1. The Boogens (1981)
Movie posters are works of art, sure, but they’re also advertisements, ways to sell potential viewers on the idea of parting with some cash and a few hours of their time. Horror-movie posters have to sell the promise of scares, but the films they advertise don’t always live up to those promises. In fact, sometimes there’s a gulf between what’s promised and what’s delivered big enough—well, big enough for a Boogens to slip through. The titular beastie of an entertaining, amateurish 1981 horror film doesn’t much resemble the pair of malevolent hands reaching up beneath the earth to terrorize a peaceful-looking cabin. Maybe that’s why the film keeps it off camera for much of its running time. Or maybe it’s because the filmmakers wanted to keep audiences drawn in by the poster from realizing how much they’d been deceived.
2. Prophecy (1979)
Subtitled “The monster movie,” as if all other monster movies could just pack it up and move on, Prophecy isn’t usually cited as one of the highlights of John Frankenheimer’s career. There’s good reason for that, too: A mostly poky horror film filled with anxiety about pollution and its effects on children and other living things, Prophecy keeps teasing the awesome awfulness of its big monster, an angry creature from Native American lore named Katahdin. But when the film finally shows Katahdin, it looks like a bear suit smeared in spaghetti sauce and Vaseline. Oddly, the poster featuring a horrifying fetus does capture the most unsettling element of the film: heroine Talia Shire’s realization that she’s consumed the same environmental pollutant that created Katahdin and is likely carrying a mutant baby inside of her.
3. The Terror (1963)
The poster to this Roger Corman quickie starring Boris Karloff and a pre-fame Jack Nicholson is deceptive on two fronts: Karloff’s in the movie, but he plays a character more tormented than terrifying, a fact not suggested by the glowering visage of the poster. What’s more, the plot involves witches and multiple identities, and in no way features women trapped in giant spider webs where they writhe and scream in terror until they die leaving behind only skeletons. Not even metaphorically.
4. Frogs (1972)
The main image chosen to promote Frogs straddles the line between scary and silly: A human hand, sometimes bloodied, sometimes not, hanging out of the mouth of what must be one huge frog. (Or maybe the critter’s just munching on a G.I. Joe.) However, the truth behind the “eco-horror” of the film is full-on goofy: Presaging M. Night Shyamalan’s “the trees did it!” epic The Happening, Frogs concerns the unfortunate fate of the wealthy Crockett family, a brood of piggish polluters who receive humanity’s comeuppance when the flora and fauna surrounding their estate stage a slowly moving, swiftly escalating coup. Yet it’s difficult to tell whether the frogs (and snakes, lizards, alligators, birds, kudzu, and even butterflies) are truly on the frontline of the revolution, as most of the film’s death scenes involve background characters flailing about while stock footage close-ups imply that nature’s simply a spectator in the killing. By the time animal-hating Ray Milland finds himself in a mansion overtaken by lily-pad dwellers, the frogs finish him off not by swallowing him whole, but essentially staring him to death.
5. Squirm (1976)
A dank, fetid swamp of a hicksploitation thriller, Squirm packs a handful of gruesome chills, largely thanks to the makeup effects of future Oscar-winner Rick Baker. But even when it’s churning the face of antagonistic redneck R.A. Dow into ground chuck (rendering him “the worm face,” much to the delight of the cast and crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000), the film’s electrified army of night crawlers fails to bring about anything close to the writhing Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape promised by Squirm’s one-sheet. It’s a “night of crawling terror” all right—though the wriggling sensation Squirm induces is merely an involuntary attempt to deflect the drops of perspiration that seep through the screen during every sweaty frame.
6. Thinner (1996)
Rendered in muted, bruise-like purples and reds, the poster from 1996’s Thinner hints at a wealth of grotesquerie: A monstrous-looking fellow, his face melting from deathly flesh into naked skull, leers menacingly from behind an upturned collar. The tagline is even spookier: “Let the curse fit the crime.” If only the studio had let the film fit the poster. Instead, Thinner—an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name—is the laughable, shockingly non-scary fable of a man given a gypsy curse that makes him lose weight. Eerier fates befall those around him—that is, if you consider growing lizard scales on your body the height of human horror. Eventually, the fate of cursed Billy Halleck hinges on that most nightmarish of horror tropes: not a devilish freak in a trench coat, but a fruit pie.
7. The Demon Lover (1976)
This première effort from the team of Donald G. Jackson (who went on to pad out his résumé with such titles as Hell Comes To Frogtown) and the never-to-be-heard-from-again Jerry Younkins is best remembered for having its production documented in Demon Lover Diary, a making-of film that has earned a lively cult rep in spite of never having been given an official release. (The director, Joel DeMott, and her partner, Jeff Kreines, later made the controversial public-television documentary Seventeen. Their association with The Demon Lover came to a non-amicable end while filming a scene at Ted Nugent’s house, which, shockingly, has guns in it.) Younkins plays the central role, a devil-worshipper who summons up dark spirits to help him avenge having been shut out of his own coven by a rival, played by comic-book artist Val Mayerik. Mayerik also executed the poster, a ripe, Frazetta-paperback-cover story that promises a lush orgy of cheap thrills. But all viewers get is a scraggly-haired extra making Halloween faces and conjuring up someone wearing a rejected early prototype of the mask of MF Doom.
8. Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (1971)
Seventeen years after the director-producer Al Adamson was murdered—not, perhaps surprisingly, by a ticket-buyer to one of his films—he remains one of the least-loved exploitation moviemakers of his time. But give him this much credit: Nobody got more mileage out of a few pasteboard sets, some light bondage gear, and directions to the homes of several modestly famous actors who should have planned better for their retirement years. He was adaptable, too: This project began as a sequel to his biker movie Satan’s Sadists, starring Russ Tamblyn, before mutating into a horror movie called Blood Seekers (with Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish, both in their final roles), which turned into Dracula Vs. Frankenstein when Adamson decided to go for broke by incorporating characters with more name recognition than his actors. But while the poster promises a showdown between two monsters with the authority and menace horror fans remember from their classic vehicles, what’s on screen is a pissing match between a greenish geek with an echo filter and a bad perm, and what looks like a rapidly disintegrating Play-Doh sculpture of a bulldog standing on its hind legs.
9. Grizzly (1976)
Size matters. The poster for this movie about a ravaging grizzly bear using the human population of a national park as his personal all-you-can-eat buffet is—in its wild-eyed, hyperthyroid way—one of the most impressive relics from the “let’s rip off Jaws!” period of exploitation moviemaking. But the film itself is unable to convey the illusion that the title character, who seems to vary greatly in size from shot to shot, is a mutant hell-beast big and powerful enough to swat a helicopter or tear down a fire tower to get at the chewy goodness that is the park ranger stationed on top. It’s also unable to conceal the fact that the bear we see is so much cuter than the rest of the cast.
10. It Conquered The World (1956)
Roger Corman made a lot of science-fiction movies, because it was a genre with commercial appeal for his target audience. The same pragmatic mindset made him reluctant to put a lot of money on the screen, which explains why an inordinate amount of this work of apocalyptic speculative fiction consists of Peter Graves and Lee Van Cleef hanging around each other’s houses, discussing whether inviting hostile visitors from Venus to our planet and handing them to keys to the car is a good idea. By Corman’s standards, the representative alien monster that finally puts in an appearance in the final reel is fairly ambitious: There are any number of Corman productions that don’t feature anything as wild as a leering, ambulatory traffic cone. And the poster doesn’t grossly misrepresent it. But it does prove that certain visions are better dimly sketched than seen clearly, in action.
11. The Legend Of Boggy Creek (1972)
This pseudo-documentary about the Fouke Monster, a Bigfoot-like critter said to be haunting a small Arkansas town, was one of the biggest regional hits of the four-waller era. As a species, these movies used saturation ad campaigns to sell the sizzle to a steak that was mostly theoretical in nature. Most of the 90-minute running time of Boggy Creek, which earned more than $20 million back on an investment of $100,000, consists of a narrator musing about how there sure are some weird things in this funny old world, over slow-moving shots of swampy water, bare fields, small-town life, etc. But every so often, as a conciliatory gesture to an audience that might be growing inclined to trash the theater, someone will tell a story about a monster sighting, which provides an excuse to show some hick encountering something blurry.
12. Night Of The Lepus (1972)
The poster art promises scares of the mutated-giant-animal variety, while wisely refraining from making it clear that the animals in question are bunnies. Lepus might not be the officially recognized nadir of the giant-animal genre if the filmmakers had at least cared enough to make them freaky-looking, messed-up bunnies, with red facial welts and jagged buck teeth, but the limits of their inventiveness went no further than trying to make the creatures look enormous by photographing them inside Ken and Barbie’s dream house. By the time the climax arrives and the same close-up of the bunnies hopping thunderously past the camera is repeated for the 50th time, it all feels like a charitable project designed to make the creators of The Killer Shrews feel better about themselves.
13. Shriek Of The Mutilated (1974)
Michael Findlay, who co-directed sexploitation films and the notorious hoax movie Snuff with his wife Roberta, made this tastefully titled shocker about a professor who takes a pack of graduate students on a field trip to try to capture a Yeti that’s said to reside on a remote island. Spoiler alert: The prof and his associates are actually members of a cannibal cult, and they’ve fabricated the Yeti story, using hidden microphones and a guy in a monster suit, in order to lure students onto their turf so they can be killed and eaten. Things get so scary that one young woman, whose dead body must be unmarred for use in a dark ritual, finally has a heart attack and dies of fright. But given that the faux Yeti looks like Rob Zombie fell in a snowdrift, it would be easier to believe if she died laughing.