Thursday, January 5, 2012

Good Reads :: Cinefantastique presents The Lost Art of Genre Posters (March, 1988)

The March, 1988, issue of Cinefantastique contains plenty of great articles, including an extensive chat with Dario Argento for a behind the scenes look at the making of Opera, and a review of some forthcoming "effects-laden, off-the-wall supernatural comedy" called Beetlejuice, which the author assures will make a name for some unknown director named Burton. Also featured are Frank Hennenlotter (Basket Case) , Wes Craven (Serpent and the Rainbow), and Stan Winston (Pumpkinhead), and quick-hits on Killer Klowns from Outer Space, The Hidden and Fatal Attraction. But, despite all of that, the reason this issue has been on my radar for such a long time was a pictorial retrospective by Stephen Rebello on "Selling Nightmares" -- or the lost art of movie poster design. And now, finally, I've managed to get my hands on a copy, and well worth the wait doesn't even scratch the surface on this one, folks.

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"Horror and science fiction movies of the '50s unleashed some of Hollywood's splashiest, raciest, and most fondly remembered artwork. Con always ruled the movie advertising game, but for genre movies, no hype was too outrageous, no stop left unpulled ... And looked at today, these posters chronicled our anxieties (about sex, the bomb, the enemy), our mores, our icons ... On poster after poster, mushroom cloud-spawned nightmare creatures thrashed our cities ... Flying saucers buzzed the White House for signs of intelligent life. Another staple image -- the pneumatic, half-nude nymphet cowering behind the beefy chested hero, his trusty gun trained on the approaching Creature -- may yet achieve the status of an era's signature."
-- Stephen Rebello xxxx
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The article itself takes up over sixty pages, highlighted beautifully by the genre poster art in question, and accented by unused sketches and rejected campaigns that is like meth to a cine-junkie like myself. The retrospective also includes a super-ultra-rare interview with Albert Kallis (-- the main reason for my obsession with finding it), who ran American International's art department from its inception and through its hey-dey of the 1960's.
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"At AIP the advertising always came first. What was important was the thrust, the sense of what you were selling and how it would appeal. And [AIP co-founder] Jim Nicholson had the best sense of exploitation I ever encountered in a distributor ... Jim and I would make up most of the titles and kick around the approach. Then, I'd make up a campaign. We'd send the layouts to the theater owners [and] if it looked like they were going to book the picture [then] we'd make it. Invariably, I never saw a picture before I did the ad campaign."
-- Albert Kallis xxxx
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Also feature-interviewed are artists Joseph Smith, Ruth Corbett and Robert Totten, but the majority of the article focuses on, and the other artists gush most about, the incredible contribution of Reynold Brown, the undisputed king of genre posters. (For more on Brown, I also highly recommend the documentary film, The Man Who Drew Bug-Eyed Monsters.) Probably more famous for the work he did at Universal International, including the majority of the iconic poster art for that studio's sci-fi boom of the 1950's, it didn't take Kallis very long to coax Brown, who hated the politics and back-stabbing of the studio system, into being his back-up at AIP.

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"My job was to make a movie seem better than it was -- to make people think a movie was really going to be good ... Sell it, don't smell it."

-- Reynold Brown xxxx
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Now, in this day and age of the internet, with these posters available to view just a few clicks away, may devalue the article in the eyes of some, especially considering what the back issue might cost you. But Rebello just does such a fantastic job -- exhaustive, really, of getting into the nuts and bolts of this craft from concept, to construction, to finished product, and the rueful, taken-for-granted treatment of the artists who seldom, usually never, got any credit for the work of putting butts into the seats back in those days is, I think, well worth the investment. As Kallis himself notes, when a theater owner cornered him at a convention, and offered the best compliment, "If we could only put sprocket-holes on your campaigns, then we'd really have something."


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the shout-out. That article was such a pleasure to research and write. I'm very glad that you enjoyed it and recommended it!


W.B. Kelso said...

You're more than welcome! And thank you for all your hard work in getting such a great article to the masses to help shed some light on these unsung heroes whose art you can recognize by sight but whose name sadly remains anonymous.

SAR said...

It was a pleasure -- and meeting these men and women was fantastic. What characters, what talent, what memories!

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