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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Decades of Exploitation: The Art of the Movie Poster Part 2



The movie poster artwork in the 50s was, like the movies themselves, larger than life. The artist design generally featured what was in the movie, but sometimes exaggerated to a more spectacular degree than what's actually shown. Take for instance the showstopping imagery for ATTACK OF THE 50FT WOMAN (1958). Here you have a towering, busty female scantily dressed (for the 50s, anyways) gripping a car in one hand and causing commotion and destruction in her path while standing over a freeway. This scene isn't in the film, but elements of this over the top image survive the end result. The poster is still an amazing design and the epitome of the exploitation of the female form presented here as the aggressor.


ROBOT MONSTER (1953), while most definitely one of the worst movies ever made, has an incredible poster design that belies the emaciated budget and bargain basement production values. This poster also commits the "cardinal sin" of using deceptive tactics to make the film seem far more bombastic and robust than it really is. The Ro-Man of the film is a guy in a shaggy gorilla costume with a plastic helmet on his head. The skull faced creature of the poster is non existant, too. One poster even goes so far as to feature the Rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) as part of its ad campaign as well as other battling beasts of a prehistoric era. While most posters featured a single spectacular drawing of a major set piece in the film, ROBOT MONSTER's poster features an array of potential thrills that are nowhere near as extravagant in the film as what's shown in this artist's interpretation.


The numerous poster designs for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) is a classic example of the painted promo utilizing the maximum effect for enticing the curious public. It's a design that has cemented its classic status as well as influenced others over the years. The monster and the lovely Julie Adams are front and center with minor variance between the various versions and then there's the classic presentation of the title strategically splashed across the canvas. While it had been done many times before, the BLACK LAGOON marketing and the film itself personified the 'Monster & the Girl' motif in a way that hadn't garnered such staying power since the release of KING KONG (1933) some twenty years prior.

The BLACK LAGOON designs were hugely influential some twenty years later (reinforced by a particular scene in the '54 movie) for Spielberg's JAWS (1975). The image of a beautiful woman menaced by a terrifying creature has always been a memorable piece of visual iconography.

A remake of the film has been bandied about for years with everyone from John Landis to John Carpenter attached to direct. It would be intriguing to see what sort of publicity materials would arise. One can hope that, should the remake ever surface, that the poster will remain somewhat faithful to the mood of the original ads, but with a modernized touch.

The sequels advertising exploited that imagery to its maximum effect and its poster design echoed the 3D gimmick to a level surpassing the 3D marketing ploy of the first film. The gill man is drawn in such a way that he appears to be looming over the audience carrying an unconscious female, seemingly reaching out to grab the patrons ogling the poster.

The third film, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), swaps out the misogynism of the helpless woman by having the now gill-less beast hoisting a MAN above his head. The poster also promises more "underwater thrills!" even though the films main attraction is the gill man being captured and having his capacity to breath underwater eliminated only to walk the Earth as a hulking monstrosity.


The explosively colorful artwork on 50s science fiction and horror posters was often more enticing than the movies themselves. It was rare to find a barren space not filled with some ornately painted piece of action or calamity. Occasionally you'd get a poster that more than adequately reflected the inadequacies of the very film the ad campaign was promoting. THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959) is one such example. The sight of a real Gila Monster inside a tiny sandbox menacing offscreen teenagers is worthy of this kindergarten design for its poster. Incidentally, GUNSMOKE's own Festus, Ken Curtis was a producer on this barrel scraper as well as another bad movie, the much more entertaining THE KILLER SHREWS (1959). That films poster also hid its monsters--"big dogs draped with carpets and fake fangs" opting for a more grim ad campaign that definitely works even if the movie--an early example of the 'Siege Film' does not.


Beginning in the 1950s, Roger Corman and American International Pictures became synonomous with drive in exploitation features and the advertising was often many times better than the actual movies themselves. They covered the gamut from modestly budgeted action thrillers, teen delinquency pictures, sci fi, horror and sometimes an amalgamation of some, or all of the above. The AIP hucksters were well versed in the art of motion picture promotion and their team did an amazing job of making attractive posters that sported imagery that far exceeded the meager pennies spent on the actual movies.

You'll notice that many times little was left to the imagination for most of the genre movie posters of that time period. The exploitation of the product superceded whatever mystery the movie might have held; this being magnified to a greater degree by the 1970s. This also extended to trailers back then. The trailers often gave away important details. Possibly the promoters were banking that the audience would forget about plot points once they got into the theaters. In the coming decades as poster artwork changed, less and less was shown and designs became more and more vague as to what you were going to see, but for the time, rubbing the 'bread and butter' of a movies contents in the viewers faces was vital for success.


With both Corman and American International being the Filet Mignon of the Drive In exploitation market, they brought the double feature back in a big way in an effort to combat the big studios. The double feature usually consisted of an 'A' film followed by a 'B' support feature; much like a 45 record with its A and B side songs. And like some of those B songs that eclipsed the intended single, the lower half of a double bill sometimes garnered more attention than the feature it was lending support to. The exploitation kings at AIP often brought together two B pictures for the price of one and made a great deal of money marketing two of their films or two pick ups whether it was Italian imports or Japanese monster pictures.

The double bill prospered throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s and eventually, that format was changed. On numerous occasions, two films with diametrically opposing storylines began cropping up such as this one above--FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER (1965) and CURSE OF THE VOODOO from the same year. One is a science fiction picture and the other is a horror movie. Both are bad movies and both films convey their contents in their titles without the aid of visuals. Still, the painted combo is terribly tempting and beguiling at the same time.

Here's a kooky co-feature of British chillers, one an atmospherically spooky movie about the occult that draws inspiration from superior horrors as BLACK SUNDAY and CITY OF THE DEAD (both 1960). The other an occasionally funny, but forgettable comical creeper starring singing sensation Pat Boone and directed by Terence Fisher. It's obvious from the imagery which is being ballyhoo'ed as the 'A' feature and which is the 'B' support. You'll notice the 'Witch Detector' at the top, a William Castle inspired bit of gimmickery; the sort of movie maverick hucksterism that was utilized well into the 1970s.

Here's another example of two vastly different movies. One is an oft ridiculed entry in the 'Big Bug' genre about gigantic rampaging wasps in Africa. Despite its reputation, MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1958) is an amazingly lurid and attractively titled picture even when saddled with a silly poster design. Paired with it is the still banned in Japan Ishiro Honda movie, HALF HUMAN (1955)--a film that had scenes with John Carradine shot for its US release and dealt with abominable snowmen and a subtext about deformed tribesmen that's taboo in Japan. Other small companies continued with the pairing of two movies (sometimes three) well into the 70s when the publicizing of a motion picture reached all new levels of depravity highlighting the sex and violence content regardless of how outrageous those elements really were in the finished product.


Bert I. Gordon loved making movies even if the end product was seldom very good. Still, one can see a degree of passion in his films especially when he more or less acted as a 'One Man Show' whether writing, directing and even doing the special effects work. While his movies have garnered a stigma of unintentional comedy, the promotional artwork for his films generally reflected this as well. Arguably the best ballyhoo for one of his films would have to go to THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957). Reminiscent of the gorgeously painted portrait of the ATTACK OF THE 50FT. WOMAN (1958), the poster for Gordon's movie encapsulates everything about the following years design for the giant gender swapped sci fi outing. The artwork, while exaggerated, captures the essence of what you're going to see when Glenn Manning grows wildly out of control eventually going on a macro enlarged rampage.

In a rare instance of hiding the title beast, Gordon's poster for his 1957 giant monster movie, THE CYCLOPS utilized a less than stellar approach to catching the 'eye' of its audience. Interestingly enough, the make up used for the films creature would sort of turn up in the following years sequel to COLOSSAL MAN, the WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST (see insert poster above). This time, our irradiated and now one eyed Glenn Manning is featured prominently on the films poster which refuses to hide what has become of our pitiable pseudo protagonist, now almost totally bereft of human thought and emotion.

Some of Gordon's other promotional designs for his films come off as noticeably silly, almost cartoonish in some instances. Still, these accurately depicted the less than serious attributes some of the films were saddled with. BEGINNING OF THE END (1957) is one such picture with its cartoonishly designed grasshoppers. On the poster, the bugs are blacked out save for the highlighting of the eyes and pronounced teeth the artist has bestowed upon the killer grasshoppers. Gordon's return to the giant creature genre in the 1970s resulted in two strikingly well made posters for two hilariously inept, but memorable cult movies--FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977).


Despite the smaller companies creating boisterous ads for films with little money behind them, alternate ploys were sometimes used to garner an audience. On occasion, AIP used secretive gimmicks to entice patrons into a theater to see just what hidden horror the poster refused to reveal. One of the most famous instances of playing with the paying customer's perceptions was 1964's MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA, retitled GODZILLA VS. THE THING for its American release. Whether down to fearing an altercation with Columbia (they owned the US rights to the original MOTHRA at that time) or just an example of movie showmanship to hide the fact that Godzilla was going to be battling a giant moth, the vagueness of the various ads were an ingenious bit of public deception. The most notorious of the fake hoopla was AIP's advertisment that Godzilla would be battling an enormous, multi tentacled monstrosity covered by a huge 'censored' card.

Another occasion of creating a mystique around a films monster was in Corman's CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961), a no budget wonder he did for his Filmgroup company. The "creature" featured in the film is rather laughable and the artwork used for its ballyhoo is far better than anything the film offers. Again, there's the depiction of a woman in danger, this time preparing to become the meal for some gigantic monstrosity that doesn't correlate to the actual "monster" in the movie. Nowadays, something like this would go straight to DVD and you'd only have the DVD box art to contend with.



Samuel Wilson said...

Another beautiful compilation. Re: "Godzilla vs. The Thing," I'd read that AIP was, among other things, trying to exploit the success of a contemporary novelty song called "The Thing." And I notice that the saurian menace on those posters bears no great resemblance to Godzilla. AIP must have felt a need to improve on Toho's limited design in a way that seems inexcusable in retrospect. Keep 'em coming!

venoms5 said...

Hey, thanks a bunch, Sam and that's the first I've heard about that song! Yeah, it seems like everybody wanted to "improve" on G's design! I got part 3 ready to go as well. Actually, part 2 and 3 were one piece, but it was a bit bigger than the first one, so I figured I'd cut in half.

A hero never dies said...

Brilliant stuff Brian, I love these historical posts.

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