Tuesday, September 27, 2011


"If I'd only known how much you were going to love movies," Grandmother Pagan assured me many times, "I'd have saved all that stuff at the Patovi." This was a downtown cinema where she worked until the business was demolished in 1972 to make room for, depressingly, a parking lot that I don't ever recall seeing full. It was within those wondrous walls that Grandmother looked after me during the day, while my parents labored mightily and before I entered the public school system. I remember this picture palace well, particularly its screen, which was situated in the front, rather than the back, of the building. When I asked her why in the name of sense the Patovi threw away all its promotional materials, she shrugged. "We didn't think the movies would last."

Apparently a lot of people didn't think so, for reasons which completely elude me. But last the silver screen has, and I shudder to imagine how many fortunes in film memorabilia were unceremoniously ripped up, crumpled, and tossed into the nearest rubbish bin. Several of the posters in Grove's superb monograph, Graven Images: The Best of Horror, Fantasy, and Science-Fiction Film Art from the Collection of Ronald V. Borst (1992; 240 pages) suffered similar indignities, as witness the misadventures of Borst's title lobby card for 1931's Svengali (attic insulation) and his insert card for 1932's The Mask of Fu Manchu (shoved under a cinema carpet, "where patrons had stomped and spilled their drinks on them for more than thirty years"). One's blood boils simply imagining such desecrations, but the admirable Borst has spent decades locating and restoring these lost treasures, and this remarkable volume, edited in collaboration with archivist Leith Adams and documentarian Keith Burns, offers a fine introduction to his incredible collection. Borst secured one-sheets for such classics as Destination Moon (1950) for a single dollar, and he left the teaching field in 1979 to open his own movie memorabilia store--where he met his future wife and fellow Graven Images compiler Margaret--in Tinseltown. "When it was embarrassingly corny or unfashionable to display posters on my walls in the Sixties," this great collector reports, "I hung them anyway." Borst has remained faithful to his childhood love of the fantastic, and it's a pity that Grove has allowed this book to pass out of print.

Movie posters, observes Stephen King in his preface, "are part of a time-honored tradition that isn't quite theft or con game but has elements of both." The novelist pronounces these items "the grandchildren of advertisements for traveling medicine-show wagons, carnivals, revival meetings, and freakshows"--horror posters in particular. It is here that the frequently anonymous illustrators let their imaginations run riot, and the result was often box office alchemy. American International Pictures (originally American Releasing Corporation) found great success with their promotional posters; indeed, King notes that "it was the only studio that ever saw filmmaking as secondary to advertising." AIP's strategy was to contrive an intriguing title (e.g,. The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow [1959]; alas, Graven Images doesn't contain a reproduction of this particular poster), which the studio then submitted to distributors and cinema chains. Artists created poster treatments for well-received titles; if the buyers liked the art, AIP would make the movie, usually in two weeks and for less than thirty grand.

This policy presented a minor problem for the studio during the filming of The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955). While the titular creature's poster rendition didn't contain the requisite amount of orbs, it included enough of them to challenge AIP heads, who had spent every penny of the budget. The studio's solution was to employ a hand puppet as the extraterrestrial invader, while its spacecraft was a Woolworth's teakettle. Exhibitor Joseph E. Levine guffawed at the result, but was willing to pony up money for reshooting the picture's climax. Ever economical, AIP honcho James Nicholson simply scratched lines over the film's negative, markings which covered up the pot while masquerading as deadly rays. The movie made money, so everybody was happy. While King admits that Beast is certainly no masterpiece, "it does go a long way," he avers, "towards fulfilling the amazing, tantalizing promise of the poster that accompanied the film. It isn't really coherent, either, but are dreams ever really coherent?" Mine aren't, at any rate.

Robert Bloch's chapter on the Nineteen Teens and Twenties maintains that "movie theaters had a different smell" in those distant days. Refreshments were not available in cinema lobbies, "so if you detected an odor it probably emanated from the picture instead of the audience." Bloch recalls his boyhood bijoux, where "the washrooms alone were larger than an entire multiplex unit today, and a damned sight cleaner." He praises the professional organists of the period, but deplores that "domestic filmmakers"--in marked contrast to the German Expressionists--"kept groping for horror and hesitating to come to grips with it. Afraid of apparitions, they often settled for apes," such as those found in 1929's Stark Mad ("one of the worst alleged horror films ever made"), whose colorful red poster, replete with a smiling Satan who does not actually appear in the picture, is reproduced within. Bloch concedes that the era's thrillers, "aside from shrieks and creaks...offered little that was new," but he and his peers "were quite content with the milder monsters and marvels in those days when films were almost as innocent as we were."

Ray Bradbury's essay on the Thirties (whose pictures the thrilled-and-chilled youth often viewed "from under the seat or my brother's armpit") recounts, many years afterwards, the author's running into an assistant theatre manager who frequently admitted the boy to movies for free. Boris Karloff's performance in Frankenstein (1931) propelled him "peeing up the aisle to the Men's [room]," while King Kong (1933) was a life-altering experience for Bradbury and his budding animator pal, Ray Harryhausen. Bradbury estimates he saw Werewolf of London (1935) an impressive twelve times, "paying twice and freeloading the rest," while he was one of many boys who had "their souls shaken" by Things to Come (1936), recalling on Pearl Harbor Day H.G. Wells' "terrible gift of prophecy." Fritz Lang's M (1931) was another milestone in the young fantasist's cultural development--in fact, the monocled maestro wanted to film, but never did, Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, but the two men, the author confides, years later shared "countless martinis." They also developed an idea for a television series about a time-hopping traveler who would interact with various historical figures, but, sadly, nothing ever came of that, either.

Harlan Ellison, in his chapter on the Forties, identifies the decade as "the fracture point....The juncture at which we lost our innocence and became the brutes we are today." What brutes, you ask? For one thing, "mean and selfish creatures who can tolerate the random brutality of Terminator films," and, inevitably, "the demon television." The excitable author, whose excellent fiction is often quite disturbing, has a surprisingly low tolerance for movie violence, ostentatiously storming out of a Writers Guild Film Society Committee screening of Brian DePalma's Blow Out (1981) to protest the director's alleged "woman-hatred." Fortunately, the Forties remains an incantatory time for Ellison, principally a minor but charming Fleischer Brothers animated feature called Mr. Bugs Goes to Town (1941), so this reminiscence finds him in a less rambunctious mood. The author's tribute to the lasting impact the film had on his childhood self (he heroically several times slipped out of bed to see the picture at a nearby cinema, only to be apprehended by his family after each attempt) is enthralling, and one of the best non-fiction pieces he's composed. Ellison didn't see the entire Mr. Bugs for many decades, but he writes movingly of his adult fascination with the film. Sometimes, he tells us, "my wife has emerged from sleep in the wee hours to find me sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, watching insects."

The Fifties were a seminal time for science fiction cinema, whose films echoed "the real life" that Peter Straub "carried within" himself. Straub's essay, easily the most somber of the bunch, explores the genesis of his non-autobiographical short story of child molestation in a movie theatre, "The Juniper Tree," confessing that he "wondered if anyone would talk to me after the story was published." He also recounts being "literally killed, for at least a minute or two" by an automobile in 1950, the same year his family moved to the suburbs. Straub perceives that the films which fascinated him constituted "some kind of objectification of my sense that ordinary life was a fearful proposition," his unsettling awareness that "real horror"--whether in the form of being hit by a car or enduring childhood's "ring of fire"--"could suddenly engulf you and leave you changed for good." These crucial pictures include the first Cinemascope science fiction feature, Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) (the reanimated boy admired Captain Nemo's "polite megalomania" and coveted the skipper's Nautilus), Them! (1954), and Invaders from Mars (1953), whose "monsters fooled you by looking like everybody else." By the decade's end, however, Straub had discovered Thomas Wolfe, his parents moved far from the nearest theatre, and he "cultivated what must have been a very bookish version of hipster arrogance."

Speaking of hipster arrogance, Clive Barker's chapter on the Sixties is presented in the form of a dope-smoking dialogue with the Spirit of that swinging decade, exploring the author's fascination with kitsch in his contention that Cleopatra (1963) is "a work of fantasy" whose "re-creation of ancient Egypt is as unlikely as Oz and twice as beautiful." (There's no poster for the film, however.) Barker seems to be channeling Camille Paglia here, especially in his boast that he saw a double-bill reissue of Hammer's She (1964) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) three times in one week--a mind-altering submission to goddess power, surely. He also recollects catching the eerie Japanese masterpieces Onibaba and Kwaidan (both 1964) at, of all places, a Liverpool porn cinema ("given the choice between copulation and agitation, I'll always choose the latter"), and affirms he "learned to dream" in the Sixties, having "never lost his appetite for it."

Legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman's afterword declares that there were only "thirteen Golden Years of fantastic genre films" (1923-1935), but magnanimously lists standouts through the subsequent decades. The Ackermonster worries that, when it comes to today's special and makeup effects extravaganzas, "the tail is wagging the werewolf" and "the unique artistry of [such] solitary geniuses" as Lon Chaney, Sr., Jack Pierce, and Harryhausen is a thing of the past. CGI, when it's done well, is impressive, but I'm too much of an old fogey myself not to pine for the glory days of greasepaint and stop motion.

Admittedly, the authors' personal reminiscences have little to do with posters, but each conveys the power of film to produce magic in our minds, as well as evoking the various picture palaces, from Bloch's Chicago Theater to Ellison's Heights and Barker's sex cinema, where their memories were imprinted. There's little discussion of the artists themselves, but Grove's layout, courtesy of designer and historian David J. Skal, is sumptuous. Outstanding specimens include one-sheets for the original Phantom of the Opera (1925), whose deformed-but-dashing Erik is rendered without his mask; Dracula's Daughter (1936), a 40" x 60" This Island Earth (1955), and Borst's favorite one-sheet, Karoly Grosz's marvelous artwork for Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). There's also a two-page spread of RKO Radio Picture's deluxe pressbook for King Kong ("The Answer to Every Showman's Prayer!"), as well as pre-production trade advertisements for such never-made films as Universal's Cagliostro, which was ultimately revamped as The Mummy (1932). Of especial interest are promotional ads for Frankenstein, when Universal still hoped to star Bela Lugosi, and not Karloff, in the role of the scientist's monster, and for The Invisible Man (1933), which was originally to feature Karloff, rather than his fellow Englishman Claude Rains. Borst's book contains a helpful glossary, aiding novices in their understanding of such esoteric terms as those splendid one-sheets, insert and window cards, and the magnificent-sounding British quad posters. It's a time capsule of an age in advertising art that is now largely, and lamentably, lost to us. Here's to Borst for preserving an important and often overlooked part of our cultural heritage, when cinema was, as the creator of Norman Bates discerns, almost as innocent as the children filling the seats.