Comedy of Horrors

As you might have guessed, horror is one of my preferred genres to work in, although it is a lot more complex from a visual stand-point than it first appears. In illustration, we a deprived a great number of the tricks that are available to writers and film makers. We don’t get to describe ancient histories or strange sensations to the viewer and the subtle tricks of sound that unnerve a cinema-goer are likewise off limits.

Working with the visual medium alone, it becomes harder to find ways to avoid ‘showing the monster’ if the desired effect is to scare or suggest. Movement is another fine trick to let the audience’s imagination run wild, but while static illustration can obviously provide the suggestion or intent of movement, the brief flash of scale or face that the moving mediums can use is off limits.

It is not these limitations however that are the principle problem for the horror illustrator however, but rather one of cultural, social and individual preference. While horror as a concept still remains as it was when ghost stories were first told for entertainment, the arrival of visual horror as entertainment has radically altered society’s interpretations of monsters.

The monsters of Universal’s horror films – Dracula with his red lined cape, Frankenstein’s bolted neck and Jack P. Peirce’s make up for Chaney’s Wolfman have gained a sort of style icon stardom that mirrors that of Monroe or Sinatra. As gore effects became more prevalent, the likes of Savini created a more pleasurable, fun loving approach, allowing audiences to talk less about fear and more about ‘that awesome bit where they tear all his guts out’. The serial killer flicks of the 80’s and 90’s made the full transition of monster into star with audiences routing for Freddie, Jason and co. as they carve up cardboard cut-out teenagers in increasingly imaginative fashion.

It is the side-effects of this process that directly impact the illustrator today. Horror is not simply a genre of fear, but a complex beast that encompasses genuine terror, retro-chic, camp self deprecation and out-right parody. Without the plethora of tools available to the writer or film-maker, the static artist has to find a way to convey any number of horror sub-genres or moods using very similar imagery.

Take a moonlit scene with a shadowy figure holding a knife. Adding a few drops of blood or a body might make it more dramatic or more scary. It might ruin the ‘class’ of the image, or make people think of the camp blood-baths of the late 80’s. In horror more than any other genre the line between reverence and mocking is literally on a knife edge.

On that theme, I recently came across the work of Canadian illustrator and artist Justin Erickson via his excellent re-imaging of some classic film posters. Justin manages to embrace the clichés and styles of horror with a treatment that is evidently filled with respect and love for the genre. His work consistently manages to hit the creepy, fun or retro-camp style on the head as required, with a twist of psychobilly pin-up style which has to be admired.

Overall though, it is Justin’s sense of design and composition that strikes me. Simple subjects and scenes such as his Tender Moment or Night of the New Flesh could easily become silly or trivial in other hands, but a solid design aesthetic adds the gravitas that the images deserve, cementing them as eye catching (and sometimes watering) pieces.

On top of his impressive command of the needs of the horror genre, Justin still uses traditional mediums and techniques in some of this work, which is a true pleasure to see in this increasingly digital world. He also did some poster work for Todd and the Book of Pure Evil which I’m really hoping the Canadians will share with the British soon.

If you’re a horror fan (of any camp) check out Justin’s work at www.justin-erickson.com.

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