How do other countries see the homegrown horrors we create on celluloid? When “A Nightmare on Elm Street” debuted in Japan, did horror fans on the other side of the world get to see the art of painter Matthew Joseph Peak? Or when Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” finally made its way through the tangle of draconian censorship laws in the U.K., were audiences greeted with the original, jarring image of Leatherface going to work on one of his victims–or something stranger?
Throughout the month of October, we’ll be looking at the iconic cover art and posters for some of our favorite horror films–as they were seen around the world.
When looking back at the art gracing the release of “The Howling” in territories around the world, I began to think about how one striking image can effectively sum up a movie or franchise. Something iconic, whether it’s a prop belonging to one of the key characters, a face, a logo–any of these things are capable of conjuring our excitement (or disinterest, as the case may be) thanks to their earned cultural currency.
Okay, this all feels like advertising and design 101, but please bear with me as I explain how one horror franchise which I’m not especially fond of (“Friday the 13th”) is nonetheless consistently more effective at being evoked by its main character than its competitor/progenitor, the “Halloween” franchise.
Because hockey masks beat William Shatner masks.
Honestly, this is actually the crux of my argument–that one character’s mask is visually superior to the other, thus providing us with years of better horror art.
First, let’s very quickly revisit the mythology of both franchises and the silent killers at the heart of them. Until the fourth film in the series, “Halloween” villain Michael Meyers (or the Shape) was an enigmatic, escaped mental patient stalking a handful of teens over the course of one Halloween night for seemingly no reason at all. Subsequent entries in the series would layer on connections between Michael and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, throwing in some Druid nonsense in its sixth entry for good measure.
Meyer’s mask was created, if you believe the legend, from a bleached out William Shatner mask worn by actor Nick Castle as the Shape. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the fourth film in the series that Meyer’s mask made it onto the poster.
Jason, by contrast, was the stuff of myth from the start: a drowned boy, returned from the grave to avenge his own death (and that of his homicidal mother) at the beleaguered Camp Crystal Lake. While it wasn’t until the third movie that Jason began wearing his well-known hockey mask, which became the most identifiable trait (save his oft-used machete).
One, a primal boogeyman, a shape out of our very nightmares, the other, a thudding zombie brute with camping gear and sportswear. So why does Jason’s hockey mask work better in poster art?
Because it gives each movie a sense of continuity and progression. Meyer’s mask is, by design, featureless–a smooth, white, eyeless thing onto which the viewer can project their own fears. It’s unsettling in motion during a film (and why the rotting version used in the Rob Zombie remake was so ineffective), but as a piece of art, it’s static and lifeless.
Contrast that with the accumulated years of nicks, dirt, wear, and tear to Jason’s mask. Not only does it speak to the history of the seemingly immortal slasher, it’s also wildly mutable in ways that Michael’s mask was not. Even the sillier permutations (specifically the silver mask from “Jason Goes to Hell” or the cyber-Jason mask from “Jason X”) recognizably evoke the character and his history, while also conveying whatever oddball spin is being placed on him in the current outing.
When New Line and Platinum Dunes rebooted the franchise back in 2009, they were comfortable teasing the new film with a simple image of Jason’s mask–something a little harder to do, I’d argue, with the featureless mask for Michael Meyers.
During the ’80s, masked killers were ubiquitous, but these two were the ones that survived, for lack of a better word, the fickleness of the horror fans. Beyond Jason and Michael, which masked killer really captured the audience’s imagination? Ghostface from the “Scream” movies? Sure, he (sometimes she) was already preloaded with ironic detachment, a callout for the excesses of the genre. Michael was pure, perfect, and scary, but Jason was the memorable one.