INTERVIEW WITH AN ARTIST: Graham Humphreys on Painting Nightmares for a Living

Graham Humphreys paints nightmares for a living. If you’ve been a horror fan over the last 30 years, he’s probably painted a few of yours. From designing the iconic Evil Dead poster when he was only 20 to introducing the world to Freddy Kreuger’s now infamous knives, Graham’s is a career that looms large over one of horror cinema’s most prolific and vibrant eras. It’s easy to see why his work grabbed the attentions of horror filmmakers back then, and why he continues to enjoy great success in the genre today. A Humphreys poster not only draws the eyes – it often threatens to pop them.

All horror legends have to start somewhere. For Graham in 1980, a fresh-faced art graduate, that meant long evenings calling up every film distributor he could from the grubby payphone on the end of his street (he owned no telephone of his own). In a sense though, Graham’s career had begun a long time before that, in front of the television.

Graham: TV became a big source of inspiration. The 60s were ripe with stuff to feed a child’s imagination, including the original Dr. Who, The Munsters, Lost In Space, Batman, and the Gerry Anderson programmes.

G: The earliest horror films I recall would have been the old Universal monster films and the 50s B-movies that seemed to fill late night TV in the 70s. Among the first two horror films I ever watched were Psycho and The Fiend Without A Face. I found the latter far more terrifying!

Graham would score few early hits with posters for The Monster Club and The Fun House, although looking back at these early works isn’t a great experience for him.

G: The results reveal my lack of experience and skill – I squirm with embarrassment when I see either. The Fun House became a double bill with My Bloody Valentine. That illustration was a slight improvement on the other two.

Although he was still developing his craft, we can’t help feeling that the fact that his original poster for The Monster Club was rejected on the grounds of being “too scary” boded well for his future career. Graham’s big break came with his commission for Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.

G: I produced an image steeped in B-Movie colours and infused with the aggression of punk rock. Luckily for all involved, it worked!

And how! The poster Graham came up with isn’t just an iconic piece of horror history, it’s a mission statement not only for his career, but for the 80’s horror explosion itself. Drenched in vibrant funhouse lighting, looming faces accompanied by an explosion of vivid crimson blood announce the arrival of a kind of horror that’s going to be bold, aggressive and confrontational, but shot through with a sense of irreverent fun.

These new films would be infused with the spirit of punk, and Graham’s artwork had reflected those explosive rhythms ever since he had first been exposed to them.

G: The impact was total. When I first entered art college, popular culture seemed to be dominated by prog rock and airbrush illustration. Punk rock inspired something far more robust and I avoided anything that looked polished and slick. I experimented with textures that I felt echoed the sounds – I still like to keep things rough around the edges!

As bold and lurid as Graham’s trademark style can be, he never loses sight of the fact that the purpose of film art is to entice, and this often means playing certain cards close to your chest.

G: Quite unlike the Hammer Horror approach, or B-Movies of the 50s, which just threw the monsters in your face!

When the world first made the acquaintance of Freddy Kreuger, it wasn’t Robert Englund’s fire-chewed face that audiences saw first. Graham’s poster depicts Kreuger only as a backlit silhouette of a man, a tattered hat and a groping, searching hand stretching over a sleepy suburbia, signature blades glistening in moonlight. Before people had even taken their seats in the cinema, a horror icon was born.

G: Freddy was unknown when I worked on Nightmare On Elm Street. Nobody would have anticipated the longevity of the character in the sequels and his addition to the lexicon of horror greats. My job was to hint at the character, but not reveal him.

These days, Graham gets a lot of work creating covers for reissues of classic horror and exploitation movies, such as those released by Arrow Video. Working with films that are already known and loved allows Graham some freedoms that were denied to him with his earlier works.

G: My work for reissues allows me to have more fun, because there is nothing to conceal. The films are known and my job is to celebrate all the good stuff therein.

In the face of a growing reliance on digital techniques, his work retains the raw, tactile appeal that always made it so engaging.

G: I revel in the old school paint on paper – it’s messy, visceral and tactile – like life. Techniques adapt and naturally mutate, it’s a consequence of work experience and of personal development.

With so many looking to 80’s films for inspiration, and the enormous influence that the time continues to have on horror and science fiction today, we asked Graham what it was about that time that lead to such a creative outpouring.

G: It was a very creative period of experimentation in which physical special effects went through a complete renaissance, political discourse became more overt – I put this down to the bold legacy of punk – and crucially, there seemed to be a lot of money sloshing around to fund original films.

For me, the 80s films represent a period of creative competition, fearless freedom and an attempt to understand and reflect the rapidly changing world in the face of technological advance and political threats -in the form of Reagan and Thatcher – horror incarnate!

Pop culture is awash with 80’s nostalgia at the moment, with remakes of such 80’s mainstays as Evil Dead, Poltergeist and Robocop, and original works with mad love for the days of synth such as It Follows, You’re Next, Turbokid and, of course, Stranger Things. As someone with such a close association with the era, we wondered if Graham might be able to explain this renewed interest.

G: I believe we are going through an echo of the 80s, another period of rapid technological advance, rabid destructive politics and a new fight against puritanism (political and religious). If the world resembles the 1980s then the films of the period naturally resonate.

Our 80’s obsession may point to our living in bleak times, but Graham remains upbeat about creativity continuing to thrive into the future.

G: I am always pleasantly surprised at the volume of originality in new horror. The influence of foreign cinema has certainly stimulated new ways of approaching the genre, which I feel, in many ways has never been richer.

Many thanks to Graham Humphreys for taking the time to talk to us!

Find out more about Graham Humphreys:

Official Website

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