Imag­ineNa­tion B-movies

Hor­ror show On the cheap and off the cuff: how low-budget hor­rors in­spired a gen­er­a­tion of artists

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“If some­thing needs to be big, make it mas­sive!” How a gen­er­a­tion of B-movie artists in­spired a gen­er­a­tion.

When coun­try boy Duane Bradley ar­rives in New York City and checks into a dow­nat-heel ho­tel, its res­i­dent booz­ers, hook­ers and wrong­do­ers all ask the same ques­tion: what’s in the bas­ket?

Duane is un­usu­ally pro­tec­tive of his large wicker bas­ket; he talks to it, feeds it with food. It con­tains, it tran­spires, his small, se­verely dis­fig­ured, brother Belial. The pair, Si­amese twins sep­a­rated against their will, are now bent on re­venge against the doc­tors who car­ried out the pro­ce­dure.

The plan goes awry when the broth­ers find them­selves locked in a love tri­an­gle with the doc­tors’ comely re­cep­tion­ist. The film is 1982’s Bas­ket Case. Its plot is, at best, shaky – like the act­ing. It’s cheap and crude, fast and fu­ri­ous. And very, very bloody. It con­tains all the key el­e­ments of the quin­tes­sen­tial 80s B-movie. It’s no­table for an­other rea­son: its art­work.

“The poster has no shame, coy­ness or em­bar­rass­ment,” says Gra­ham Humphreys. “It recog­nises no bound­aries in taste, pal­ette or sub­ject. It’s free of taboo, cen­sor­ship and dig­nity. And it de­mands to be seen.”

Gra­ham – whom one critic has de­scribed as “the last great name among Bri­tain's film poster artists" – worked on UK cam­paigns for Bas­ket Case, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Franken­hooker. The short dead­lines and shorter bud­gets proved in­valu­able train­ing for a fledg­ling artist. Gra­ham says there’s much to be learned from B-movies’ DIY ethos.

work­ing With­out re­stric­tion

“B-movie posters of­fer no time to wal­low in tech­nique. I’ve learned to work fast. When I be­gin I imag­ine what would in­ter­est me per­son­ally: from ba­sic im­agery and out­side ref­er­enc­ing – sub­lim­i­nal or other­wise – to colour pal­ette and com­po­si­tion.

“I learned to work with­out re­stric­tion. B-movies and B-movie art were the voice of revo­lu­tion and dis­sent, stick­ing a fin­ger up at author­ity, con­ven­tion, pol­i­tics and re­li­gion. Go with your im­pulses and refuse to

con­form. Look at the colours, see how play­ful the im­ages are – ex­ag­ger­ate. If some­thing needs to be big, make it mas­sive. If it’s a vi­o­lent, hose it in blood. If it’s sex­ual, add necrophilia.”

B-movies were born out of the Great De­pres­sion. When at­ten­dances dropped and the­atres be­gan to fold, pro­pri­etors had to be cre­ative. The most suc­cess­ful mar­ket­ing tech­nique proved to be the dou­ble header.

Tra­di­tion­ally cre­ated off the cuff and on the cheap, B-movies sat at the bot­tom of the bill in a dou­ble or even triple header of

If some­thing needs to be big, make it mas­sive. If it’s a vi­o­lent, hose it in blood. If it’s sex­ual, add necrophilia

fea­ture films. They were warm-up act for their big-budget coun­ter­parts. Many found their per­fect set­ting when the pop­u­lar­ity of drive-in the­atres peaked in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and later en­joyed a resur­gence on VHS. Hor­ror, sci-fi, sus­pense, ex­ploita­tion: these are the sta­ple B-movie gen­res. Plots were of­ten for­mu­laic, the di­a­logue as hammy as its de­liv­ery. But they had a unique look and feel, a cer­tain charm.

Di­rec­tors Robert Ro­driguez and Quentin Tarantino are vo­cal cham­pi­ons of the B-movie. Gra­ham now works closely with Cre­ative Part­ner­ship, the cen­tral Lon­don- based film and pro­duc­tion com­pany that worked on the Ro­driguez and Tarantino col­lab­o­ra­tion From Dusk till Dawn – which wears its B-movie in­flu­ences on its blood­soaked sleeve. Grind­house – 2007’s dou­ble header that fea­tured Planet Ter­ror and Death Proof – is the pair’s most ob­vi­ous trib­ute to ex­ploita­tion film.

Ahead of the launch of the films, they held a com­pe­ti­tion to cre­ate a fake trailer. Hobo with a Shot­gun, di­rected by Ja­son Eisener, won and was even­tu­ally de­vel­oped into a full-length fea­ture. Artist Tom Hodge sent Ja­son a mes­sage say­ing he’d like to con­trib­ute art­work and Ja­son ac­cepted.

ex­cit­ing the in­ner child

“For me,” Tom says, “it’s all about the 80s VHS video art: mous­ta­chioed mus­cled men, buxom beau­ties, big ex­plo­sions, phal­lic guns and nightmare-in­duc­ing mon­sters. It’s an un­abashed cre­ativ­ity in de­sign. The per­fect B-movie art is a de­scrip­tive form that tells a story about the film – of­ten bet­ter than the film does. It should ex­cite your in­ner child.”

Free­lance il­lus­tra­tor Tom, known as The Dude De­signs, aims to bring back the

“lost magic of film poster and video cover art”. While he has a “more is more” ap­proach to art, he stresses the im­por­tance of com­po­si­tion. Tom leads the viewer’s eye around his de­signs so they can ab­sorb – but aren’t overwhelmed – by its in­tri­ca­cies. “If the in­ner child squeals and you’re en­ter­tained, you’re on the right track.”

The lo-fi look and feel

B-movies were the train­ing ground for movie men on both sides of the cam­era, and the artists who pro­vided the pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial. Up un­til the 1950s, ma­jor stu­dios owned theatre chains and so set up spe­cific B-units to cre­ate low-billing movies to max­imise prof­its. When stu­dios were no longer al­lowed a mo­nop­oly on the­atres, the B-units dis­ap­peared. The term B-movie be­gan to be ap­plied to any cheap, lo-fi film.

Dave Rapoza never ac­tively aims for a B-movie poster feel in his work, but along

The hor­ror movie posters look like people had a lot of fun de­sign­ing them. I think that style is due a come­back

with 90s video game ad­ver­tis­ing, he feels it’s al­ways subtly there. “There’s this one amaz­ing scene in The Video Dead,” says Dave, “where this zom­bie’s head is com­ing up through a TV screen ly­ing on the floor. There’s mist every­where and the light from the TV un­der­lights him. This is what in­spires me most about hor­ror B-movies: the light­ing ef­fects, the hard sat­u­rated back­lights.”

If artists can learn any­thing from 80s B-movie art, Dave says, it’s that art can have an el­e­ment of ir­rev­er­ence to it. “There’s some­thing about it just ac­cept­ing how dumb the idea is, but tak­ing it so se­ri­ously with the ren­dered art­work. The hand- painted hor­ror movie posters re­ally pull me in: sim­ple, di­rect con­cepts that re­minded me of comic cov­ers. They all look like people had a lot of fun de­sign­ing them. I think that style is due a come­back.”

B-movies in the 50s were con­cerned with alien in­va­sions and atomic bombs. The 60s looked to the moon. The 70s of­fered up ex­ploita­tion films – Blax­ploita­tion (ini­tially tar­get­ing an African-Amer­i­can au­di­ence) and Bru­ce­ploita­tion (star­ring Bruce Lee look-alike ac­tors) were among its sub­gen­res. In the 80s, pro­duc­tion costs rose for big­ger films, mak­ing it harder for B-movies to reach the big screen. But VHS helped se­cure a cult, al­most un­der­ground, fol­low­ing. And B-movies made at this time seemed to revel in their new sta­tus.

out of the ashes

Van­droid is a leg­end in B-movie cir­cles earn­ing cult sta­tus as the great­est film that never was. In 1984, Palm Springs En­ter­tain­ment stu­dios burned to the ground, tak­ing with it any chance of its re­lease. That was un­til artist Tommy Lee Ed­wards helped it rise from the ashes. He has cre­ated a Dark Horse comic-book se­ries based on the orig­i­nal screen­play.

For Tommy, B-movie art­work was of­ten bet­ter than the movies them­selves and they do a bet­ter job of sell­ing the film than most big-budget stu­dio posters. The il­lus­tra­tions of­ten at­tempted to give a taste of the story – some­thing, along with an in­nate sense of child-like won­der, that’s ab­sent from to­day’s promo ma­te­rial. “The posters typ­i­cally have that lit­tle some­thing that doesn’t quite fit,” says Tommy, “a weird mix of gen­res. A bar­bar­ian in outer space, or the hero’s gi­ant hand on the Low Blow poster. There’s of­ten fun sex ap­peal, too, such as Bob McGinnis’ Bar­barella poster.

“I con­tinue to sur­round my­self with that stuff be­cause it’s a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion that keeps me close to my child­hood roots. To make comics, an­i­mated films and write sto­ries, I have to re­mem­ber be­ing a kid. You've got an un­in­hib­ited cre­ativ­ity as a kid. No idea is too silly and you don’t have to please any­body but yourself. That's the spirit of B-movies.”

The dis­tinc­tive UK poster art for The Evil Dead was cre­ated by Gra­ham Humphreys. The Bas­ket Case film poster was cre­ated by Gra­ham Humphreys, who says it had, “no shame, coy­ness or em­bar­rass­ment”. The back­light­ing of hor­ror B-movies is some­thing that Dave Rapoza aims to chan­nel in his own art.

The poster art for The Nightmare on Elm Street and its se­quel were painted by

Gra­ham Humphreys. Tom Hodge got the job of cre­at­ing Hobo with a Shot­gun's poster art sim­ply by email­ing the film's di­rec­tor.

Tommy Lee Ed­wards drew Van­droid the comic, which was based on the b-movie that never was. Art by Tom Hodge for this year's Wolf Cop, who wants to bring back "the lost magic of the poster". Dave Rapoza is a fan of de­pict­ing "sim­ple, di­rect con­cepts" in his fan­tasy art. Gra­ham Humphreys painted the cover art for the 2013 rere­lease of Ra­bid Dogs, which orig­i­nally came out in 1998.

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