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?
R.O.T.O.R – Imperial Entertainment Corp. (1987)
This 1987 slice of b-movie box art is derivative marketing at its very finest. R.O.T.O.R or Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research is an amalgamation of 80s sci-fi icons, a crude cocktail of Robocop and The Terminator, with none of the technical nous or social commentary that made those movies so compelling.
For those bad movie aficionados out there, R.O.T.O.R is not a total loss. In fact, it is really quite wonderful. Technically incompetent and packed full of wooden performances, it is mystifying in its execution, played with such a straight hand that you often imagine Leslie Nielsen as the man behind the helmet.
The artwork itself is also eerily familiar to the poster for the original Mad Max. So close are the two that it’s hard to differentiate, and you wonder why those responsible were never sued for blatant infringement. Perhaps you can’t copyright an image per se, or maybe the powers that be saw R.O.T.O.R as posing no real threat.
Maybe they were simply unaware of this little-known gem. Their loss, I say.
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.
The Video Dead – Medusa Home Video (1987)
Ahhh, Medusa, how we miss you! Not only did you have arguably the coolest distributor logo of the 1980’s, 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 artform.
A true time capsule for a pre-CGI period that is very dear to horror fans.
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