From the beginning of cinema, the movie poster has been the gateway to the screen experience, tantalizing potential viewers with a taste of what the feature has in store. The horror-movie poster has become an art form unto itself, many offering the first good look at the featured creature, killer, demon, etc.; others have more discreetly hinted at the terrors awaiting in the film. Over the years, however, there have been the occasional one-sheets that have deliberately obscured the natures of the figures of fear, going beyond suggestive to be downright misleading. Here are five notable examples:
NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)
The nature-run-amok genre of the 1970s offered some truly memorable marketing images playing on our phobias of everything from rats to sharks to snakes to spiders to… frogs (??). But there is simply no way to make bunny rabbits scary, a fact that didn’t occur to the folks behind this camp classic. Adapting the satirical novel THE YEAR OF THE ANGRY RABBIT by Australian author Russell Braddon, in which the hoppers are plague-carriers used as genocidal weapons by a crazed Aussie prime minister, the filmmakers (including director William F. Claxton and producer A.C. Lyles, both veterans of Westerns) stripped out all the savage humor and farcical exaggeration, and changed the characters and setting. The result is a generic, unintentionally chuckle-worthy story of science gone wrong, resulting in an army of giant bunnies terrorizing a Southwestern community.
Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that MGM would attempt to hide the true nature of the movie’s threat, changing the title from the original RABBITS and keeping the big ears and furry tails off the poster. (However, nobody apparently told the folks in the studio’s marketing department responsible for a promotional “Fright Kit” containing buttons adorned with rabbit’s-foot graphics.)
The most shocking thing about the poster remains all the big names who were somehow convinced to take part in this ridiculous project, also including STAR TREK veteran DeForest Kelley. A star-to-be might also have been part of the cast: Back at the time, Leigh told entertainment columnist Jack O’Brian that she had turned down the opportunity to have her two daughters play small roles. Just think: Jamie Lee Curtis could have made her horror debut in NIGHT OF THE LEPUS instead of HALLOWEEN!
THE HOWLING (1981)
We all recognize Joe Dante’s film today as a classic of the werewolf genre, Gary Brandner’s source novel was fairly well-known back then, and hell, the title is a giveaway. But when Avco Embassy was first prepping THE HOWLING’s planned Halloween 1980 release, they played coy with the lycanthropic subject matter. Beasts hadn’t been box office for a while and slashers ruled at the time, so the poster and advance publicity tried to make the movie seem more like the latter than the former.
It backfired when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did their notorious SNEAK PREVIEWS show attacking “women-in-danger films” that fall, and Siskel lumped THE HOWLING into the subgenre, describing it as “a new movie about a woman who goes alone on a vacation and is tortured by the locals.” He later recanted upon seeing the movie when it eventually opened in the spring of ’81, accurately describing it as “one of the best horror films of the last few years.”
Here’s a particularly ignominious example. Clive Barker went all out to create what he envisioned as “the STAR WARS of horror,” and 20th Century Fox — the studio behind George Lucas’ sci-fi epic — famously made a shambles of Barker’s ambition with edits and reshoots that fatally diluted its impact. To add insult to injury, they ordered up a one-sheet that made the movie resemble a third-rate domestic thriller making a brief stop in theaters en route to the Lifetime channel, and for a final kick, it wasn’t even shown to critics in advance.
When NIGHTBREED’s opening-weekend box office was, not surprisingly, disappointing, the studio honchos evidently realized their mistake and released a second poster/newspaper ad campaign revealing the heroic Boone (Craig Sheffer) and the creatures of Midian. The damage had been done, though, and the film sank with barely a trace; it wasn’t until the release of NIGHTBREED’s Director’s Cut by Shout! Factory in 2014 that Barker’s vision received its due.
THE RELIC (1997)
It could be argued that this poster is taking the subtle approach to hawking the adaptation of a well-known property (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s novel), but Paramount’s overall handling of Peter Hyams’ film sought to hide one of its most impressive features. Presskits and other materials referred only to “a mysterious killer” lurking within Chicago’s Museum of Natural History, when in fact it’s a Stan Winston-designed monster that gets plenty of screen time in the movie’s second half, and fully warrants it.
The “Kothoga” that chows down on a series of hapless humans incorporates various animalistic traits (the “face” of a stag beetle, the loping run of a jungle cat, etc.) into one frightening whole, and they coulda come up with a really eye-catching one-sheet incorporating Winston’s work. Instead, they went for this soft sell that doesn’t promise anything special. Too bad.
Now, this one’s just an outright lie. A serial killer is defined as a human being who preys on other human beings, and while “Gustave,” PRIMEVAL’s real-life villain, is alleged to have claimed more than 300 victims in the East African republic of Burundi, he is not human at all — he’s a crocodile. But apparently Disney (whose offshoot Hollywood Pictures released this film) couldn’t figure out how to sell a movie featuring such a reptile that didn’t also include a hook-handed pirate and a boy who won’t grow up, and came up with the smokescreen seen here instead.
PRIMEVAL, directed by TV veteran Michael Katleman, sees Gustave tracked by a journalistic team played by Dominic Purcell, Brooke Langton and Orlando Jones, the latter of whom says enlightened things like “Slavery was a good thing — anything you gotta do to get the fuck out of Africa is OK by me.” Like NIGHTBREED, PRIMEVAL was denied advance reviewers’ screenings and was a box-office failure, though it managed to claim one more victim: It beat Greg McLean’s far superior killer-croc film ROGUE (also inspired by an actual predator) into theaters, and Dimension Films soon gave up on ROGUE’s chances, dumping it into a barely-there release and then straight to video.