VHS Revival looks back at some of box art’s greatest triumphs
The Stuff – New World Video (1985)
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 hidden threats of processed food in a globalised market.
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 as the weirdly sentient stuff attempts Earthly domination.
This US box art encapsulates the movie quite brilliantly. The image itself is such an eye-catching eyesore, a suburban family spilling out of a 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 50s cold war sci-fi culminating in a tide of body-snatching gunk. The Stuff: 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. Chock-full 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, a movie indicative of maverick producers Golan-Globus, who would sign Hooper to a three-picture contract as they looked to branch out and compete with Hollywood’s big boys.
The story of a group of astronauts who discover three humanoid creatures aboard a lost spacecraft, the screenplay goes from Alien to possession movie to monster movie, Mathilda May’s impossibly beautiful Space Girl wreaking havoc on the streets of London, a purge that culminates in a quasi-zombie flick of delightful absurdity.
The movie’s box art communicates its fantastical tone and emphasis on sexuality as a tool for manipulation. Its eye-catching neon colours are indicative of the period, a nebulous horizon, powdered red, complimenting the blinding pallor of the film’s pod-bound creatures. The relatively calm images of floating astronauts subtly frames the back cover captions without overwhelming them.
There is also some thinly-veiled religious iconography, which proves effective in strengthening the film’s celestial appeal. In true 80s home video fashion, the cover 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 an audacious slice of cheapo 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 UK, the movie is style over substance at a time when music video techniques were becoming central to feature productions, delivering an MTV-friendly vehicle that teenage horror fans could sink their teeth into, with 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 (claw ‘tearing’ through cover), but instead of a werewolf we have painted nails and a salacious female with fangs, a savvy aphrodisiac for teenage sexuality that saw rentals for this cinematic oddity soar.
Troll 2 – Columbia Tristar (1990)
Troll 2 is a film that demands scholastic attention in the realms of ‘bad movie’ inanity. Regarded by many as one of the most nonsensical movies ever committed to celluloid, it’s the story of a juvenile nightmare, murderous trolls and bucket loads of strange gook that more than lives up to the decade’s obsession with all things neon.
It’s 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. They even made a documentary about it titled ‘Best Worst Movie’.
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, the story’s peewee protagonist doing 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 some of you remember this one rather vividly.
Freddy’s Revenge – Warner Home Video (1985)
On the subject of vivid recollections, how about this beauty?
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, one that would prove a highly divisive entry.
It isn’t all bad. The movie features one of the best protagonists in the series, some mesmerising practical effects and the kind of gay subtext that ranks with The Village People for utter transparency, though director Jack Sholder’s decision to ditch Craven’s game-changing concept for a straight-up possession story didn’t sit well with many fans of the original, a fact that almost saw the series shelved.
That 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. Despite the movie’s drawbacks, it might be argued that Freddy has never looked scarier than he does in Freddy’s Revenge, and Humphreys is able to perfectly capture his frazzled menace, a yellow school bus, driven in the movie by Krueger himself, hurtling beneath the character’s canvas omnipotence.
The back cover also focuses on the killer’s infamous glove, a phallic extension of evil 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 home video boom, 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’s pretty straightforward, an undead zombie using an unplugged TV as a supernatural gateway, but most impressive is the artwork itself. A grungy explosion of evil sublimely executed, it represents everything that is great about the era of canvas art promotion, recalling the great metal album covers of the 1980s and the infamous Satanic Panic that swept suburban America.
What makes this one particularly appealing among horror fans is the fact that Medusa treated renters to an incredible double-sided sleeve, which speaks to the importance of promotional art to low-budget horror during the largely independent home video boom.
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.
An 80s time capsule that has become very dear to VHS collectors and horror fanatics in general.
Brain Damage – Delta Video (1988)
Exploitation maestro Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage is a gruesome delight with a somewhat sobering 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. 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, something this image deliciously encapsulates.
The movie is something of a paradox: lighthearted yet harrowing, utterly absurd yet hard to stomach. Thanks in part to the choice of stills featured on the back cover, I think this effort sums up that blend rather perfectly.
Jason Lives – CIC Video (1986)
Paramount Pictures advertised the fourth instalment of their money-spinning franchise as The Final Chapter, but with so much money at stake you could be forgiven for taking their claims with a rather hefty pinch of salt.
It would take two years for Paramount 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 muted 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 arguably the first in the series to fully embrace Jason as the movie’s faux-protagonist and a nod to the old Universal monsters of yore. After an unlikely lightning-triggered resurrection, Voorhees displays superhuman powers comparable to a superhero, and the giant, light-projecting hockey mask featured here is almost a nod to the ubiquitous Batsignal. Similarly, the ‘Jason Lives’ inscribed headstone makes reference to the character’s quite astonishing powers of regeneration, as well as foreshadowing the inevitable spate of deaths that will follow.
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 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 is Stuart Gordon’s Dolls, which was actually one of the better sub-genre offerings, centring on a group of guests at a country mansion who succumb to the evil machinations of a toy maker beset on turning them into a part of his growing 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 as for those of you with a doll collection waiting back at home…
I don’t even want to think about it.
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 (tell me that didn’t play on your mind), the movie featured some rather striking imagery, and was something of a macabre affair for a movie with a PG-13 rating.
A portal to hell suddenly appearing in your garden is totally plausible when you’re a preteen, and the extent of your imagination could be both a blessing and a hindrance, depending on the time of day. Another film tapping into the infamous Satanic Panic, that portal is opened up thanks to an evil-summoning rock record, the kind parents were burning in a widespread display of irrationality that proved scarier than any fictional work of horror.
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 deeper, and they take quite the literal approach, treating us to a clawed demon peering out from the bowels of some unseen hell.
This is a fine example of succinct promotion, our canvas artist capturing the story’s central threat while incorporating the movie’s titles. It also establishes location and theme, everything tied in a cute commercial package.
They don’t get more effective than this.
Night of the Creeps – HBO Video (1986)
They say the eyes are a window into 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.
Penned by cult genre director Fred Dekker, Night of the Creeps is a fun ode to 50s monster movies wrapped in 80s high school convention; a fun, practical effects heavy horror featuring alien lifeforms, mad axe men and mindless zombie prom dates looking to steal more than your virginity. It also features genre legend 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 you consider the vaguely grasped evil forming behind his clouded retinas.
Beyond the delightful subtext, this is simply a wonderful image, and a glorious monument to a lost art form.