VHS Revival looks back at some of horror 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 imagined. 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?
Brain Damage – Delta Video (1988)
Exploitation maestro Frank Henenlotter‘s Brain Damage is a gruesome delight with a somewhat serious underbelly. A heady blend of gore-laden schlock and hard-edged social commentary, it is the story of Aylmer, a parasitic alien who feeds on human brains with a savagery that leaves you grinning from ear to ear. In order to quench its insatiable habit, Aylmer needs a human enabler, and sets about enslaving Brian (Rick Hearst) by injecting him with its highly addictive, hallucinogenic lifeblood, transforming him into an unwitting accomplice as his addiction spirals out of control.
This French sleeve sums up the movie’s inimitable tone quite wonderfully. First we have a head-splitting image of Brian, making reference to one of the movie’s more disturbing scenes, while in the foreground the malevolent Aylmer snacks on a brain milkshake, complete with juice-draining straw and decorative cherry. Like a kid in a candy store, Aylmer devours his victims with a gleeful relish, cheerfully ostentatious about his capacity to manipulate. The movie is something of a paradox: lighthearted, yet harrowing, comical in tone, yet hard to stomach. Thanks in part to the choice of stills featured on the back cover, I think this effort sums that blend up rather perfectly. And besides, the quality of the canvas art speaks for itself.
Jason Lives! – CIC Video (1986)
Back in 1984, Paramount Pictures advertised the fourth instalment of their money-spinning franchise as The Final Chapter, but with so much coin at stake you could be forgiven for taking their claims with a rather hefty pinch of salt. It would take two years to renege on their promise completely, A New Beginning‘s copycat killer filling in for the interim, but with Jason Lives! producers brought something fresh to the table, side-stepping the MPAA’s censorship abattoir by taking Jason meta.
The franchise had featured some relatively lame box art up until 1986, but the iconic imagery featured on this Australian release would set the tone for the larger-than-life, self-reflexive persona Jason would adopt. This is perhaps the first in the series which depicts Jason as the movie’s faux-protagonist, and the giant, light-projecting hockey mask is almost a nod to Batman’s bat signal, the ‘Jason Lives’ inscribed headstone making reference to his quite astonishing powers of regeneration.
A visual treat by anyone’s standards.
Dolls – Vestron Video (1987)
The late 80s saw a surge in doll-related horror. Led by the franchise-spinning Chucky and backed up by low-budget treats such as Demonic Dolls and the Puppetmaster series, this brief period offered up a mixed bag to say the least. Perhaps the least remembered of the bunch was Stuart Gordon‘s Dolls, which was actually one of the better sub-genre offerings as a group of guests at a country mansion succumb to the evil machinations of a toy maker beset on turning them into part of his collection.
If you were a child of the 80s or 90s, you will likely remember a variation of this Swedish box art, the striking image of a skeletal doll having removed its eyeballs enough to turn the head of any juvenile lost in a micro-metropolis of horror images. Perhaps a little tame in hindsight, but an image made for an impressionable young mind, and if you had a doll collection waiting for you back at home . . . well, I’m sure you would be looking at them somewhat differently as they stared eerily from some prominent vantage.
I can almost taste the fear.
The Gate – Vestron Video (1987)
Starring an exceedingly young Stephen Dorff, The Gate is one of those movies which really stuck with you as a child. With gaggles of insidious demons, wall-bound zombies and eyeballs appearing in the palm of our pewee protagonist’s hand, the movie featured some rather striking imagery, and was something of a macabre affair for a movie with a PG-13 rating. The fact is, a portal to hell appearing in your garden is totally plausible when you’re a preteen, and the extent of your imagination can be both a blessing and a hindrance, depending on the time of day.
As if your boundless imagination wasn’t enough to give you the willies, Vestron Video came up with this little beauty as a means to drag you in, and they take quite the literal approach, a clawed demon peering out from the bowels of some unseen hell. This is a fine example of succinct promotion, as our canvas artist captures the story’s central threat while incorporating the movie’s titles. It also establishes location and theme, everything tied in a cute canvas package.
They don’t get more effective than this.
Night of the Creeps – HBO Video (1986)
They say the eyes are a window to your soul. When you’re a youngster, you don’t consider such philosophies, but there is something uniquely disturbing about white eyeballs, particularly when they are the focal point of some pretty distinctive box art. Night of the Creeps is a fun little horror flick featuring alien lifeforms, mad axemen and prom dates turning into mindless zombies. It also features genre icon Tom Atkins, who hams it up in the hard-boiled detective role we most closely associate him with.
This attractive piece of horror promotion may have its inconsistencies (could a bunch of roses really smash through a window and remain in tact?) but the image of a zombie retaining enough of his former self to turn up for a date is rather unsettling, particularly when he has duplicitous intentions forming behind his clouded retinas.
Beyond the delightful subtext, this is simply a wonderful image, and a glorious reminder of a lost art form. Rest in Pieces, my canvas friends.
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