Titan Publications just released The Art of Hammer, by Marcus Hearn. The amazing thing about the book is that it made me realize how powerfully artwork can out-creep the movies they advertise. The singular vision of so many examples of art has tremendous impact.
Hammer films were the reason my closet was haunted as a kid. Just looking at the artwork on the outside of the theater, presenting attractions for the next shocker, was enough to send me home with nightmares. Perhaps my imagination was acute, but I think the artists that made these visions so frightening were having the time of their lives. They had no idea they were stirring deep primordial fears within children everywhere. Or, well, maybe they did.
Starting with Bill Wiggins, Hammer poster artists were used early in a film’s development, to create interest and initiate financing for a film. Other artists followed: John Stockle, Vic Fair, and the graphically powerful Tom Chantrell.
I flipped through the book and my original feelings came cascading back. All of those wide-eyed faces about to be choked, boiled, hung, fanged, slashed, twisted, bitten, buried, and resurrected has never left my psyche. They seem to get wilder and wilder, crazier and creepier, the older I get.
All captured in Christopher Lee’s eyes. How can you get a guy’s eyes to be so scary? Forget the red pupils, in the film even the whites of his eyes were red! Somehow Hammer managed to make his vampire character over-the-top whacko. He was terrifying and rode that edge between man and frothing beast. And the artists were right there, pushing it farther.
I never needed to see those movies. Hell, the previews alone brought the monsters out of my closet. I wasn’t about to subject myself to that trauma in the theater. It was only because I was there to see Flipper or Robinson Crusoe On Mars that the previews caught me off guard. I had to close my eyes to protect my ability to sleep.
One Million Years BC was my only reprieve from the fright. Some cameraman had captured the perfect example, in the perfect primal pose, of the classic female form. That particular poster, in black and white glory, hung on my wall until I left home at 18.
As an adult, I know those films aren’t real. I can handle it, I tell myself. Nothing can touch me these days. So I flip farther through the pictures in the book, presented just as vividly, just as believably as they were in the 60’s. In moments, I’m standing outside of the Highland Theater in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky again, mouth agape. I can’t...look...away. Summer is sweltering and a sign reads “air-conditioned” but I’m afraid that only makes it worse. Like meat locker worse. I’m not going in there. No way.
Doesn’t matter. They found me again in the pages of this timeless volume. Those screaming heads, those fragile women, those monsters, those eyes. Those eyes.
Damn you guys. Thanks for another sleepless night.
Greg Manchess is an artist and writer working in New York and Portland.