It’s not long until Halloween… so what better time than to rediscover some horror classics?
In our own inimitable way, of course! We’ve picked five masterpieces of the genre that have entered the collective imagination, not just for their chilling scenes, but also for their innovative use of fonts and lettering, whether on the official poster or in the title sequence.
We’ll look at the expressionist lettering of the first, unforgettable Nosferatu, the eighties font from John Carpenter’s cult hit Halloween, and anecdote about Stanley Kubrick and the Shining… but that’s enough spoilers! Like in all good horror films, there’s no harm in a bit of suspense.
John Carpenter’s Halloween
The year 1978 saw the release of a horror film that would immediately become a cult hit and lay the foundations for an entire genre. That film was Halloween by John Carpenter.
Accompanying the release of the first slasher film was a poster that would live long in the memory. It’s all there: a knife wielded by an unknown hand, a menacing and glowing pumpkin, a shudder-inducing tag line and – at the top – the film’s title, Halloween.
The title is white with an orange border on a black background: it’s oppressive, gothic, but at the same time modern. It’s undoubtedly creepy and that’s perhaps why it has become indelibly associated with the eighties: the same font would be used for many other horror films in the decade.
The font used for Carpenter’s Halloween is ITC Serif Gothic Heavy, created by American designer Herb Lubalin and Italian Tony DeSpigna in 1972. It’s a hybrid typeface that combines gothic simplicity with the elegance of Roman characters. The standard version of the same font has also been used in less spine-tingling films like the come latest episodes of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu
The long shadow of the vampire Nosferatu cast against the wall as he climbs the stairs to attack his victim… despite being almost a century old, the horror classic Nosferatu still sends shivers down the spine today.
Much of the film’s appeal lies in its aesthetics informed by the major artistic movements of the era: German expressionism, art nouveau and art deco. Dark and disturbing framing, cold architecture, sharp contrasts… the film’s murky is capped magnificently by the font used for the title!
The typeface used is Berthold Herold Reklameschrift BQ, designed in 1901 by German Heinz Hoffmann, who at the time worked for the Berthold AG type foundry in Berlin. It’s a font which has art nouveau features and uses gothic characters that were very popular in Germany at the time. But when translated, the font’s name immediately loses its dark mystique : it simply means “advertising font”!
Here you can find a digital version of Berthold Herold Reklameschrift BQ.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
That Stanley Kubrick was an extremely fussy perfectionist is well known. But less well known is that his exacting requirements also extended to the lettering and posters for his films, as the following anecdote from his psychological thrillerThe Shining reveals.
The film adaptation of the Stephen King novel arrived in cinemas in 1980. If you think back to the opening scene, it’s hard not to feel a sense of deep foreboding: a long shot follows the family’s car as it winds across a remote and mountainous landscape, the score heightening the anxiety. But the final touch is the font. A neutral Helvetica that contrasts with everything else while also containing its own disturbing element: the colour. Here’s the whole opening sequence.
However, the typeface used for the title on the poster was specially designed by Saul Bass and that’s who our anecdote is about. Saul Bass was the master of posters (we talk about him here): he designed the poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as well as other masterpieces. But this would not make him immune to Kuckrick’s meticulousness.
Saul Bass proudly and confidently submitted some five designs for the poster for The Shining, but none of these would satisfy the director, who said the lettering was: “hard to read” and “not compact enough”. You’ll find the full story here.
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist
Released in 1973, The Exorcist terrorised whole generations. But what about the font it used? It’s serious, almost ecumenical, in a blood red which foretells the unspeakable to the audience. The poster is enough to put the viewer in the right state of mind for the film: fear.
The lettering was specially created by the designer Dan Perri, using the Weiss Titling font. And it would bring its creator great success. The Exorcist was the first blockbuster on which Dan Perri worked and, with this film in his portfolio, he went on to work on more big movies. In 1976, he designed the lettering and titles for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and, in 1977, created the iconic titles for Star Wars.
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead
This cult zombie film was George A. Romero’s directorial debut. Not only did it give birth to a new genre in American cinema, the typeface used for the poster and titles spawned many imitations in the years that followed.
If you want to use it for your projects, the closest font you can get is Deanna, created by Chris Hansen and based on the film’s original lettering.
In fact, the film’s original lettering also had a cameo role in the lawsuit that George Romero brought against The Return of the Living Dead – the 1985 film by Dan O’Bannon – which according to Romero presented itself as the (unauthorised) sequel to his 1968 masterpiece. Among the evidence considered by the court was the font: the one used by The Return of the Living Dead was the same as that used in Romero’s film!
What do you reckon? Fancy rewatching one of these masterpieces this Halloween?