Creature from the Black Lagoon

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Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 26

La Belle et la Bête

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Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 26

Cat People

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Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 26

King Kong

Coming soon

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 26

Some of the most memorable scenes in the movies are not in the films themselves, but on the posters designed to promote them. Matthew Sweet picks some monster hits

Hull, 1975. The Land that Time Forgot. Instead of making up your own jokes, I want you to imagine standing outside the ABC cinema on the corner of Ferensway and Collier Street. Partly because imagining is all any of us can do – they knocked it down to build a Next, and renamed Collier Street after a celebrated local missionary. But mainly because I want to describe my first encounter with the vivid and seductive art of the film poster.

On the horizon, a volcano erupts above a landscape busy with roaring prehistoric beasts. On the left, the title of the film, The Land That Time Forgot, in lava-red, monumental lettering – and the likenesses of the stars, Doug McClure and Susan Penhaligon, recoiling from some reptile attacker. On the right, a magisterial Tyrannosaurus Rex – not lumbering across the plain, but surging through the ocean in pursuit of a Nazi U-boat, which is surely about to be pulverized in its huge Cretacean jaws.

Just before the film ended its run, I asked my mother if she would see if the manager of the ABC was willing to donate it to my bedroom wall. It had already gone. Perhaps, even in 1970s Yorkshire, there was a market for such things – a fine selection of which will be offered by Bonhams in Los Angeles.

Some movies exist because of a poster. The boss of Hammer, James Carreras, raised funds for One Million Years BC (1966) with the help of a dummy poster of a woman in a fur bikini – later immortalized by Raquel Welch – before a page of the script had been written. Some posters amplify our expectations beyond the resources of the film-makers – even Star Wars (1977) deployed a commercial artist to recruit more imperial stormtroopers than George Lucas could afford to muster. Others betray the movies that summon them into being – obfuscating the gayness of a gay film, the foreignness of a foreign film, the misery of a miserable film. This kind of imagery offers a map of what marketing people believe our desires and prejudices to be. According to them, we like violence and guns and kissing. We like actresses to have bigger chests and skinnier legs than the ones that actresses have already. We're not quite as decent or liberal as we say.

And if we're offended, as we should be, that the poster for A Single Man (2009) implied that the film's romance would bloom between Colin Firth's gay character and Julianne Moore, then this phenomenon has a more attractive flipside. Many of the best film posters complement the visual styles of the movies for which they were designed – the heroic Expressionism of Heinz Schulz-Neudamm's work for Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), the rotten delicacy of the Jean-Denis Malclès poster for Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946), or the mournful social realism of James Boswell's art for the Ealing drama, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). Most, though, have a more slippery relationship with their films – and it's through this that the best poster art gains a kind of aesthetic autonomy.

Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942), for instance, is a poetic horror picture from the age of film noir; a movie with a monster that is never quite seen, partly because it's an idea – the dark ancestral violence of Balkan Europe, resident in the troubled soul of a young Serbian fashion designer. The marketing department of RKO Pictures could do nothing with such subtlety, and the arresting power of the Cat People poster is derived from its rejection of the picture it advertises. No moody chiaroscuro here, but a snarling Panther of the Baskervilles and a red-hot dame in a strapless dress.

The poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) illustrates a different case. I've seen the movie a couple of times – once on Channel 4, once on the big screen with my 3D specs. It's not terribly good – but the poster has ensured that the Creature still swims vigorously in the cultural memory. Thanks to the brushwork of Reynold Brown – a former cartoonist who also breathed undeserved life into Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) – we all know that the Black Lagoon is home to a beast with bottle-green skin and acromegalous ruby-red lips. The film itself, of course, is in black
and white.

Tom Chantrell, the artist who painted The Land that Time Forgot (1975), thought going to screenings was a waste of time. He worked from stills and library pictures, and used members of his family to fill in the gaps. Some might call this laziness. I don't. If Tom Chantrell had seen The Land that Time Forgot, and left the cinema knowing that the Tyrannosaurus is a landlubber entirely incapable of swallowing a submarine, then we might have been robbed of its greatest scene – the one that only happens on the poster.

Matthew Sweet is a film writer, BBC presenter and the author of Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema.

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