In the world of film, it’s easy for us to overlook the artwork that accompanies each movie with a 2D illustration of the experience, attempting to represent the film in the best way possible and lure cinema goers with a visual hook, while also leaving them with a piece of memorabilia after the curtains close. This is a tradition that is as old as film itself, and movie posters have always been an important part of the industry and the creative process, just as advertising for cars, clothes or mobile phones can make or break the success of a product. For mainstream blockbuster movies, creative teams work hard to appeal to the target audience, but for films that attain the auspicious label of cult, movie posters become something more than a mere work of marketing. They become the symbol of a captured mood that is marked and carried over time, a work of art that summarises a space of two hours, in the same way that photography can record, but is also a form of art in itself. Of course, not all cult movie posters make the same impression, but the ones that manage to wow the world with their artistic prowess help to raise the movie’s legacy, as well as leaving the world with a cool and stylish way to decorate their walls and impress party guests.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Commonly abbreviated to just ‘Fear and Loathing’, this cult film was based on a cult novel, that was in turn based on the experiences of a cult hero, the eccentric “gonzo” journalist and author, Hunter S. Thomson, whose fusion of reality and fiction made him an anti-establishment symbol of the counter-culture that began in 1960s America. There’s no question of the movie not doing justice to the book, as it brings to life the themes of Thompson’s tour de force in a satirical, psychedelic road trip where fact meets fiction and realities blur, on a drug-fueled journalistic mission to find truth. Where the movie’s initial commercial success disappointed, long-term cult status was secured for the legendary director Terry Gilliam, and a cast as rock and roll as the era.
Fear and Loathing’s underground appeal is in part due to the ubiquity of the poster, which depicts the protagonist, Raoul Duke, played by Johnny Depp, in a distorted Dali-esque impression of psychosis. As in the movie, the poster makes display of Thompson’s bombastic signature attire, orange-lens aviators, bucket hat and cigarette holder, a very particular look that screams ‘cult!’ – not for the mainstream. As lurid and surreal as the movie, the poster draws on the garbled artwork of Ralph Steadman, original illustrator for Thompson’s novels, in an inkblot style that distances the work from any kind of conventional order, and perfectly fitting to the experiential fear and loathing of the film.
Directed by Brian de Palma and written by Oliver Stone, Scarface stars Al Pacino as Tony Montana, a cold-blooded mafia megalomaniac, as he charts his course from a Cuban refugee camp to a filthy-rich Miami palace, becoming a crime kingpin who can never sate his thirst for money and power. Scarface is loosely based on an Al Pacino-inspired 1930s movie of the same name, and is either a savage indictment of the violence and corruption caused by the cocaine trade from the seventies onwards, or a gratuitous display of aggression that gave the world such lines as ‘you want to play games?’ and ‘say hello to my little friend!’.
The movie poster has no less impact than the film, the figure of a sharp-suited Pacino with a lowered handgun, his name and the film title in bold, blood-red type, and in a black and white dichotomy that perhaps symbolises the transition from calm to violence, one world to another, or life to death. The image is stark and simple, and epitomises the disturbing brutality of the movie in a poster that adorns walls in teenage bedrooms and basement bars the world over, where people show that they are people who mean business.
In a time when science fiction was of particular popularity in cinema, Blade Runner stood out as a movie that had infinitely more depth than a collection of hi-tech equipment and special effects. Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and directed by a young Ridley Scott, Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as a police officer Deckard in pursuit of human-like androids, while becoming enraptured by the charms of Rachael, an android that believes herself to be human, as he struggles his way through a gloomy and soulless dystopian world.
Just as the movie uses elements of film noir, the movie poster is reminiscent of those used in the original era of the genre, a prominently-featured private detective shadowed by a femme fatale and a villainous foe. The poster shows the chiaroscuro visual tone of the film, darkness juxtaposed with bright neon light, as well as a retro-futuristic font for the film title. Chinese characters indicate the future in which languages are intermingled, and the eerily strange appearances of the characters Deckard must contend with on his existential path.
A great film of the nineties, and number 10 in Time Out magazine’s Top 100 British Films, with its acting talent, fast-paced and dramatic plot, innovative production and stylish soundtrack, Trainspotting is an unforgettable and exhilarating movie that takes audiences to the highs and lows of urban squalor, through the lives of larger-than-life characters whose destructive behaviour will lead to their downfall if they aren’t able to get clean and “choose life” over the downward spiral of self-indulgence and depravity that heroin causes.
A stunningly visual film, Trainspotting gave us such memorable cinematic scenes of disturbing and surreal black humour as main character Renton (Ewan McGregor) diving head-first into a particularly dirty toilet, his visions of a horrific dead baby crawling on the ceiling, and the experience of an overdose in which he sinks into the floor and is taken to the hospital through tunnel vision, and to the soft tones of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. The movie poster introduces us to the loud and brazen characters as though viewed from a passing train, and shows us their attitude and lust for life that will ultimately be their undoing. In captioned black and white portraits set to a bright orange, the poster’s retro look recalls low-budget TV and books of the 70s and 80s, which is fitting for the dereliction the film illustrates. Bold and striking, the Trainspotting poster is another classic poster, and is especially meaningful for students of the nineties.
A Clockwork Orange
Another cult film based on a cult novel (though the movie certainly rose to greater fame), Clockwork Orange is a Kubrick masterpiece that terrified audiences the world over, and is an enduring cult classic that held as much impact in 1971 as is does today. Painting a cruel and violent future of uncontrollable teenage delinquency and uncaring authoritarian rule, the vindictive nature of the juvenile attacks of “ultra violence” is mirrored by the harsh and senseless retribution it meets. The movie’s strange and chilling dystopian vision of the near future is a social commentary that makes itself known through terrifying acts of torture and rape, and gave the world a cinematic experience of cult proportions.
The movie poster shows us the title in shadowed, thick cartoon font, the roundness of the ‘c’ and ‘o’ resembling the fruit, and the colour is, of course, orange. The ‘A’ is enlarged out of proportion, and reveals to us main character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) with a vengeful expression and fashion tastes as strange and particular as the language he uses, a black bowler hat, painted eyelashes on his right eye only, a dagger brandished for readiness to violence, and an eyeball on his sleeve, perhaps to represent the torture he gave or received, the watchful eye of the delinquent criminal, or that of authority.
Though more of a grandiose epic than the type of underground low-budget affair that usually garners the interest of a cult following, casting aside its big-name director and large-scale production that took four years to complete, Apocalypse Now remains rebellious and cool through its critique of a failed military intervention, as well as its portrayal of helpless regular G.I.s as victims in a larger game. The boat journey up a river is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, and the narration of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) tells a story of the insanity and fear that people are subject to in war, if they survive.
The movie was expertly shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, giving us unforgettable scenes of the quagmire of helicopters against the jungle, and a camouflaged Captain Willard rising from still waters with death in his eyes. The movie poster is an abstraction of military lights over a river, the boat commandeered by Willard, helicopters silhouetted against the red sun, Willard watching from the darkness, and in the centre, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), with a weary expression for the horrors he has seen.
The ultimate cult film, from the man whose name is synonymous with a new level of movie cool, receiving widespread popularity and accolades across the board, including the Academy Awards Best Picture as well as the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival, Pulp Fiction is a postmodern masterpiece that patches together styles and structures, using self-reference and pastiche, together with inspired casting choices and soundtrack, and leaving us with an unanswered mystery, similar to the way Citizen Cane left the question, ‘what or who is Rosebud?’. A film to truly revolutionise cinema, entertain, look at culture in a whole new light, and question what we really enjoy watching on screens.
True to the film, the Pulp Fiction poster has left its mark on the world, and can be seen across the globe in any place that people appreciate quality, and since the film’s release in 1994, has become as recognisable as postmodernist Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, a man who very well might have enjoyed a discussion with Tarantino over a big kahuna burger.
The poster uses a wild west font and features a 10 cents label, referencing the original meaning of pulp fiction, a genre of trashy, sci-fi and detective novels of the forties and fifties that were printed as fast as the authors could write them, a reference that in turn points to the mishmash, pulpy fusion of ideas, styles and narratives of a film that views itself with an ironic smile. Fitting perfectly in this scene is Uma Thurman, the film’s noir-ish, seductive femme fatale, whose hairstyle, cigarette and gun takes us back to the forties in the same way. Her hand rests on a work of pulp fiction, just one more detail that ties into the intricately layered big picture.