I remember going to video stores when I was a kid and being fascinated by the horror VHS boxes. Some were cut and inserted into clamshells, while others went unsevered, poorly wrapped in plastic, splattered with stickers and stuffed with Styrofoam — the true terror trash like The House that Dripped Blood (presented by Elvira) was hidden in big boxes. The art was lurid and a bit off in places (did the Trancers VHS illustration ever capture Tim Thomerson?). Names like Vestron, Wizard, Media, Medusa made up my childhood and scared me even before I fell under the spell of horror. When I was 13 I started to seek them out, accompanied by the book The Phantom of the Movie’s Guide and the magazine GoreZone.
Now that I’m older in the age where DVD rules the Earth (with Blu-ray and downloads also on the ascent), I am always looking for those old VHS boxes. Not even to watch the tapes inside, which have probably been trashed all to hell by now, but to give them a good home before they disintegrate completely. If I can save one Key Video VHS from the rain (and I have when I found a copy of The Groove Tube on the streets), I’ve done a lot in this world.
I want to display them and remember being at Video Magic and being scared by the Evil Dead 2 posters and asking the folks at Video Video for their Stepfather 2 standee. Those were the days of grain and scan lines. I was always adjusting the “tracking.” I was watching films like Dolls and In the Company of Wolves for the first time.
I am not alone in my VHS love affair. A recent post on the MHVF noted that Arrow Films are re-releasing some of their titles under the Master of Giallo label with art inspired by old VHS box illustrations (street date June 29). A print magazine just popped up, Lunchmeat, which reviews old VHS flicks not yet on DVD. And Fred Adelman’s Critical Condition has been around for years in its now digital form, giving fans access to the best of the best in classic, sleazy VHS art since the boom of the home video revolution.
I bring to you the dawn of video (again). See you in Pittsburgh.
Fred Adelman started out self-publishing a bi-monthly newsletter in 1982 as a genre film critic who, to our great debt, has moved his archive online, cataloging the psychotropic films of yesteryear and their box cover art.
Heather Buckley: In a world where everything is going high-def, why are some genre fans obsessed with going lo-fi?
Fred Adelman: I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it’s a sense of nostalgia. It’s like stepping in a time machine and being whisked back to the days when you could walk into the numerous Mom and Pop video stores (before conglomerates like Blockbuster forced them out of business) and spend hours looking at the colorful VHS box art lining the shelves, trying to make up your mind what to bring home for the night. Nothing comes close to that experience today. It wasn’t necessarily about the films themselves, but the thrill of the hunt, discovering some unknown title and bringing it home to see for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, about 90% of the time the film was an utter disappointment, but that other 10%, wow, just wow.
HB: What is distinct about 80s VHS box covers? What is your most coveted?
FA: The artwork on the 80’s VHS box cover were colorful and lurid, almost always offering something that wasn’t even in the film. Some of them seemed to jump off the shelf and say “Take me home, now.” My most coveted would me Wizard Video’s big box of The Headless Eyes. The artwork, which consisted of a scantily-clad dead woman lying on the pavement next to single plucked-out human eye is a classic case of overstatement. I’ve come to love the film after many viewings, but it was Wizard’s big box art that originally grabbed me and never let go.
HB: Do you have any information about any of the artists that created the box art we all grew up with?
FA: Unfortunately, no. I’m afraid most of those artists will remain the unsung heroes of the VHS craze of the 80’s and we are all poorer-off for not knowing their names.
HB: Whose box art was the most fabulous? Almost like the Criterion box art of shlock.
FA: Once again, I believe Wizard Video was the leader in VHS box art, followed by Mogul Communications, Gorgon Video, Unicorn Video and Paragon Video (who always tried to use the original theatrical poster artwork on their front covers). You can see classic examples of artwork from these companies (and many more) by going to my Video Companies of the 80’s Project here!
HB: Will we see a day when most if not all of these old video libraries will be re-released on DVD?
FA: Sadly, no. We are now a society of perfectionists. We need our DVD’s (and their lousy Photoshopped covers) pristine and filled with “special features”. No company is going to spend the money needed to release the thousands (literally) of films that made it to VHS, but have yet to make it to DVD. There will be a few titles here and there that will be released by niche companies, but when we can’t even get a popular title like Ken Russell’s The Devils to get a legitimate DVD release, what chance do all the other films have? Unfortunately, the days of wonderment and awe are over with. Those who didn’t live through the VHS boom of the 80’s will never understand what it was like. The thrills, the chills and, sometimes, the bitter taste of being duped; we can look up anything on the internet today, which takes the mystery out of life and we still need mystery.
Josh Schafer and Ted Gilbert created Lunchmeat. I had the exquisite pleasure of picking up a copy at Forbidden Planet in NYC. A guy rang up my Fango and said I needed this magazine. Everyone needs Lunchmeat Magazine.
Heather Buckley: Why inspired you to create Lunchmeat?
Josh Schafer: I think it was more of a whimsical idea that turned into a fun project. Both Ted and I love VHS and enjoy writing, so it kind of just made sense to slap ’em together and make something we both thought would be cool. We would just be hanging out and the ideas just flowed so we decided to give it a shot. We really didn’t know if anyone would read it, let alone get into it; but we are stoked that people are into it. It fuels us to keep on writing about these films that we love so very much, to keep on sharing them and putting them out there. That said, I really don’t think Lunchmeat would have been possible if not for our good friend Jon Canady. He really made everything come together by designing the art for the first issue and giving the ‘zine its feel. Ted and I had ideas that we gave to him with images and general aesthetic, but he really made it come together wonderfully. He’s a film nerd himself, so he knew what he was doing.
HB: In a world where everything is going high-def, why are some genre fans obsessed with going lo-fi?
JS: You know, I think you kind of have to. I feel like the majority of the fans (myself included) into this genre always want more. They want to delve deeper into the depths of cinema obscurity to find something new and exciting. I can’t think of anyone into horror and sci-fi flicks that will just say “Alright, I have seen enough.” The rabid fan wants to discover new delights and experience sights they never fathomed existed; and the best way to find that kind of stuff is to turn away from Hi-Def and Blu-Ray. Don’t get me wrong. There are a great deal of terrific genre films coming out on DVD because of stellar companies like Synapse, Mondo Macabro etc… but the wealth of films that will never get a hi-def transfer let alone a DVD release is astounding. For these particular gems, the only way to see them is in a lo-fi setting and I think genre fans are catching on to that notion. Keep digging!
Aside from that, I think another huge factor is that the lo-fi stuff has a charm and appeal that hi-def just doesn’t possess. That battered, grainy look is something that I have grown to love from watching these kinds of films. It’s almost an inherent part of the films for me. Like the first time I saw Psychomania it was on a VHS I picked up for a buck a local farm market. The tape was thrashed; the picture jumped and the colors were all funky (in some parts it arguably made the trippy sequences even more trippy) but it made me remember the flick forever.
Tons of other movies are like this for me: Mother’s Day; Redneck Zombies; Video Violence, the list is immense. All of these films have DVD releases, but I am apt to throw in my VHS copy because the print on those is more nostalgic for me and provides an experience that re-mastered stuff just can’t duplicate. You watch an old VHS copy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre compared to the remastered DVD versions and I think you’ll see what I’m a talking about. Just think: this was how people watched back in 1985. That’s awesome, right?
HB: How obsessed are you with the likes of Vestron, Media Home Entertainment, Wizard?
JS: It’s funny because I think of the releasing companies for VHS being a lot like labels for CDs and records. The labels themselves had identities; they had nuances about them that, after you learned about them and what caliber of films they released, they have the potential to turn you on to more movies you may like. Just like a record label, the more major releasing companies tried to keep the quality to a certain degree, but of course, misfires did occur.
To this day, if I see something on Media, Vestron or Magnum Entertainment that I have never heard of, I will most likely pick it up just based on that. Those companies were always solid both in quality of the print and quality of the tape itself. I hate to pick on them (because I love them all) but just for the sake of comparison, Video Treasures and Goodtimes Video tapes are usually of inferior quality both with the tape and the print. Both of those two companies did some great stuff, though. Robot vs. Aztec Mummy — played that thing until it broke in my VCR.
Then you have companies like Super Video, Wizard Video and my personal favorite: Midnight Video. These companies did big boxes (Wizard did small boxes, too) that all had a similar layout save the actual artwork for the film. It basically had a framework around the art that made them instantly recognizable; and even more fun, makes them seem like a set. I saw a pic of a buddy’s collection and he had all of the Super Video releases lined up in a row on his shelf. It really does look like a planned set. It’s awesome to look at. I have yet to attain my Midnight Video “set,” but when I do, it will be glorious. Those Midnight big boxes are crazy hard to come by.
In a way, the companies themselves are almost as important as the films. If these companies didn’t dig them up and make the films available, we may never have a chance to see them at all. Not that they were all doing it for that reason but the service is still there.
HB: Do you research different box art artists?
JS: Man, I wish I could. I just really don’t know where to start. There’s just so much art and so little info given about the artists. Ted and I have discussed quite a few times the lack of credits given for artwork on these boxes. Once in a while you will find a cover with a small signature, but most of the time there’s nothing. I wish IMDB would have a section where they would list who did promotional, poster and releasing art for a film. Now that would be fantastic. It would be great to see how prolific or transient someone was in regard to creating these terrific visuals.
Plus, it really would be most interesting to see the names that created the artwork, because honestly, that’s one of the best things about these types of films. Amazing, stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks images that will make you remember it forever (and make you pick up the video). It’s a real shame this stuff is practically anonymous.
HB: What are your earliest memories of VHS box covers? I can describe, in detail, the box art I used to see at the video store. Some, even this day, I have not seen but the cover of Dr. Hackenstein and the Gore-Met, Zombie Chef From Hell, will live with me forever.
JS: I would most definitely agree with you: it’s my visits to the local video store. I would get so stoked going into my local Mom and Pop video shop as a kid (R.I.P Video Vision). I would just stand in that 8×8 cube of movies towering over me and try to absorb as much as I could until my Mom would tell me to hurry up and pick one.
Tons of covers have stuck with me over the years and still bring back those wonderful memories of being able to pick your poison at such an early age. Covers like Mother’s Day, Blood Salvage, Mountaintop Motel Massacre, Basket Case, Mausoleum… the list is enormous. Those covers made me pick up those movies again and again. I can still clearly hear my Mom saying “You’ve already seen this one.” and my reply; “I want to see it again.” Those were the days, man. Those were the days.
Of course, the only bummer was you couldn’t take the box home with you. You got those plastic clamshells. But I did get to buy some of those tapes when Video Vision closed down. Got that copy of Eaten Alive. Yes, I did. It may sound a bit corny, but it was a very memorable, special time walking around that store and being able to take home the videos I rented as a kid.
If you see an abandoned horror VHS please handle with care. It may contain a precious memory a horror fan held dear a long, long time ago, regardless of the badly painted butchered woman on the cover. Now laserdisc, that’s a werewolf of a different color.
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