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