Graham Humphreys Interviewed: Art of Darkness
The dark art of illustrator Graham Humphreys is finally seeing the light with an upcoming book and exhibition. His are the bold and bloody images to accompany the seminal horror films of our times, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Evil Dead
It could be said that Marlon Brando was to blame. In 1996, his contempt for his craft was dragging the already fractured production of The Island of Dr Moreau towards farce and chaos. By Brando’s grossly postponed on-set arrival, director Richard Stanley – thought the ‘next big thing’ after cult classics Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992) – was already long gone. Expelled both literally and metaphorically into the wilderness, smoking weed and licking wounds somewhere deep in the Cairns jungle, the visionary's vision was in its death throes and the production being prepared for mainstream rigor mortis.
It's all chronicled in the tragically hilarious 2014 documentary Lost Soul. Both Moreau and the two previous Stanley films were storyboarded by his friend, the renowned illustrator Graham Humphreys. A lively talking head in the documentary, but here and now simply talking: he is on the phone with The Skinny discussing the upcoming exhibition of his iconic horror artwork and accompanying book, both titled Drawing Blood.
“I mean the whole scenario was completely ridiculous,” says Humphreys of the cursed Moreau. “I think for him [Stanley], this was just going to be a low- to medium-budget film and he had all these fantastic ideas… the moment it got green-lighted, because Brando was interested, then he said, well the big money is coming in now, basically they’re going to take control of it.” It was crippling for Stanley to watch his creativity transformed into a bloated Hollywood beast.
(Interesting background: Stanley’s ancestor was Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the controversial colonial conqueror and reported blueprint for Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness – whom Brando famously played in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 adaptation, Apocalypse Now. HG Wells confronted Conrad upon its publication, suggesting that Kurtz was in fact the plagiarised offspring of his own creation, Moreau. And you thought this article’s title was just lazy punning.)
MONSTERS AND MOVIE POSTERS
Humphreys' storyboards for the 1996 production presented a dangerously subversive visual concept to match Stanley’s febrile imagination. Religiously charged illustrations – perhaps based on the 12 Stations of the Cross – included snarling dog-people in surgical scrubs licking blood from hospital instruments as a firstborn is delivered to the dark deity Moreau.
The fascinating Moreau story is in fact only a side note to Humphreys’ true calling. He is widely considered the last great movie-poster artist of our times – to which the upcoming book and exhibition pay tribute and testimony. Humphreys was responsible for the bold and bloody images that accompanied many of the seminal horror movies to have shaped the modern genre, from The Evil Dead onwards.
It all started more innocently. “When I was a small child just watching TV, a lot of things would appeal to me,” he reveals. “Things like The Munsters, The Addams Family, Dr Who, Lost in Space, they all kick-started my imagination.” Art college made these fantasies flesh by cultivating the illustrating skills later used to shine a light on the dark side of cinema. He uses a craft far from the vulgar cut-and-paste techniques that drive the majority of modern film promotion.
“When you have photography you have a literal interpretation. It doesn’t matter how much photoshopping you do,” he suggests. “The fact is you have a photograph, the actuality. An illustration takes it away from that into an area which is not defined… once you’ve got that photograph then you’ve got the actual item and suddenly the imagination has no place to go.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a case in point. The 1984 slasher, about a group of teens being menaced in their dreams by Freddy Krueger, a disfigured murderer who wears a ratty pullover and a glove of razor-sharp knives, was the second instance – sandwiched between Last House on The Left and Scream – of dearly departed horror maestro Wes Craven redefining the genre. “I remember it like it was yesterday, some things just stay with you,” Humphreys says of the now definitive artwork he created for the film. “I didn’t think I would be given it because I think I’d already been pigeonholed into the whole Evil Dead thing, and obviously this was a much more sophisticated film.”
The studio considered the existing US flyer – showing only knives slashing through night sky – to not quite be doing its all. “So I just had a look at the film again,” says Humphreys, and incorporated “the whole thing about dreaming… this sleepy suburbia.”
The knives and glove came later. “Of course at that point the Freddy Krueger character was unknown, you know? It was not part of the lexicon of horror at all.” And the character was far from the defused, wise-cracking Freddy of later sequels. “So, I thought he should remain this shadowy character, a silhouette with just the gloves and knives up front… he’s almost invisible there, like in the back of a dream, but then suddenly this hand is coming out. It’s suggesting that what she’s dreaming is actually becoming a reality. There’s a narrative threat going on there.”
"I remember my razor wielding monkey. I had to remove a whole lot of blood from the blade” – Graham Humphreys
Some of Humphreys’ images proved simply too threatening during the high gore mark of the early 80s and the video nasty moral panic that followed. “I think the most ridiculous time I ever had in terms of censorship of an image was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, which had Freddy standing over this school bus,” recalls Humphreys. “They had the poster in Leicester Square in a huge hoarding and they actually touched out the knives on the hand and the words ‘School Bus’, so you had this silly man in a jumper and a yellow vehicle – no visual sense whatsoever.”
There were tighter parameters for illustrators to live within once the Video Recordings Act 1984 attempted to inject some puritanical thinking into our viewing pleasure. “Every video sleeve went through a committee and you could certainly be told to remove things,” says Humphreys. The all-too-real simian threat was obviously high on the censor’s list: “With one poster I did – a theatrical release for Creepers [aka Dario Argento’s Phenomena], heavily, heavily cut of course as it was at the time – I remember my razor-wielding monkey, I had to remove a whole lot of blood from the blade. It was dripping down and I had to paint it out.”
These restrictions failed to inhibit the films or their accompanying artwork. “If anything it probably stimulated the work,” Humphreys believes. “People like a bit of danger. If you look at the video covers at the time, people tried to make them as sensational as possible.” This was an era when Argento’s films were watched in the UK on tenth generation VHS copies, leaking colour across the screen. But with the uneducated and rather arbitrary process of the BBFC at the time, provocative artwork proved a risky path. In place of a genuine consideration of content, films were reportedly banned over lurid covers or titles.
“This is absolutely true,” Humphreys confirms. “I Spit on Your Grave, for instance. I talk about juxtaposition of images, well if you juxtapose certain words you end up with something quite offensive, or seemingly offensive. That just seems too much for some, you know it’s like a desecration almost. I think just the title alone ensured that some films didn’t go to market.”
The Reappraisal of 80s Horror
But we are living in an age of enlightenment. These films are now appreciated for the art that they are, or some simply enjoyed as the harmless trash they were always meant to be. It’s partly a generational thing, Humphreys believes, as the retro influence bleeds into modern filmmaking. “I think a lot of people making films now would have grown up in that 80s era, being influenced by the stuff of the period. There’s definitely a nostalgia trip for them. I mean, Eli Roth is another person. Green Inferno, obviously he’s revisiting stuff he watched as a kid.”
This reappraisal of 80s horror has also led to a resurrected interest in the work by the original artists of those 80s VHS sleeve illustrations. “It’s partly being driven by the reissuing of a lot of films,” explains Humphreys. Arrow Films have been commissioning multiple pieces for their DVD and Blu-ray releases; in the age of the digital download, the tangible film product increasingly becomes a collector’s item. “Francesco [Simeoni] at Arrow literally said, look, we’ve got all these 80s titles. We want to give them a nostalgic marketing twist which harks back to the artwork of those video covers of the time.” A task that Humphreys began with 80s student slasher flick Slaughter High.
This same nostalgia fuels the desire for Drawing Blood, Humphreys' exhibition and resulting book, featuring 120 pieces including artworks for Mario Bava's Rabid Dogs and Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, alongside written contributions from Evil Dead director Sam Raimi and horror authority Kim Newman. At Proud Camden the gallery walls will bleed this November.
The Drawing Blood exhibition of Graham Humphreys' work takes place at Proud Camden, London, from 29 Oct-22 Nov and is free to enter
The limited edition book Drawing Blood is launched on 28 Oct and is available through Proud Galleries