The Art House: How the Movie Poster for 'The Exorcist' Reveals the Horrors of Bad Typography

The Art House

Probably the most reviled stereotype surrounding graphic designers is our borderline-obsessive relationship with typography. You’ll find no short supply of remarks about the odd behavior exhibited by someone with an intimate knowledge of type. For most, complaints of Comic Sans and butchered letter-spacing are the lowest hanging fruit, illustrating a sample of the minutia that concerns most practitioners in the field. Civilians, for want of a better term, see it for what the practice has become at its absolute worst: a lack of self-awareness on the part of artists too absorbed in the culture to effectively relate to the way most people see the world around them. They are bound by an almost parental insistence that understanding and adhering to a set of rules puts one on the path of typographic enlightenment, with any deviation marked for scorn.

Can you blame anyone for wanting to poke that smug sense of superiority with a stick?

I see the value in an almost dogmatic commitment to an ideal in service of a greater good (in this instance, clarity and legibility on the reader’s behalf), but that approach to typography has never been for me. The designers I’m most inspired by still remember what it’s like to see without the burden of knowledge, to look at what words are capable of in the hands of anyone hoping to communicate honestly.

There’s power in the way language looks, and how, with the right amount attention, it has the capacity to make us feel something more. Shape and texture can cause words to enrapture an audience while simultaneously acting as a visual conduit for themes or ideas otherwise unsaid. There are times, though, when form can undermine the message it’s attempting to serve, causing a narrative collapse that sends everything completely off the rails. A designer worth their salt works hard to avoid this, but even the best are occasionally prone to its trappings.

"The Exorcist" illuminates these pitfalls while highlighting the strengths inherent in a carefully considered design. Bill Gold’s early work on William Friedkin’s 1973 classic has been excavated in recent years, allowing for a closer look at what failed to make it out of the gate. The official one-sheet, burned into pop-culture’s collective unconscious for forty years, stands in stark contrast to these early attempts at solving a design problem. But what’s so incredible about them isn’t the shock of unfamiliar imagery, but the title type itself. It’s not the haunting semi-serif we’re all familiar with, but something far less sinister. This is demonic possession and a crisis of faith wrapped in bubble gum.

Bold, bordering on playful, the letterforms themselves betray the dark, tormented undercurrent running throughout the picture, acting less as an extension of its mood and more as an element seeking to undermine the tone of the film. It’s almost an approach to innocence, but completely devoid of any sense of danger. You can do the mental gymnastics to connect its childlike buoyancy to Regan (the young girl possessed by the demon Pazuzu), but it would still suffer from anchoring itself solely to one small piece of the film. The horror is negated, leaving a key facet of the movie’s public image fractured. You’re left with an ‘Exorcist’ that invokes a lighthearted romp more than a serious picture cloaked in shadow.

Each poster in its entirety aims to hint at the horror within the confines of Regan’s world. They all take aims to do so differently, but build outward with each successive attempt. Regan herself, which expands outward to focus on her room, finally expanding out into the street, engulfing the entirety of her home in the nightmare plaguing the MacNeil family. What neuters the first two from evoking a unified tone lies in the overweight letterforms themselves. They cut off at the knees what everything else around them is trying to do by saying one thing more loudly than the rest. There’s a sermon being delivered, but with two voices preaching radically different things. Are you looking at a poster for a horror, a comedy, or both? Hindsight gives us the answer, but without it, an onlooker would be hopelessly ignorant.

And I’m sure, with a myriad of other reasons, that’s partly why these posters were relegated to the cutting room floor. They stand at odds with the final poster, a piece that finds it’s symphony playing all of the right notes in unison. The type is elegant in its restraint, drawing inspiration from the semi-serif lettering you might find on the cover of a Roman Catholic bible. It acts as an extension of the film itself while working in tandem with the rest of the poster, cast in shadow, bringing forward a color palette that hints at the supernatural within. Everything is quieter, but somehow more urgent than the bubbly, flippant typeface that ran counter to much of the discarded posters. It’s an honest representation of the film rather than just another piece of confused communication.

And that’s the power typography holds. Tension can be swiftly declawed in a single stroke, or sharpened to maximum effect. Appropriateness can drive forward a narrative or bring everything else crashing down around it. Admittedly, it may seem a bit silly that so many designers kneel at the altar of obsessive minutia. A step back wouldn’t hurt the more overzealous, but simply having an eye towards what type says visually can keep everything from devolving into a puddle of pea soup. After all, God is in the details.

As an aside, this rarely seen trailer for The Exorcist does on odd thing: it builds off the techniques employed in the final poster for the film while elevating their effectiveness through a hint of motion and a punishing use of sound. The poster drapes it’s central image in shadow, but it is rendered somewhat benign next to the onslaught of demonic visages that continuously erupt from the screen. If the poster is a whisper, then this is a scream.

*Special thanks to Evan Husney for unearthing the trailer.

Read the previous installment of The Art House: The Movie Posters of Woody Allen

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