They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all know that it’s the cover art which initially draws our attention to a book in the first place.
Movies are no different. A lot of time, effort, talent and money goes into designing a movie poster, because it’s that first impression which often translates into big bucks or big flops.
I’ve sung the praises of movie posters before. First in the post “The Art of Horror“, and then again in “Hammer’s Glamour: The Art of Hammer Films“. Illustrated movie posters have sadly fallen out of fashion in Hollywood. But that’s all the more reason to keep highlighting a few classic examples here!
My love of cheesy, eccentric, down-right bad B-movies is no secret. Currently on my “to-watch” list are gems like “The Two-Headed Transplant”, “Drive-In Massacre”, and “Track of the Moon Beast”. (This is a real list, btw, I’m not just making it up for effect.)
A few things in particular come to mind when I think of the 1950-60’s era: 1) Classic family life and glamourous everyday fashions, and 2) crazy, campy, colourful science fiction films. Films about brains that won’t die, aliens and space ships, women from Mars, and babes in gold bikinis. So today, we’re going to be focusing on film posters of the psychedelic sci-fi persuasion. Now, not all of these are from the ’50-60’s era, but every poster has something in common: Each is a work of art; a vibrant illustration of the fantastical, soaked to the core with rich imagination and a mastery of colour and composition.
One of my favourites from today’s selections is, to me, the embodiment of kooky 1950’s science fiction: “The Brain Eaters” (1958).
The poster boasts the tagline: “Crawling, slimy things terror-bent on destroying the world!” And in 1958 — 9 years after the Roswell crash, but 11 years before man set foot on the moon — I can see why this theme of world domination by other-worldly means was rampant and might have been terrifying (but still appealing!) to eager movie-goers.
Regarding the poster’s artwork, I’m once again beyond impressed with the level of skill and attention to detail. Overall, the piece is eye-catching and shocking; those pupil-less eyes, sharp teeth, and exposed brain all beg the question, “WHAT is going on?!” I love the choice of colours and unique font used for the title.
The poster was painted by artist Albert Kallis, a man with incredible talent who turned out many, many more posters just like the one above. When he worked at American International Pictures, according to Al, “I never saw an AIP movie before I did the advertising.” Which might explain why a lot of these great old movie posters were often more impressive than the films they were promoting!
But one movie that definitely lived up to, and dare I say surpassed, its artistic promotions, is what I think was Ray Harryhausen‘s best film, “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963). Shown here is the beautiful French version poster.
Which leads me to an interesting point. Foreign versions of movie posters are often much more appealing than their English counterparts. Take for example the artwork created for the 1974 Spanish film, “The Ghost Galleon”.
This German release poster boasts an incredibly scary depiction of rotting corpses wading through the middle of the sea. And the overall muted colour palette is set off beautifully by the red blood-drip-font title.
The film was released in the US under the name “Horror of the Zombies”, which makes me wonder if someone wasn’t trying to play off of the “Horror of” film titles used by British horror powerhouse Hammer Productions a decade+ before.
Here we see the poster’s English counterpart, which features a mash-up of photography rather than an artist’s illustration. While not a bad poster by any stretch, it lacks the gripping, mesmerizing quality that the German poster possesses, and by comparison is actually rather boring.
Likewise, this Italian poster for Hammer’s first Frankenstein sequel, “The Revenge of Frankenstein” (1958) far outshines either of the English versions below.
It just has so much more life and vitality, a quality that truly sets apart a good poster artist from a mediocre one. Just like with books, the artwork is meant to sell the story before the consumer has, well, consumed it. A good artist knows how to create an image that will grab the viewers attention, and pique his curiosity enough to coax some $$$ out of his pocket.
And who wouldn’t be tempted to spend a few of their hard-earned dollars on this gem whose title is pretty self expanatory? “The War of the Gargantuas” (1966).
This French poster has a distinctly Japanese style to it, which normally isn’t something I’m drawn to. But much like what it’s depicting, this poster’s artwork is larger than life, capturing size and scale, as well as employing some major eye-catching colours, which helps me overlook the particular style of drawing.
Seeing the giant octopus in the above poster reminds me of yet another giant eight-tentacled sea monster, created once again by the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen.
“It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955) is a wonderfully campy, overly dramatic tale of a giant-size octopus that’s been awakened by some nearby nuclear testing. The radioactive behemoth is understandably upset and goes on a rampage, hell bent on destroying San Francisco.
This is a gorgeous poster. It does a marvelous job of leading your eye around the image, taking in all of the destruction the monstrous octopus is wreaking. A very effective use of colour here too. As I noted in “The Ghost Galleon” artwork above, again we have this dull, more muted palette for most of the picture, with the bright pop of yellows and greens reserved for use in the title and on the monster.
Speaking of bright green creatures who rise up from the depths of the sea, another of my favourite movie posters is this wonderful example of the final monster in Universal’s classic monster oeuvre, “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954).
This is a very well put together film poster, created by artist Reynold Brown — another highly prolific poster artist of the time. (Note: He was also the artist responsible for painting the poster for my favourite film of all time, “House on Haunted Hill“.)
Here, the Gill-man has been exquisitely rendered: scales, fins and depicted in a deliciously fishy green colour. Notice how the visual is powerful enough to stand on its own, and yet it doesn’t overwhelm the text and smaller illustrations. The mark of a master artist — the ability to create elements that complement and not compete.
Our single visit back into the 1940s today will be in appreciation of this ghastly classic starring the original King of Horror, Boris Karloff — “Invasion of the Body Snatcher” (1945).
Isn’t that the perfect shade of ghoul green? Creates such a perfect atmosphere for a film about grave robbing. I’m also amused that Karloff’s name is actually larger than the movie’s title! But by 1945, Boris was arguably a bigger star than any of the films he’d been in, and his name alone was enough to sell tickets.
But even without the name “Karloff” front and center, this poster would have me running for the theatre. Karloff’s illustrated figure looks directly out at the viewer and the positioning of his hands beckons to us, threatening to reach out AND GRAB YOU!
I turn once again to the expert hand of Reynold Brown, in what is perhaps the most quintessentially sci-fi poster of the 1950s: “This Island Earth” (1955).
Wow, a fiery sky, menacing space ship attack, men in pods, an actual alien manhandling a woman, and poor ol’ Earth right there watching it all unfold. This really is sci-fi at its best.
“Two mortals trapped in outer space… challenging the unearthly furies of an outlaw planet gone mad!”
Now that’s a tagline. What will happen to our accidental yet intrepid heroes? Will they be captured or killed? Could they steal a spaceship and fly home? Caught in the crossfire, what will be the fate of Earth and her inhabitants?!
See? Now you want to know what happens! And that’s what a great poster does — stimulates your imagination. :)
This fabulous poster for “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951) is distinctly sci-fi, but also borders on being rather frightening too. A menacing hand grasping the Earth; a giant robot/spaceman shooting a laser beam out of his eyes; a little glimpse at space itself; the poster proves to be both dark and colourful at the same time.
There are a lot of elements to this poster, but I like how it’s somehow uncluttered and not busy. It’s a very simple layout — text, picture, text — yet this is exactly what you want in a movie poster. You want to grab the attention of passersby, but you also want it to be easy for them to read at a quick glance.
That’s a key to movie posters that I think a lot of people don’t realize. Time is not on your side when it comes to poster art. You aren’t in a gallery setting where everyone is relaxed and the whole point is to stand/sit around and drink in the artwork in all of its most minute detail. A poster has to grab you in that split second you’re hurrying by it: On a busy street, in a crowded mall, on the road driving by. The poster artist has only seconds to impress his audience.
And this is why I have the utmost respect and love for traditional poster art. When it was created, I don’t think it was ever really meant to be taken seriously as fine art. The rate at which these artists produced movie posters just boggles the mind. Movie after movie, poster after poster, often creating more than one variation of each poster — they just churned them out like a machine. But even though they might not have been meant to endure closer scrutiny and appreciation, they really do deserve it.
Because these are more than just legitimate works of art. The skill of the artists who created them goes far beyond just technical ability. They were masters of composition and all other elements of design. Their imaginations were firmly rooted in both fantasy and reality, which is what makes their work so appealing and endearing. It’s realistic fantasy. Expertly modeled subject matter, rendered in the most fantastical settings.
And remember, many of the films from this time period were filmed and shown in black and white, making an eye-catching, colourful movie poster even more important.
I guess some would say that sensationalism is really what these great old film posters were selling. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Entertainment (films and television especially) are supposed to be an escape from reality, not a heavy reminder of how bad things are in real life.
So as a woman who loves nothing more than late nights of scary sci-fi, schlock, and shock, I have only one last thing to say.
Here, take my money.
And pass me the popcorn.