You don’t need to visit the local art gallery to see some incredible works of art. Two years ago I wrote “The Art of Horror” — a blog post that highlighted the lost art of illustrated film posters.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that illustrated movie posters really started to fall out of vogue. And such a shame that they did too. In my previous post, I focused on posters and artists from Hollywood’s Golden Age. But this time, I’m going to dive head first into a pool of glorious Technicolour — the posters of Hammer Films.
From the late 50’s through the 70’s, the British production company was well known for its love and use of bright colour, scantily clad bodies, lavish sets, and often garish special effects. And you know what? I loved every bit of it. And if you don’t? Something’s seriously the matter with you. ;P
Not surprisingly, the posters commissioned to sell said films are equally impressive and recognizable. While horror was Hammer’s forte, some of their best posters are from non-horror films. So let’s begin with my favourite.
Regular readers of my blog know that I’m crazy about pin-up art, and that’s pretty much what this is. Rachel Welch and Ursula Andress were real-life pin-ups at the time. And it’s a good thing Andress looks so fantastic in this poster, because her acting was below sub-par in the film. Just terrible. But Tim Chantrell’s illustration for this double-billing is exquisite.
The poster is from 1966, the year “One Million Years B.C.” was released. “She” came out the previous year. Everyone’s taste is different, but for me, this poster is perfection. The colours are bright and vibrant, and although the piece is divided right down the middle, Chantrell was careful to choose a complementary colour palette for each film.
To my eye, nothing is more pleasing than symmetry. But perfect symmetry can be boring. True artist that he is, Chantrell kept symmetry in the layout, but then tweaked each individual component to keep it visually interesting. An equal-sized portion of the poster has been devoted to each film. The placement of the movie titles is the same on both sides, and the colour is the same. Each actress’s name is done in the same font, and is the same size. And we have a text border at both the top and the bottom. There’s what makes up the perfect symmetry.
But then Chantrell does a little tweaking to add visual appeal. The title fonts while similar, are different. And though each girl takes up the same amount of space towards the center of the poster, each is striking a different pose. Now take a peek at the backgrounds behind them. Again, the layout is nearly a mirror image, but Chantrell uses colour to break up the monotony. To me, this is THE best poster that Hammer ever produced. It’s perfection in both visual appeal and design theory. I would most certainly hang this on my wall as a legitimate work of art.
Manchester artist Tom Chantrell is responsible for many of Hammer’s film posters. Hundreds of posters (not just for Hammer) can be attributed to his hand. Another example of his work for Hammer is this fabulous 1966 double-bill poster for “Rasputin: The Mad Monk” and “The Reptile”.
This poster has a special place in Hammer’s history. It marks the first time the company branded themselves as “The House of Horror”.
Chantrell’s work for 1968’s “The Lost Continent” has a nice vintage vibe to it. The colours are muted, but all the better to showcase his wonderfully detailed illustration. Not to mention appeal to a slightly older audience. People who are interested in a little substance rather than just an over-indulgent flash in the pan (which, let’s be honest, is exactly what most Hammer films were).
This is a picture you’d expect to see in an old adventure book that your grandpa had when he was a boy. And that’s the point, really. The purpose of a movie poster is to pique people’s interest enough that they’ll pay to see the film. So a good poster artist knows how to capture his audience’s attention. In this case, he’s appealing to their sense of nostalgia and adventure. “The Lost Continent” is more suspense with a hint of mystery than it is horror, and the image on this poster does an excellent job of drawing you in. Everything about this tells me he’s trying to appeal to an older generation of viewers. My favourite thing about this poster is how Chantrell has incorporated a lot of movement. The boat is sitting up out of the water, and the octopus/kraken’s tentacles are flailing around. It’s a masterpiece.
Another beautifully illustrated poster is this one for 1970’s “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”.
“Enter an age of unknown terrors, pagan worship and virgin sacrifices.” Well, if that doesn’t scream Hammer, I don’t know what does.
Here’s an interesting one. This is the Italian poster for “Frankenstein Created Woman”, 1967.
Different posters were designed for a film’s distribution in other countries. And I’ve found that oftentimes, I prefer the foreign release posters to the domestic ones. The composition of this piece is what sells it for me. You’ve got one dominant, stationary subject in the foreground, illuminated and brightly coloured so that she stands out, but still complements the background. Your eye is drawn around the entire picture thanks to that bright spot above the castle and Peter Cushing’s likeness’s striking red eyes. This poster just LOOKS good.
As does this interesting French/Dutch version of the same film.
An exceptional example of fine art-quality illustration is this double-billing of “Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell”/”The Fists of Vengeance” poster by Bill Wiggins.
Just look at those hands on the creature! And it’s one tiny detail that takes this piece from good to great. The one finger coming in front of the movie’s title, which gives you the wonderful 3-dimensional illusion that the monster is reaching out to grab at you. Strong shadows on his hands also help to pull them into the foreground.
Another great foreign release poster is this Italian version of “Horror of Frankenstein” (1970).
This reminds me a little of Karoly Grosz’s poster for 1932’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. One of my favourites in “The Art of Horror” post. The best thing about Hammer’s posters is the same thing that made their films stand out so much — colour. Colour can do so much for a work of art. It can also ruin a piece if you choose the wrong colours. But these posters have so much life in them. They’re vibrant and bold, just like Hammer’s films are. And I think it’s wonderful that in the case of Hammer, the poster art represents the film art so well.
The final poster is for “The Curse of the Werewolf” (1961). A fun piece that’s once again the perfect balance of colour, content and layout. I really like when there’s room for a little written introduction right on the poster.
You’ll notice that some posters are in the traditional portrait style (the height is greater than the width), but there are also these fantastic landscape ones too. This wasn’t always the case. Between about 1910 – 1935, most British film posters were based on the traditional Victorian theatre-poster layout — portrait style, roughly 40″x30″ — and similar to the American “One-Sheet” movie poster format which was 41″x27″. This was good because it meant that US posters could be imported directly into the UK, or the designs could at least be easily adapted with few changes to British-printed posters. But in 1936, UK distributor the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation changed the face of film posters forever when they introduced the 30″x40″ “Quad Crown” landscape layout. The public loved this new style, and by the end of the decade, everyone in Britain was using it.
This was a major breakthrough for British artists because it meant that poster designs coming in from the US were no longer easily compatible with the new British format of poster. And this opened the door for designing entirely new and different artwork for foreign films coming into Britain. What a momentous day in the history of art! It’s not uncommon to see three, four, or an even greater number of different poster designs for one film.
And I say, the more art there is to enjoy, the better! Especially when it’s Hammer.
So why don’t you go look up one of these fantastic Hammer films and get comfortable on the couch? Halloween is just around the corner, and you know what that means… more creepy horror-themed blog posts to come…
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .