“I BLAME Doctor Who,” says Graham Humphreys, citing the sci-fi classic as one of the driving forces behind a love of horror which has helped sustain his career over four decades.

The illustrator and designer is best-known as a horror film artist, responsible for some of the genre’s best-known posters, videos, Blu-ray and DVD covers from the 1980s to the present day.

And he’ll be explaining all about his craft when he appears at Darlington Film Club for a Q&A session, following a screening of the Hammer classic The Plague of the Zombies, next month.

He’s joking about Doctor Who, of course – but only partly.

As a child, he developed “a morbid interest” in TV programmes like Doctor Who, The Munsters and Lost In Space. Later, classic Universal horrors, the work of Vincent Price – particularly in films produced and directed by Roger Corman – and the Hammer films honed his enthusiasm.

He trained as a graphic designer from 1977 in Salisbury College of Art, specialising in illustration in his fourth year – by which time he already had an idea of the direction he wanted his career to go in.

The Northern Echo:

Graham Humphreys. Picture: John Ford

“At art college I knew that film posters would be an area I’d like to specialise in,” he says.

“I’d always loved horror film posters because there’s more licence to be imaginative. Everybody knows that horror film posters promise a lot more than the film could deliver. That was always fascinating for me.”

His big break came early in his career, winning a commission from Palace Pictures, who “wanted to do something a little bit different” with a poster for the UK release of a low-budget American film directed by Sam Raimi – The Evil Dead.

The poster’s B-Movie look is now considered a classic and the film has developed a cult following. It’s still among Graham’s best-known work.

His next commission from Palace was for a very different poster, but for an equally iconic film – A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street was a lot slicker and they took a bit of a risk going back to me for that,” says Graham.

“It was something quite different. I had to convince them that I could do that. They took that risk and fortunately it paid off.”

Despite the success of those two films and Graham’s related work, he wasn’t immediately able to make horror his core output.

“There were a lot of illustrators operating and my style was considered quite aggressive if you like,” he says.

“I think people were slightly off put by the fact that it didn’t look slick. Mine didn’t fit with that general mould. So I struggled and a lot of my work was coming from other sources.”

As a result, he says much of his work was for “quite mundane stuff”, adding: “It’s really only in the last ten years that I’ve been able to specialise in the area I like the most – which is horror.”

As well as posters and DVDs, he also does book covers, vinyl LP sleeves – including many soundtracks – plus a lot of private commissions for enthusiasts.

The Northern Echo:

One of Graham's work for a private client

Working in the medium of paint rather than digital, much of his recent work has been for Arrow Video – which restores and distributes classic and cult horror films.

"When illustration fell out of favour for video and DVD sleeves, it seemed like it would be relegated to rare, niche releases, never to appear on shelves again. But I always felt there was still more to offer beyond the photoshop comp," says Graham.

"Fortunately a small number of distributors bucked the trend and realised that era appropriate packaging might make sense for reissues.

"My first job for Arrow Video, was a new release of the 1986 film ‘Slaughter High’, where the marketing hook was to employ an artist known for their genre work in the period the film was originally released. I had a meeting with Arrow and accepted the commission for a new illustration to mark the reissue.

"Fellow artist Rick Melton was already engaged on new covers for the company. It was quite amazing to see a variety of new artwork appearing. Rick, like myself, works in a traditional medium of paint rather than digital."

He adds: “Over the following years I have enjoyed revisiting favourite films – and many that are new to me.

“Working on titles for Dario Argento and Mario Bava, legends of the horror genre, has felt like an honour.

“The most fulfilling aspect has been to return to the period in which I built my career, but using newly acquired skills. It’s like turning back time but with the benefit of hindsight.

“Whereas I felt my early work suffered from a lack of experience, I can once again build on those original skills and continue to develop my techniques and improve – whilst indulging in my love of classic and dodgy horror.”

The Northern Echo:

A DVD cover Graham completed for Arrow

Graham says one of the attractions of horror films is that many contain a "subtext" beyond the story.

He cites the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an allegory for the Vietnam War, and 1950s paranoia around nuclear war.

“I learned to love horror early on and I always recognise that great horror came from great literature," he says.

"There was always more to it than just the film. There was a source material that has inspired the movies.

“There was always this subtext, even with Hammer movies."

And it's this subtext which was one of the reason he chose The Plague of the Zombies as the film to be screened on the night he appears in Darlington.

"I like it because it’s one of those horror films that has a message and a subtext," he says.

"It’s very much a class ridden film.You have the masters and the downtrodden classes being beaten up. It has a lot of resonance."

Zombies were also on his mind because he'll be visiting Darlington just after attending the Weekend of the Dead festival in Manchester, which features the films of George A Romero.

Graham says he doesn't have a favourite among his past work, although he feels his portrait poster for A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddie’s Revenge is among his best

“It still stands up quite strongly and I feel quite proud of that,” he said.

But he feels he is doing some of his best work right now.

“That’s exciting for me," he adds. "So I'll say I don’t have a favourite really, because I’ve yet to do it.”

* Hung, Drawn & Executed, an evening with Graham Humphreys, is at The Forum Music Centre, Borough Road, on Monday, March 2 from 7pm. For more details on the event and how to buy tickets, visit Darlington Film Club's Facebook page or ring The Forum on 01325-363135.