Years ago, in the golden age of Hollywood, movies were promoted with glorious, colourful posters, illustrated by artists who still worked with paint and a brush. Film posters are a somewhat under-appreciated genre of art. But some of the world’s most talented artists made their living creating images for movie posters.
I’m passionate about art and I love horror films, so these posters from a bygone era are something I can really get excited about.
There have been many masterpiece horror films produced in the last 80+ years. Some accompanied by very impressive posters. The 1930’s and ’40s saw the creation of some absolutely stunning works of art created to draw in potential paying customers for some of the most iconic, classic films ever made. From the well known: Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Invisible Man (1933); to the slightly lesser known but equally brilliant: The Black Cat (1934), White Zombie (1932) and The Corpse Vanishes (1942).
As with any type of art, there are particular artists and individual works of art that stand out above the rest. I’ve selected six posters by three different artists that are what I consider to be the some of the finest examples of movie poster art in the horror genre.
This is one of my favourite movie posters. Produced by Paramount in 1933, “Supernatural” featured beautiful Hollywood starlet Carole Lombard, the highest paid actor in Hollywood at the time. This is the American release poster, created by Paramount’s chief art director Vincent Trotta and his assistant Maurice Kallis.
While perhaps not the most flattering depiction of the actress, you have to admit that the poster is striking. It’s an attention grabber. The crystal ball, glowing through her fingers, leaves an eerie cast of light on her face, that somehow for all its grotesqueness, still leaves her looking radiant.
Bold, bright colours, strong, readable words, nice composition, lots of detail but not cluttered with unnecessary props or information — executing this design took skill. Remember, the purpose of movie posters was to give viewers a reason to want to see the film. The poster must not only be visually appealing, but give you an idea of what the movie is about. Poster art is no different than any other form of art. It requires thought and preparation. There are certain required elements as well as room for creativity.
The next two posters are both the works of a single artist – Karoly Grosz, a prominent Universal Studios artist who was responsible for creating posters for the most famous of Universal’s monster films including Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Dracula.
My personal favourite of the two is “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932). The colours are just spectacular. The contrast between the glowing green and the black background create a spooky, haunting atmosphere and Lugosi’s expression sets the mood very well.
The other poster, “The Mummy” (1931), while not as eye-catching or visually attractive (in my opinion), would go on to become the most expensive US film poster of all time, when it fetched a remarkable $435,500 at a Sotheby’s auction in 1997. It has since been demoted to the “second” most highly valued movie poster of all time by the sale of the international version of “Metropolis” (1927), purchased in 2005 for a staggering $690,000.
Quite possibly the greatest poster artist of all time is Italian born Anselmo Ballester. After attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, Ballester worked in the cinema for both American and Italian film studios until the early 1960’s. He is best known for his superb work done while employed as the head artist of the independent Italian production company, Minerva Films.
This is one of two different poster designs Ballester created for the Argentinian film “El Extrano Caso Del Hombre Y El Bestia” (The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast), a Mario Soffici ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ film from 1956. I absolutely love this image. The graphic is bold, impressive and very effective. The modelling of the two faces merging into one has been executed beautifully in this more classical style of poster design. What makes this piece so striking is Ballester’s use of chiaroscuro, which is the modelling of light and dark to create strong contrast. In this piece, the contrast is between the subject and the background.
Ballester exhibited two very distinctive styles of poster painting. A classic, bold, graphic style, like the one above, and a more traditional, realistic, illustrative style, as seen in this Italian poster created for the film “Notre Dame” (1939). The latter style has softer, smoother, cleaner lines, and its composition is drifting towards that of a traditional painting rather than a graphic image.
Ballester designed and painted hundreds of posters, touching every genre of film. This Italian website has a wonderful collection of his incredible work. If you get a chance, take the time to browse through it.
What are some of the things I love most about Ballester’s work? The wonderful, highly saturated colour of his bold, graphic works, and the subtle gradation of colour in his illustrative pieces. His impeccable attention to detail, from the beautiful, delicate modelling of a woman’s face, to the texture and depth of the fabric that clothes her. And even though Ballester’s brush strokes are often visible, they don’t leave the piece looking “sloppy” which is often the impression they give.
There is nothing amateurish about Ballester’s work. His skill and passion shine through in every single work of art he ever produced.
“To become a creator of film posters, it is of course, necessary to have some of the innate qualities of a painter – to know how to set a pose, to have some skill at drawing, to have a sense of colour, to possess some imagination and an ability to appreciate beauty . In your childhood, and continuing through your whole life, you must learn to fill your eyes and your soul with the marvelous nature of things and with the way the great painters have passed them on. And it is necessary to study passionately, to always draw and paint everything from the truth. Then you can let your imagination run free. Whether you are creating a work of art, or a more humble advertising poster, you must be able to attract the interest of the public, to satisfy both the most refined people and the roughest, who are the majority.”
~Excerpt from Anselmo Ballester’s diary
Anselmo Ballester passed away at the age of 77 on September 22, 1974. Today marks the 38th anniversary of his death. This incredible artist deserves to be remembered for his magnificent artwork. He is truly a master second to none, not only in the field of film poster art, but as an artist period.
With a little appreciation for our passions in life, we are limited only by our imagination.