In an era where judging a movie by its box cover meant a whole bunch, these VHS box covers certainly caught your attention.
I was inspired by watching Survival of the Film Freaks, to come up with a roster of favorite VHS box covers. Well, that and Liz Williams also suggested we talk VHS box art…. so, there ya go, Liz!
The VHS era, covering the times between going to the drive-in and the advent of DVD’s, was a primordial soup of bad horror movies with great box art. Film reviews weren’t easy to come by in the age before the internet, so you often were left to picking movies by their box covers. No Rotten Tomatoes, No Metacritic. Just your local newspaper critic. It’s part of the reason why Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were such powerful tastemakers, they had a national audience that very few others did… and they usually did not review movies like The Boogens, Blood Beach, or The Nest.
Now, don’t get me wrong, many of these movies screamed “This movie sucks!” But it also suggested that… you want to see it anyways. Boobs, blood, and airbrushed art were the mainstays of the era. To get your attention, and your hard earned three bucks, they would be very upfront about it. Look at me! Look at me! Boobs! Machete to the face! Tentacle monsters! Oh, did I forget to mention boobs? For our younger fans out there, who have been largely subjected to the current superior dramatic indie horror fare, this era would seem pretty juvenile. And, yeah, it was. But we still loved it.
In coming up with this particular list, I’ve left off a few of my favorites, since they’ve already been cited previously in our blog section: Movie Posters We Love. Prophecy. The Stuff. The Lift. Happy Birthday to Me. Those were some of my favorite posters/box covers, and one of the movies (The Stuff) was actually pretty entertaining. But, this was a time when you went ahead and too a chance on a movie by looking at its cover, so you’d see something like From Beyond, you’d figure “Why not? It certainly looks cool.”. So you went ahead and took a chance on one of these Unless you were an avid reader of Fangoria, you probably had no idea if the movie was awfully good, awful-good, or awful-bad! Here are some of the highlights of VHS era box art, movies emblematic of the era.
Side note: There is a certain charm as how beat up these box covers tend to be. Unlike vinyl records, comic books, or baseball cards, I’m not sure that there’s a collector’s market for a mint-in-box 9.5-grade Frankenhooker. I did check on e-Bay, and you can get one for $50.
This film is the butt of so many jokes about bad horror movies! You have to admit that this movie caught your attention when you saw it on the shelf. The name alone would at least make you pause. Somewhat forgotten about this movie is that it actually featured a couple of pretty good actors, John Heard and Daniel Stern who would go on to bigger and (much) better things. And, who can’t resist the acronym for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller? CHUD! CHUD! CHUD! Oh… the movie sucks. Just sayin’.
The ultimate urban legend movie! The pet alligator who gets flushed down the toilet and lurks in the city sewers to feast on the residents of Chicago. That is one mean looking gator, and the practical effects are fun, if a bit stiff. The gator is straight from the Bruce the Shark lineage of practical monstrosities. It doesn’t do the twist and roll that is so familiar with actual alligator attacks, rather it does a chomp, chomp, chomp swallow you whole move. A stupid and fun film, the box art did not let me down. You want a super-sized killer alligator? What you see is what you get!
3. Street Trash
Unlike many over-the-top box covers of the era, this one actually delivers the sloppy gory mess depicted on the cover. Tasteless, poorly acted, and mean-spirited… and yet… kinda fun. Street Trash delivers upon its promise of body horror and the sloppy remains of some serious bad drinking decisions. This is lowest common denominator schlock. This movie will make you want to take a shower after you’ve seen it as if the guy who dissolves into the toilet managed to splatter on you through your TV screen.
4. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Sleazy misogyny in a box. Nothing says EXPLOITATION MOVIE! like the Slumber Party Massacre box art. The stance of the killer. The phallic drill. Four nearly naked women. It’s… well… it’s SLEAZY. The preposterousness of the movie just adds to the legend of this movie. A cordless power drill? I hope he brought extra batteries. And, it’s not hard to parry a power drill bit. Also, aren’t these ladies a bit old to be having a slumber party? They all look like they are in their late twenties. But if you are a fifteen-year-old boy trying to rent a really inappropriate movie, here you go. Although, admittedly, the movie isn’t as raunchy as the cover would suggest.
5. Critters 2 (1988)
Wait, what am I looking at here? A sphere of critters? The Gremlins copycat ups the ante with the giant rolling sphere of bitey creatures. Sure looks like fun, doesn’t it? Something right out of a Japanese video game like Beautiful Katamari. The Critters manage to be cute and slightly scary, and there’s a bonus of some comedy involving space-faring bounty hunters, so it hits on a lot of fun gateway horror notes. As junior varsity franchise gateway horror sequels go… it’s worth seeing. I guess that’s triple damning with faint praise.
6. The Company of Wolves(1984)
There’s a wolf muzzle coming out of that dude’s mouth! Wow, that’s, well that’s just nasty. I have to see that! In the early eighties we had three notable werewolf movies, An American Werewolf in London (Superior), The Howling (pretty good), and The Company of Wolves (Also, pretty good, and this time loosely tied to Little Red Riding Hood). The wolf emerging from the body rather than transforming is a slightly new take on the idea. The wolf that emerges is considerably more convincing than the final werewolf of either of the other two films. The bloody, flesh-stripping second transformation is much more puppet-ish, and though gross, not very convincing.
Pumpkinhead, the monster, is pretty awesome. Pumpkinhead the movie, not so much. Carlo Rambaldi’s fantastic creature effects really steal the show here, and this monstrous spirit of vengeance is front and center for the movie. And, to be honest, it kind of has to be. Not much really works, storywise here, and even with Lance Henrickson on board, the acting is rather unimpressive. But those practical effects still wow to this day, so hey, might as well put it on the box cover right? It’s not like the story is going to get people to rent it.
Another movie that does not live up to the promise of the box art, but that trippy and toothy worm critter sue catches the eye, doesn’t it? Parasite is about as poorly acted a movie as exists, which makes it all the more remarkable that this is the movie that gave Demi Moore her start on the path to superstardom. Cheap 3D effects were boasted to try and capitalize on a Z-grade knockoff of the chest burster from Alien. But this movie looked and felt like it was produced from loose change found between the sofa cushions. Also, if you watch the trailer, it has the least ominous voice-over of any horror movie trailer I’ve seen.
9. Chopping Mall
A bag full of body parts, that’s the promise of Chopping Mall. Plus, a fantastic tagline of “Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg.” (Golf claps… nicely done.) The movie, alas, is a pile of shit. (Barbara Crampton not withstanding.) The box cover suggests mad slasher, but the antagonists are these very violent but not-scary-at-all robots, that are armed security guards gone amok. Plenty of killing goes on, but the robots are decidedly clunky. The cover art here I would qualify as a bait-and-switch. Terrible electrocution effects also are a bummer. But that art! Oh that shopping bag suggests so much more.
10. The Kindred (1987)
A fantastic image, with the monster in the baby bottle. Oscar winner Rod Steiger is slumming it here, in this otherwise forgettable mad scientist tale. It brings the mutant monster brother, like Basket Case, but it lacks the sheer audacity and creepiness of Belial. There are some fun practical effects and the monster looks rather Lovecraftian, but instead of an inspired little horror flick, you get the sense that this was one of those studio movie attempts to make an indie flick, but they came up short and went straight to video with this. The acting talent is solid, but you know the film is in trouble with this many veteran actors none of whom is “known” for being in The Kindred. But again, great box cover art! Want to take a drink from that bottle?
Are there any VHS covers that ruled the video store where you went? Or, are you a younger fan, just finding out about the joys of browsing the VHS wall?