Eventually, these actors would have to find new avenues with which to terrify a paying audience. Around this time, there was also a new kid on the block in his horror debut and that was Vincent Price appearing (or disappearing) in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940). You'll notice how this quality job entails the 'facial collage' that would evolve and take centerstage some 50 years later.

As seen in several examples above, the image of an unconscious, or imperiled woman remained a popular component for public consumption well into the 1950s and not just in the posters for the films, but in a number of publicity materials which featured shots that most often never appeared in the finished product. Publicity stills were seemingly common practice all around the world, too. The artwork in the 40s had a striking, life-like painterly quality about them that stands out as some of the most unique examples of motion picture promotion that was soon to evolve to greater, more exploitable heights in the 1950s.


This chauvinistic portrait of women as helpless and constantly in need of rescue can be seen on countless movie posters, although as already mentioned, the template was tinkered with from time to time. This popular device was seldom altered till the 1960s when the empowerment of women--and even more so during the 1970s--when action films gave women a chance to kick the crap out of the once dominant male.

Even so, that time period also utilized an increasingly pronounced sadism and misogyny towards women in the movies as well as their advertising. The exploitation of women was a signature proponent of the selling of a film championing the old adage "Sex Sells" likely well before that phrase was ever officially christened.

A lot of exploitation and sexploitation movies had strong women in lead roles, but also exploited their bodies at the same time. Roger Corman's New World Pictures and their chief competitor, Dimension Pictures were masters of the form as well as creating some of the most supremely orgasmic ballyhoo that's ever been created. The posters for these took full advantage of a bodaciously curvy, bosomy, scantily dressed woman's frame. The sexual nature would be apparent whether the woman (or women) was shown to be in danger of various indignities or even as the main protagonist standing tall against her adversaries. Underlying sexual themes were generally always present even in monster movie posters.

Before the 1950s, women were a common element of an artists vision of promoting a movie and almost always they would be seen as unconscious while held in the beasts arms, or being threatened by the claws of some horrifying creature (as seen in some examples further above). By the time the 50s rolled around, the template remained largely unchanged only now, the endangered female would be in a bathing suit, or her clothing would be torn in some way revealing some additional skin.

The teen delinquency rage during the 1950s spawned some female-centric girl gang flicks such as HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS (1958), a film whose poster--despite being about a dominating all girl gang--showcases a woman being "subdued" with a kiss on her neck. A small portion of the poster does show off the "battling bitches" of the films title, but this is but a minor detail compared to the larger image of the woman succumbing to a man's passionate kiss.

Sometimes a woman's proposed promiscuity or overall sex appeal would serve as the chief selling point. Such was the case of PROMISES! PROMISES!, a 1963 picture wherein the advertising got lots of mileage out of the fact that Jayne (TOO HOT TO HANDLE) Mansfield was shedding her clothes for the camera revealing her ample assets for the first time. Mansfield made a career out of flaunting her voluptuous body and had no compunction in doing so. Men wanted her, lusted after her, and all the attention brought her a great deal of wealth.

A true classic example of a movie poster exemplifying a hucksters profundity in selling onscreen sex would have to be Roger Corman's THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960). Here you see a totally naked, lithe, but toned woman wiping away the sweat from the pounding heat of the oppressive sun while two half naked men duel to the death to claim the prize--the body of this sensual woman. The movie itself may not correlate to such blatant salaciousness, but the poster succeeds in conveying a primal need for sex and the desires of mankind.


* All images were taken from google images
* Thanks to Beverly Gray for additional information regarding New World Pictures. You can read her blog that covers her days in exploitation movies and beyond HERE.

**For more information, check out these articles linked below on movie theaters, posters and publicity**




Samuel Wilson said...

Fascinating. I've noticed the same evolution in print advertising in general by comparing ads from my collection of 1950s magazines with today's print ads. Much less "clutter" today. What I also noticed was that print ads then read like scripts for radio ads, with a lot of repetition of slogans, and the decline of radio ballyhoo for movies may have led to a similar muting of movie ad art. Of course, newspaper advertising for movies is even more of a lost art than the posters, as any browse through the Google News Archive will show. I look forward to your next installment.

venoms5 said...

Hey, Sam! I wish I had held on to some of the old newspapers as well! I do remember checking out the entertainment section and seeing all kinds of exploitation stuff on the weekends. ROCKY HORROR was always playing at that time on Saturday night, too. The next one might be up tonight or probably tomorrow. I just wish I could have a house one day big enough to fit all my posters up on the walls, lol.

Max Evel said...

A little info on the James Bond "For Your Eyes Only" poster. That's actually a dudes legs, or I should say, a former dude. Just my useless input.
Cool posters.

A hero never dies said...

Great piece Brian, really looking forward to the next part. I've always loved movie posters and it's soul destroying to see the photoshopped trash that passes for them these days.

Dave S said...

Fantastic piece! Your website is a veritable history and education in exploitation films.

When I was a kid in the 70's, a friend and I used to clip all the newspaper ads for the movies we'd see and paste them into scrapbooks. They've long since disappeared, but not so long ago I started visiting our local public archives to get copies of some of these ads from our local paper with the notion of doing a scrapbook compilation of some of these ads. I started in '72 with plans to go through the slasher boom of the early 80's. Ahhh, the obsessions of a movie geek...

venoms5 said...

@ Max: Well thanks, a lot, Max! That poster was the best thing about the movie, for me. Oh, well, still a great pair of legs!

@ Martin: Glad you liked it! Part 2 is up now. Yeah, the "art" of collecting posters is pretty lost on most of the designs these days. I've seen a few I like, but it's nothing like the old days!

@ Dave: Thanks a lot! Oh, yeah I remember those newspaper ads, too! I've love to see those when you get them ready to post!

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