VHS Revival looks back at some of box art’s greatest triumphs.
You’re a child of the 80s and your parents take you for a trip to the veritable cave of wonders that is your local VHS Store. They’re probably in a hurry to get somewhere, and as a result set about influencing your decision, suggesting family-friendly titles such as The Karate Kid, E.T. or The Goonies.
Those movies are all well and good, in fact they’re all brilliant, and each sports some rather wonderful cover art of its own. Yet you are drawn to another section entirely, your thoughts wandering as your mother’s voice fades and a selection of ghouls and goblins call out to you from the R-rated section.
You grow older, and you find that the world is not so magical, but one day you see that image and you remember, even if you know nothing about the film in question. You finally watch the movie, and it is perhaps not as good as you had imaginedb. In fact, it is pretty awful. But when you stare at that image, something special happens. You remember, just for a moment, what it feels like to be a child again.
In this series of articles, VHS Revival attempts to rekindle the child in you by sharing some of our favourite VHS box art.
How many do you remember?
Lifeforce – Guild Home Video (1985)
The Cannon Group’s spacebound, sci-fi horror Lifeforce is a visual treat in itself. Featuring a series of schlocky practical effects and mind-bending action, director Tobe Hooper‘s loose adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires is something of an oddity, as a group of astronauts come across an alien spacecraft containing what appear to be human lifeforms, including the impossibly beautiful ‘Space Girl’ (Mathilda May). Of course, this is a horror movie, and the aforementioned specimens are anything but, leading to a London-bound zombie flick of wonderfully absurd proportions.
The movie’s box art communicates its fantastical tone and emphasis on sexuality as a tool of manipulation, while its eye-catching neon colours are indicative of the period. Its nebulous horizon, powdered red, beautifully compliments the blinding pallor of the film’s pod-bound creatures, the relatively calm images of floating astronauts subtly framing the back cover captions without overwhelming them. There is also some thinly veiled religious iconography on show, which proves effective in strengthening its celestial appeal. The front image is also a little deceptive, giving us two naked Space Girls instead of one. But I hold no grudges.
Braindead aka Dead Alive – Shochicu Home Video (1992)
The Japanese are renown for their inimitable brand of box art, and this representation of Peter Jackon’s zombie-laden splatterfest Braindead is no exception. So comically gory is Jackson’s movie that it puts Sam Raimi‘s Dead by Dawn to shame, but this particular slice of marketing goes for a more sexually-orientated approach, focusing on one of the most shocking scenes in the entire movie, which although comparatively light on gore ramps up the perversity.
As well as a grotesquely Freudian finale, Braindead also has the dishonourable honour of featuring the first zombie pregnancy, an unholy alliance which includes an undead priest, a phallic broom handle and a demonic baby. Wisely, the artist disregards the much less attractive kiwi nurse for a gorgeous Japanese lady with a distinctly pornographic flavour, flipping the scene on its head by turning a crudely restrained monster into an S & M goddess with a seeming blood fetish. Works for me!
Demons 2 – Imperial Entertainment Corp (1986)
Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2 is a wicked pop culture horror that is memorable for many reasons. Almost identical to its predecessor in regards to theme, its ‘art imitating art’ concept is given a more literal slant as fictional demons use television as a portal into another fictional reality.
The box art’s depiction of that moment, although not central to the composition, is quite the visual treat, while the two other demons on show help to exhibit the wonderfully grisily practical effects which prove the movie’s greatest strength. Add to this the ominous image of birthday girl Sally’s shadow lingering in the doorway, and you have the kind of hypnotic imagery that made VHS stores such a visual delight.
Freddy’s Revenge – Warner Home Video (1985)
The brainchild of Britain’s most famous horror cover artist Graham Humphreys, this UK version of Freddy’s Revenge is perhaps the pick of the bunch. This was the first ‘Nightmare’ sequel following Wes Craven‘s genre-reviving A Nightmare on Elm Street, a movie which was panned critically due to its decision to drop everything that made the original such a unique and winning production.
Although a huge disappointment for many, it didn’t stop the movie flying off the shelves, and a large part of its rental success has to be attributed to this gorgeous slice of box art. In spite of the movie’s many drawbacks, it might be argued that Freddy has never looked scarier than he does in Freddy’s Revenge, and the artist is able to perfectly capture his frazzled menace, a yellow school bus, driven in the movie by Krueger, hurtling beneath his giant, omnipotent presence. The back cover also focuses on the killer’s infamous glove, a phallic extension of evil that is synonymous with the character. A spectacular example of effective artistic marketing.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch – Warner Home Video (1990)
Back in 1984, Gremlins caused quite a stir with American parents with its precarious brand of horror-comedy, which, while fun and inventive enough to appeal to kids, was also scary as hell. Mogwai may have been the pet that every child wanted for Christmas, but his Gremlin counterparts were particularly nasty, hanging family dogs from Christmas lights and sending old ladies crashing through windows on a suped-up stairlift.
Perhaps wanting to avoid a similar backlash, Gremlins 2 took a decidedly less graphic approach, toning down the horror in favour of family-friendly cameos from celebrities such as World Wrestling Federation Champion Hulk Hogan, and the cover art for this US release emphasises that change in direction.
Contrary to the artwork for the original Gremlins, the cutesy Gizmo takes centre stage, replacing cretinous gang leader spike. The only part of an actual Gremlin that is visible is a cigar-wielding claw, which comically taps ash on a cowering Gizmo, the Gremlin’s blasé, corporate attitude offering a lighter hint at domination. Of course, the subtle claw mark scarring the back of a leather chair is enough to assure you that there is still plenty of mayhem to be had.
So devious it could almost be a Gremlin at work!
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut