Something that has to be said and championed about the magic of late great artist Basil Gogos was his uncanny ability to both pay tribute to the makeup artists who designed and brought to life the cinematic monsters he painted for Famous Monsters of Filmland, and also – how in doing that – he birthed his own unique vision and interpretation of such celluloid creature creations. To say that Gogos was an incredible talent would be an understatement, because on top of being an artist who paid homage to the world of movie monsters, he also created iconic works unto themselves that were just as vibrant and exciting to look at as they were in the movies they populated. Horror movie lovers for decades have now come to recognize Gogos’s covers for famed periodicals such as Famous Monsters of Filmland as vital and important images celebrating a rogue’s gallery of beloved filmic outsiders and misfits.
One of the most important factors here also is the use of color when many of the monsters and related characters were only ever known to exist in black and white. This dramatic addition of vibrant reds and greens and blues and oranges et al, honestly sent hairs standing up on the back of my neck when I first saw these paintings on the many covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland that I slowly collected during my early teens. The mossy green hue of the upper part of Lon Chaney Sr.’s face countering the more “natural” skin tone of his jaw fascinated me when I saw that painted image long before tracking down London After Midnight while Gogos’s beautiful color presentation of Kong for a 1974 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland was something that I would stare at for hours studying the scope of the romantic simian’s head and how his teeth looked far scarier than they ever did in the 1933 masterpiece. There was something so magical about seeing these monsters presented in vivid color and it added to their legacy which was always (and will always be) special to me. Gogos’s artistic techniques are legendary – he would be hired by Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman and publisher James Warren after the earliest issues of the magazine would feature Warren in a mask (to save on artist and model costs), then Warren’s own attempts at painting (Lon Chaney Sr. as the Phantom of the Opera) and then by artist Albert Nuetzell, who did some lovely work but pieces that Warren felt didn’t “pop”.
Enter Basil Gogos who got the cover artist job after submitting pieces such as a painting of Vincent Prince in The House of Usher, and the rest is monster movie magazine history. Simply presented with an eight by ten glossy of the creature in question, Gogos would set out to create something unique and endearing starting a romance that horror fans would embrace for years to come. One of his earliest pieces which truly captures Gogos’s hand at utilizing seldom used artistic techniques was his piece that featured beautifully constructed impressions of actors Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone for the Edgar Allan Poe anthology film Tales of Terror. Here, Gogos used a silk screen approach and special dyes that gave these water color bases a new kind of energy and dynamism. This would also be a perfect summary of how Gogos really captured the subject while injecting something wonderfully new and exotic in his pieces – where he could not only give realistic representation to either character actors or heavily stylized monsters, but give them another life that is an extension of their celluloid presence.
The Oliver Reed painting from Curse of the Werewolf was another favorite, and it made me realise at an early age that these pieces most definitely did not have to be completely accurate to what was depicted on the screen – makeup artist Roy Ashton’s work on Reed was much more in the model of a grey timber wolf than the fiery, golden haired lion-like beast that Gogos concocted – and to be brutally honest, both are exceptional designs and work in either medium. The brilliance behind Gogos’s work on the Universal movie monsters such as Boris Karloff’s creature from Frankenstein or Elsa Lanchester as his intended bride from the follow up, was the sheer fact that it was an extension to the artistic elegance makeup artist Jack Pierce mastered – it took nothing away from Pierce’s designs, but instead added something else; something otherworldly and equally mesmerizing.
From meticulously designed representations cemented in glamorous realism such as his paintings of Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man in House of Dracula, Ingrid Pitt baring her fangs in The Vampire Lovers or Christopher Lee’s sombre melancholy in Curse of Frankenstein, right through to captivating more impressionistic depictions of movie monsters such as The Hideous Sun Demon, Basil Gogos truly managed to embrace the heart and soul of his subject and the performer or artists who brought them to life.
Other artists working for the always fun and entertaining pun-riddled Famous Monsters of Filmland did a magnificent job in capturing iconic figures of horror – some examples include Ken Kelly’s turn on The Fly, Harry Roland’s loving tribute to the Gillman and his warm hand at the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of SInbad, Harold Skiri’s hats off to Paula the Ape Girl as played by Acquanetta in Captive Wild Woman and a personal favorite being Bob Larkin’s interpretation of the South Korean A*P*E which pitted a giant simian against a shark (albeit the image from the issue featuring the great white in mammoth size compared to the monkey!) and the gorgeous painting not really reflecting the movie at all – but it didn’t matter, that art was priceless. However, it was always the Gogos works that got the Monster Kid in me excited, and being able to buy Famous Monsters of Filmland was an absolute treat.
Looking through my collection of Famous Monsters of Filmland now as I write this tribute is a sentimental journey – going over some of these covers brings a lot of warmth and comfort. Seeing the truly gruesome beastie from The Mutations on the cover of #176 still affects me the same way it did when I initially saw it – and it stands out in memory much more than the movie! Going through the collection I also love the fact that Gogos not only painted his monsters with loving detail, but also his delicate hand pays a loving tribute to the heroes and heroines of these classic horror movies, such as #66 where the lovely Gloria Stuart is trembling in fear, biting at her fingertips while a clawed hand reaches in on her bare shoulder in The Old Dark House. Gogos gave Barnabas Collins from the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows an added sense of menace in his cover art for #59, there was a regal sense of Renaissance artistry in his take on a lycanthropic Henry Hull and the vibrant almost cartoony and yet terrifying impression of modern movie monster Regan MacNeil (the possessed little girl in The Exorcist) always creeped me out and also tipped the hat to makeup artist Dick Smith’s phenomenal work on that film.
Monster kids unite – and let’s all celebrate the works of Basil Gogos, who not only changed the way horror movie magazines looked, but also honoured these cinematic ghouls with a tremendous amount of tenderness, sensitivity and genuine compassion.