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Posters from B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s will be featured in the Binghamton University Art Museum's spring exhibition, "Graphic! Lurid! Sensational! Exploitation and B-Movie Posters."
Monsters, aliens and 50-foot women to invade the University Art Museum
March 31, 2016Tweet
In today’s movie world, when everything seems to be part of a franchise, when everything is all about the next installment, when Marvel releases multiple superhero movies a year, the instant gratification of an old B-movie or exploitation flick can be refreshing.
“With B-films and exploitation films, your payoff, if indeed there is a payoff, is pretty immediate — 65 minutes and out. I think that kind of economy of presentation is really rewarding,” Associate Professor of Cinema Brian Wall said.
These gratifying (and often grotesque) movies and the posters used to promote them will be celebrated in Binghamton University Art Museum’s spring exhibition, “Graphic! Lurid! Sensational! Exploitation and B-Movie Posters,” which opens from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in room 213 of the Fine Arts Building, the Main Gallery. The exhibition will be on view through Saturday, May 21. Those unable to attend the opening may tune in to WHRW (90.5 FM) during this time to hear interviews, a broadcast of the original War of the Worlds and other cult classics.
The exhibition features 35 vintage posters drawn from a collection of more than 400 posters that are part of the John McLaughlin Collection in the Special Collections of the Binghamton University Libraries. Wall is the guest curator.
In the exhibition, visitors will find posters of cult favorites such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (“the Citizen Kane of terrible films,” according to Wall), The Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, alongside lesser known, yet visually arresting posters for films like Killers from Space, The Astounding She Monster and The Weird Love Makers.
Many of the posters are from what Wall calls the “sweet spot” of B-movie history — the 1950s through the 1960s, mostly horror and science fiction — but there are many from the 1930s and 1940s as well, primarily exploitation films. “A lot of really lurid stuff,” Wall said.
Special Collections received the massive collection of movie posters in 2011 from the family of John McLaughlin, a graduate of local Union-Endicott High School and the founder of Book Sail, an Orange, Calif., business that specialized in Americana and movie memorabilia and ephemera. Along with the posters, the collection contains an assortment of movie, radio and television scripts; movie star contracts, photographs; and other materials.
Wall had been interested in doing a course on B-movies and exploitation films for some time, and the posters discovered in the collection provided the perfect opportunity to explore the subject. This semester he offered a course titled “Graphic! Lurid! Sensational! Exploitation & B-Movies” to do just that. Students each selected four posters from the collection that they found visually and historically interesting. After doing some research, they wrote museum-style labels for each film to provide historical and aesthetic context. Wall and Art Museum Director Diane Butler had the final say on what would be displayed, but students produced the bulk of the labels.
“I’ve always considered studying bad films as being just as important as studying good films,” said Mick Thomas, a junior majoring in cinema. “Sometimes finding out what doesn’t work, and developing ways in which you would improve upon it, is far more useful than scrutinizing every detail of a master filmmaker’s works. And, as is the case with many of the films we’ve screened in the course, we’ve discovered some themes and motifs that point toward a much deeper, and at times profound, idea being put across by the filmmakers.”
The rise of B-movies and exploitation films came with the establishment of the Motion Picture Production code of 1930, more commonly known as the Hays Code, which regulated what could or couldn’t be depicted on a Hollywood film.
“It begins with the institution of the Hays Code, which was Hollywood’s response to all of the scandals that plagued them in the ’20s and ’30s, scandals that were latched onto by a lot of church groups and political groups who were protesting against what they saw as too much sexually explicit and violent material in Hollywood films,” Wall said. “So rather than risk being regulated by the government, Hollywood decided to regulate themselves.”
With the Hays Code in effect, Hollywood could no longer be graphic. “This created an opening for, let’s say, ‘small business.’ Exploitation filmmakers really came into being to fill that niche market,” said Wall.
Due to lack of funding from major studios, B-movies and exploitation films were produced on shoestring budgets. According to Wall, this led some filmmakers to adopt some creative techniques to achieve their desired images.
“It’s astonishing just how cheap all of these are. It did often mean that the filmmakers had to be really creative, to think outside the box,” he said. “So often we laugh at the cheesy and bad special effects, but yet at the same time there are opportunities to really admire inventive solutions to economic limitations.”
With no stars, no budget, no special effects and no sets, posters became crucial in selling B-movies and exploitation films to the public.
“With as few colors as possible and as limited a design budget as possible, you have to get the most effect,” Wall said. “They were willing to push the boundaries of design and aesthetics, and also good taste, in order to see who they could get to pony up for a ticket.”
Posters were often designed before a single reel of film was shot; this was an inventive way to raise the money needed to produce these films. Filmmakers would take posters around town, show them to investors, and try to find some potential backing. Because of this, however, many of these posters don’t accurately reflect the movie they’re promoting.
Take for instance Thomas’s favorite poster from the collection, that of Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film Night Tide.
“It stars a very young Dennis Hopper and is well-executed and visually striking, but the film hardly compares to the beautiful, custom artwork on the poster,” Thomas said. “Its bright yellows and purples depict a fantastical mermaid with massive tentacles, something that doesn’t appear in the film at all.”
Jean Green, head of Special Collections, is happy that the art museum is hosting the exhibit, as it will hopefully inspire more people to visit Special Collections and explore its vast catalogue.
“It’s a great way to highlight our materials in a wonderful space for people to see and know that we have these materials,” Green said.
All of the posters in the collection are available to view in the Special Collections Reading Room. Due to their age and delicate nature, special care is taken to preserve them.
“We encapsulate them in a polyester film that we call mylar. It’s a polyester film that is not acidic, so it protects them from light and dust that would be abrasive. Then they’re stored in oversized drawers. They’ll be protected for generations and generations,” Green said.
While film buffs will likely to be drawn to the exhibit, Thomas believes it should also appeal to those interested in graphic design and history.
“I think the general public will be surprised to find such beautiful works of art associated with such cheap, and oftentimes terrible, films,” Thomas said. “Not to mention the range of subject matter is so vast and strange that you would have a difficult time not finding a poster you thoroughly enjoy, and hopefully take the time to watch the film it depicts at some point.”
Whatever your movie predilection — gigantic women, transvestite scientists, zombies — the exhibition will be a spectacle, not unlike the films themselves.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity to maybe get a little nostalgic but also check out some examples of terrific design, an opportunity to look at what my students have had to say about putting these images and films in historical and cultural context, but doing so in a way that I think speaks to the cheesy and wild spirit of these films,” Wall said. “So it’s going to be an awful lot of fun.”