June 10, 2019

The Rad, Mad Art of the B-movie Poster

Movie posters have a lot of hard work to do: they have to catch the wandering eye, instantly convey something intriguing about the film to the potential movie goer, and accomplish all this with static 2D images and text in fixed dimensions.

Occasionally in the pursuit of mundane commerce, movie posters accomplish something else -- they become art. Sometimes, very valuable art. In 2017, a rare version of a poster for Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula fetched a record $525,800 at auction. Interestingly, 2 out of the 3 previous record holders were horror movie posters, including Lon Chaney’s lost film London After Midnight (1927; $478,000) and Boris Karloff’s The Mummy (1932; $453,000).

Which makes sense, as the best horror movies, springing as the do from enduring fables and folklore, stand the test of time much better than conventional dramas that reflect ever-changing social mores and fads. Like the movies themselves, the posters are still in high demand decades after they were issued.

I’m not a collector of physical posters (thankfully, or I might not have been able to retire when I did), but I look up poster images all the time for the blog. The ones below are some of my very favorite finds, posters (actually, half sheets) that, for me, approach the ideal intersection of commerce and art. (Or, if you think calling these posters art is too much of a stretch, think of it as design and technique that grabs your eyeballs and won’t let go…)

Without further ado, here is the first installment, in alphabetical order, of the Films From Beyond B-movie half-sheet Hall of Fame. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

Poster - 13 Ghosts (1960)
In William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960), it's hard to keep track of all
the specters without a scorecard. I like the "Ghost-viewer" inset,
which advertises the special "Illusion-O" viewer that theater
audiences received. Looking through the red filter enhanced
the ghostly images, while the blue filter faded them out.

Poster - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
This striking poster is distinguished by the heightened realism of the
ferocious dog and the counter-action of the puppet people. (1958)

Poster - The Brain Eaters (1958)
I haven't seen this movie in many years, but my guess is that nothing
like this appeared in it. Is the unfortunate woman a victim,
a monster, or both? Pretty grisly stuff for the '50s. (1958)

Poster - Donovan's Brain (1953)
This is brutal in its simplicity. Look away, lest you too
be driven to madness... and muuurrrrderrr! (1953)


Poster - It Came From Outer Space (1953)
I like this for a couple of things: the mix of light and shadow makes the
characters in the main part of the poster "pop" like a 3D image; and the
insets at the bottom depicting movie highlights are themselves mini 3D
screens with the action spilling out into the audience. (1953)

Poster - The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The archaic mosaic snake overlaid on the photo-realistic monster
woman nicely captures the film's theme of modern characters
menaced by ancient evil. (1988)

Poster - The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Prince Prospero's face made up of writhing figures straight out
of Dante's Inferno is enough to make your skin crawl! (1964)

Monster on the Campus (1958)
The hideous hairy horror looms over a pair of terrified college students as
sensational headlines splash against a blood-red sky. Great stuff! (1958)

Poster - The Mummy (1959)
I love how the constable's flashlight beam pierces right through
the shambling mummy's bandages. Plus, it features cartoon
film highlights on the right edge. (1959)

Poster - Not of This Earth (1957)
The photo-realistic depiction of abject fear juxtaposed with a
cartoonish alien creature makes for a very arresting and
memorable image. (1957)

Poster - World Without End (1956)
This is one of the craziest posters from the '50s, with its combination
of abstract imagery and traditional art depicting film highlights.
What is that colossal cubist figure doing shoving a clock the size
of the earth at a needle-nosed spaceship? Who knows? (1956)