This article first appeared in the excellent magazine We Belong Dead: The Classic Age of Horror and Fantasy Films, published by Eric McNaughton.
Horror movie production has long recognized the one steadfast reality of commercial and artistic cinema: there’s an audience out there; you just need to reach them. Now, of course, with YouTube, Facebook, and all the hype-campaigning through viral promotion just a web browser away, it is a lot easier to reach that audience. But that’s now. Go back a few decades, before mobile apps and Fandango made buying theater tickets easy, and before numerous teaser trailers for a single movie were viewable on your cell phone a year or more before the movie was released. Let’s go back to a time when your local theater had to do the entire movie’s promotion on its own dime by running ads in local newspapers, airing quick radio spots over the airwaves, and hanging posters and lobby cards in and outside the theater to spark a patron’s interest, sell more popcorn and bon bons, and generate word of mouth that would bring in the patron’s hungry friends.
Remember when horror movie posters (and let’s not forget those wonderful VHS covers) were gloriously over the top and not as photorealistic and monotonous as they are today? If you do, you know how captivating those old posters could be. Promising much more than any single movie could ever deliver, movie advertising dared us with See! See! See! captions accompanying scenes of monster carnage, supernatural menace, perilous situations with lots of opportunities for provocatively dressed (or undressed) female victims to scream, lighting our morbid imaginations to all those kinky possibilities such awe-inspiring visions might foster. Our fears, fantasies, and deepest desires were displayed in outrageous tableaus, either daring us to confront them or, more likely, enticing us to embrace them.
This art of the sleaze is handled craftily (and daringly) in the Mexican Horror Movie lobby card. Ranging from strikingly primitive to elegantly sophisticated in execution, the Mexican lobby card is physically larger than the American variety, often more colorful, and often more suggestive of the thrills and chills to be found for the price of a ticket and a free afternoon. Think of it as a small poster whose goal was to encapsulate the plot of the movie in one quick view; or imply a plot that didn't really exist to spice things up just in case.
While many Mexican lobbies promoted foreign movies that were making the circuit in Spanish-speaking theaters, using the originating advertising art either directly or derivatively, it is the home-grown variety, often involving vampires, witches, mummies, maniacs, werewolves, brutish creatures, and masked wrestlers that tops the list in vivacity and cheekiness with exploitation-hawking aimed at putting more butts in theater seats. Even when the lobby used the original poster art seen in America, for instance (in itself, at times, quite strikingly naughty), the Mexican approach would use most of the lobby to show that artwork, whereas the smaller American card would simply show a movie scene as the primary focus.
La Bestia de La Noche Amarilla is a good example of how bold a Mexican lobby card can be. The common element here, of brutish domination over a vulnerable (scantily-dressed and frightened) female victim, is driven home by each primitive illustration: the monster’s blood-dripping, bone-chewing mouth looming over her; the monster’s beastly hand reaching for yet another screaming victim; and the monster standing powerfully over its victim. These illustrations don’t tie together visually except for that theme, but when viewed in its entirety, the effect is one targeted to attract the male patron. The movie scene is secondary while the artwork dominates.
The major themes across all horror movies, of course, whether a period supernatural or the danger-next-door variety, can be boiled down to gradations of graphic or implied violence, sexuality and deviancy, and severe deprivation (of liberty, life, reason, humanity, etc.). Although it depends on the movie as to the mix of these and intensities of their usage, it wouldn’t be horror without them. Mexican lobbies judisciously exploit these themes with fervor, employing different graphic styles from crude to sophisticated.
La Mente y el Crimen is an example of sophistication through its use of implications. We see what’s on the man’s mind with its hints of sexuality and deviance, while violence and deprivation are implied through the hand wielding a bloody knife. The movie scene showing the voodoo doll with pins stuck into it adds to the macabre tone of the card. And let’s note the doll is feminine.
La Sombra del Murcielago shows through its crude execution--which actually heightens its lurid appeal--violence and the threat of death. These are brought home by the “monster-woman” being choked in the left corner, the screaming, monstrous face in the right corner, and the flaming cauldron where the masked wrestler, Blue Demon, is holding his head in physical or spiritual pain. The look of tranquility on the woman’s face near the cauldron, in the midst of all this terror, hints at a lost love or perhaps someone the wrestler cares about who is in danger, or maybe she’s an actress who will bring in an audience just to see her.
La Sangre de Nostradamus uses an elegantly drawn and sophisticated display of horror elements to show dramatic intensity through its tight arrangement of torch, hand with blood, and the vampire’s reflection in a frightened eye, presumably the eye of the person holding the torch. Many of the vampire Mexican lobbies show an almost reverant quality in their depictions of the vampiric menace and are usually more sedate in their depiction of Count Dracula’s more biting habits. In a future article I’ll discuss the Mexican vampire through its depiction in lobbies.
A little less sophisticated, but still dynamic in its message is El Latigo en Las Momias Asesinas. Notice how the menacing mummies hint at the rider’s gallantry and heroism with their ominous presence, while a more sensational illustration of a female victim in distress hints at the violence (action) to come, and maybe some romance, too. Do you get an impression that this movie is geared toward a younger or more family-centered audience?
Like El Latigo, not all Mexican lobbies pander in their displays of a movie’s more dramatic highlights. Themes of heroism, machismo, adventure, and the terror-to-vanquish appear in the masked wrestler and masked cowboy lobbies. El Charro de Las Calaveras is one of my favorite examples of how the artist can create a lobby card that still maintains a high level of tension, but with dignity. The masked gunman faces us defiantly; there is a little whimsy and mystery with the dapper man in a top hat and cape in the background; and menace looms large to the left of with the skull-like mummy head with cobwebs in its right eye and its mouth opened in a menacing way. After you take all that in, there’s a smaller image of a werewolf biting the neck of a beautiful woman in the top corner. Completing the emotional impact, in the middle of the card is the movie title done in a strong font, making this an effective lobby that hints at mystery, danger, and the supernatural without being lurid.
Our last look (for now) will be at the Mexican lobby card for El Monstruo Asesino for the American movie The Monster Walks (1932). This lobby doesn’t use the American-based poster art, but substitutes a more outrageous illustration of a giant drooling ape (influenced by King Kong?) holding a mostly undressed female victim while a valiant hero comes to her rescue. The arrangement of the slanted movie scene, the bold red title font, and the flow of the action from left to right builds expectations that this movie will be truly exciting. I doubt it was, but this lobby is still awesome to look at.