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 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?
The Stuff – New World Video (1985)
Back in 1985, cult director Larry Cohen gave us a rather delicious social satire with a stomach-churning twist. Crammed with mock-advertisements from a cast of mindless consumers, the movie is also a commentary on mass production and the untold threat of processed foods.
The Stuff tells the story of a society addicted to a strange and tasty mallow with an appetite of its own. Not only does the addictive substance render its subjects powerless, it turns them into violent brand warriors who set about recruiting the population.
This US box art encapsulates the movie quite brilliantly as a suburban family spills out of the refrigerator in gooey waves of body horror. The product’s logo is also prominent, The Stuff stacked in mass produced rows as product and customer become integrated in a physical manifestation.
The cover also hints at the movie’s mouth-watering practical effects, a nod to cold war sci-fi culminating in a tide of body-snatching gunk. Are you eating it, or is it eating you?
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.
Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf – Thorn EMI (1985)
Tenuously linked to the original ‘Howling’ and a far cry from the novel of the same name, Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf is a practical piece of pop culture marketing, a mixture of gothic horror and new wave eroticism which somehow managed to land the late Christopher Lee in the starring role.
Subtitled ‘Stirba – Werewolf Bitch in the U.K., the movie places an emphasis on style, delivering an MTV-friendly vehicle that teenage horror fans could sink their teeth into, and a whole lot of Sybil Danning-led nudity to boot.
The movie is also a hodgepodge of horror concepts which takes our cast to Communist-led Czechoslovakia, with horrible special effects, sadomasochistic aesthetics and hairy werewolf orgies. No wonder Lee walked around the set wishing a hole would swallow him up!
This image is perhaps the closest resemblance to anything from the original movie, with a claw tearing through the cover. But instead of a werewolf we have painted nails and a salacious female with fangs, a savvy sales pitch for teenage sexuality that saw rentals for this cinematic oddity soar.
Troll 2 – Columbia Tristar (1990)
For those with an interest in the bad movie canon, Troll 2 will have a special place in their hearts. Regarded by many as being one of the most nonsensical movies ever committed to VHS, it is the story of a juvenile nightmare, murderous trolls and bucket loads of strange gook that more than lives up to the late ‘80s obsession with all things neon.
This is terrible, perplexing, incomprehensible fare, but try resisting its absurd charms and cheapo special effects before you make a judgement, because there is something strangely magnetic about its sheer ineptitude and inability to make any kind of rational sense.
The movie’s box art is rather striking too. While the back cover depicts the tangled forests from where the horrid little creatures emerge (and where your mind will most likely end up) the front depicts a towering beast which holds very little resemblance to the cutesy villains featured in the film, while the story’s peewee protagonist does his best to encapsulate the complete lack of scares on offer.
One to attract the video-sifting tykes with its grandiose imagery and kid-hunting composition. I’m sure a fair few of you remember this one rather vividly.
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.
The Video Dead – Medusa Home Video (double-sided) (1987)
Ahhh, Medusa, how we miss you! Not only did you have arguably the coolest distributor logo of the 1980s, you gave a home to some of the strangest and most memorable movies of the VHS glory years, and The Video Dead is no exception.
Released in 1986, the movie was at the cheaper end of the meta-infused horror-through-appliances scale, a sub-genre which included Poltergeist, Videodrome, Pulse, The Brain . . . well, you get the idea. A delight of practical effects and cheapskate horror, the movie has achieved cult status among fans of schlock, but for cover art purists this canvas-based masterwork is even more memorable.
Conceptually it is pretty straightforward, as an undead zombie uses an unplugged TV as a supernatural gateway, but most impressive is the artwork itself. An explosion of imagination sublimely executed, it is everything that was great about this lost art form.
But what makes this one particularly appealing among horror fans and VHS collectors in general is the fact that Medusa exploited the peak of horror movie box art by producing a double-sided sleeve. Side 2, which can seen directly above, is not too dissimilar, but two striking examples of canvas art crammed into one box is a dream come true for fans of the era.
A true time capsule for a pre-CGI period that is very dear to horror fanatics.
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 particular 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.