The Monstrosity Exhibition: Lost Terrors of VHS Sleeve Cover Art

Video World was tucked off into a topiary-barricaded alcove of the Stony Point Shopping Centre, a swift five-minute Schwinn sojourn from my front door.
No bigger than a boutique, this early-80's video store was infinitesimal in comparison to the cancerous sprawl of the Blockbuster Video chain that had begun to malignantly metastasize its way through America’s suburban strip malls, eventually putting all the mom-and-pop operations like Video World out of business. I was fortunate enough to push through my preadolescence before the big blue-and-yellow Blockbuster awnings started cropping up all across my hometown. Walking into Video World was like immersing myself in a Betamax Shangri-La. Every last inch of wall space, from floor-to-ceiling, was lined entirely in video cassettes. At 8 years old, I had officially found my home-away-from home. Each 4 by 7-and-a-half inch VHS cassette contained a different story, just waiting to be told – and I made it my mission to watch them all. Or as many as my allowance would allow.
Hidden at the rear of the store, buried behind comedy, family, drama (but before you reached the “private room” of adult films at the very, very back) – there remained a single row of videos off-limits to children. Little boys and girls were not allowed to rent the videos from back here at the shadowy edge of the forest.
The horror section.
A kid like me couldn’t help but feel a shift in the atmosphere upon entering the aisle, suddenly surrounded by so many R-rated movies. The carpet seemed to darken, stained somehow. Even the air had a miasma of decrepit breath to it, thicker than the air in the children's section. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be here, which only made me want to explore even more – go deeper, take just another couple steps in, see if I could make my way past the A’s, past the B’s, even the C’s, until I was utterly immersed in the aisle, enveloped in images of terror from all around.
This – this was where fear resided.
Every kind of fear you could think of, or not think of, was right here – captured on magnetic tape and sealed inside its own cardboard box – little gift-wrapped packages presented in a tableau of carnage.
Deadly Spawn. Faces of Death. Def-Con 4. Xtro. The Stepfather. The Driller Killer. The Stuff. Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. I Spit On Your Grave. The Dead Pit. Black Roses. Headless Eyes. Magic. Black Christmas. He Knows You’re Alone. Class of Nuke 'Em High. Cellar Dweller. Mother's Day. The Prowler.
So go ahead, kid – I dare you. Slip a video off the shelf.
Pick any horror film and take the cassette into your hand. Rub your finger over the cardboard cover with its softened edges. Feel how fuzzy and worn the corners are?
Now look at the cover.
Video after video displayed a frozen moment of terror – either a snapshot of a victim caught in that instant just before the axe comes crashing down upon their cranium or of some hideous monstrosity still covered in the gory remains of its last meal. Too many to list – but I can still remember them all. The corpse of a college coed sitting upright in a rocking chair, a clear plastic bag wrapped around her head. A pair of eyeballs slithering away from the very sockets of their owner. The silhouette of a man wielding a butcher knife, only inches away from stabbing his stepdaughter and her defenseless dog.
Most of these movies have long since drifted off into a sea of beta-obscurity, lost forever in a back catalogue of forgettable movies. But somehow, their cover art remains indelibly rooted within my subconscious. Their Photoshopped tentacles have wrapped themselves around the deeper recesses of my brain and refuse to let go. The image of Freddy Krueger from the front cover of Nightmare on Elm Street II. The pool of melted human remains from the front cover of The Stuff.
Even to this day I can conjure up distinct images of grotesqueries from any number of video cassette covers, like photos displayed in a gallery. Your friendly neighborhood video store is presenting its own art show of terror. A monstrosity exhibition.
I was too young to actually watch any of these movies at the time – but I didn't need to. The cover artwork was enough. The shock of the image had a searing effect on my subconscious, imprinting its visual signature on my little boy's brain in far more damaging (and therefore effective) ways. The sleeve activated my imagination by exposing it to images of visceral horror more unnerving than the movies themselves.
This was the true horror here: Not the films and the stories they told, but the preadolescent-mind taking that snippet of information from the front cover (an act of violence, a look of terror, a monster) and letting a narrative develop from there.
For the curious 8 year old who gets lost in the woods of his local video store, entering into the horror section is like being a kid in an anti-candy store. Look – but don’t rent. All a child has are the covers. For an adult in the decision-making process of what-to-rent, the images on the video sleeve are a point of entry into these movies – while for the child, they are the movie.
The images alone are their total and finite experience with the film.
There is nothing else beyond that singular isolated picture.
Viewing these movies becomes completely moot for the underage viewer. It is, within these proposed rules of engagement, totally unnecessary to watch the actual film in order to receive its intended effect. On the contrary, most of the time it’s better not to watch them. The story told by the filmmakers is rendered null and void by the personal interplay between our brimming imagination and the video sleeve itself – taking the raw material of an image and fabricating our personal narrative around it, tailoring them to fit our individual fears. Our imaginations are completely unhampered by hammy acting and sloppy special effects. Budgetary constraints and a lack of talent are no longer an issue. We are absorbing the visual vocabulary of the video's cover art to conjure up a more personalized horror. It is ours, all ours. We created this nightmare. We are making up our own horror movies – and we are the stars now.
Which is all to say: Mission accomplished. As a devout horror fan, I want to lay claim to the idea that the impact of these movies didn't begin and end with the viewing of the movies themselves, but the very ritual of engaging with the tangible aspects of these VHS tapes. The act of entering into the video store and walking down the horror aisle was integral to this ceremony, if not vital – immersing myself in the visual stimulus of over a hundred different horrific images, navigating the aisle until zeroing in on that one video cassette cover and letting it tell its own story within my imagination.

Written and directed by Ronald W. Moore.

Designing VHS covers for horror films is a lost art of inducing terror in children too young to watch the movies themselves. As effective salesmanship, these individual images were here to tempt the prospective renter into taking their movie home for the night. The need for an illustration so visually arresting that it convinced us to choose it over all others quickly became a game of graphic design one-upmanship, these sleeves presenting an image that presumably distilled the very essence of the movie onto the front cover – though, more often than not, the cover tended to be the best part of the movie.
Take H.R. Giger's poster for the 1985 film Future-Kill. Writer-director Ronald W. Moore allegedly begged Giger to design the poster art for this sci-fi/horror schlocker. Giger himself had absolutely no involvement in the actual production of the film whatsoever – but his slithery image found its way onto the movie’s cassette sleeve, luring naive renters into watching this fraternity brothers vs. mutant punks yarn. That black and white tendril of a finger stretches over the face of some alien-like mutant, more mechanical than organic, presenting the prospective renter with an unfulfilled vision of horror Future-Kill itself never quite ponies up to. The movie itself had little relation with what its cover promised, much to the dismay of those duped into dropping two bucks for a one-night rental. Future-Kill is often criticized for its cassette cover bait-and-switch – but it does testify to the power of a striking icon. The film itself dissipates from our memories, while Giger's cover design still lingers.

Written by Ed Naha. Directed by John Carl Buechler.

The cover for 1986's Troll is one of the more deceptively simple boxes on the horror section shelf. The image on the front cover is a close-up of – yes, a troll, complete with deep-set eyes and pointed ears. Both of its gnarled hands are gripping a child's rubber ball laced in yellow, red, and blue rings. The creature seems to be holding the ball out towards the viewer as a gift.
The tagline, printed alongside the troll's forehead, reads – "Come closer."
The quotation marks are there to indicate that the troll itself is saying this, as if to beckon me to take the ball out from its hands. It's mine. I lost it, it rolled away from me, he found it and now he wants to give it back. But to do so, to take back my ball – first, I must take a strep forward. I must somehow reduce the distance between the two of us and render myself even more vulnerable to this strange little creature. By obeying the troll's invitation, I had to willfully disavow everything my parents taught me: Don't talk to strangers, don't take candy from strangers, don't listen to trolls.
Two individuals, the troll and myself, were now locked in some sort of struggle – his video box in my hands, my ball in his. A decision had to be made: Should I or shouldn't I obey the creature’s innocuous request? What would happen to me if I came just a little bit closer?
Watching the film itself years later was inevitably a letdown. Nothing within the movie even came close to matching that considerable level of dread conjured up by its VHS sleeve. Not a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus, not an elderly June Lockhart – not even a stoned Sonny Bono could strike that same cord of terror within me that I had first felt by merely holding onto the box in the video store, however many years ago, suddenly forced into a life-or-death game of tug-of-war with this runty-looking troll.

Written and directed by Fred Dekker.

I never could muster up the courage to rent Fred Dekker’s 1986 cult classic Night of the Creeps as a kid. My loss. Creeps is such a love letter to horror films that I regret not having encountered it sooner. Though it is a far more innocuous cover than such brutal movies as Cannibal Apocalypse, what Creeps offered was a certain level of narrative interplay that I couldn't help but feel, as a ten year old, uncomfortable engaging in.
The image is this: A window-paned door. We are ostensibly inside a house, our house, looking out through the window. Just on the other side – there is a young man. Dead. Zombified. In a tuxedo. His otherwise clean-cut and attractive face is laced in blood. His eyes have milked over. In his hand – a bouquet of roses, their petals drenched in blood. He has thrust the bouquet through the window, towards us, shattered glass in mid-splinter showering everywhere.
The tagline: The good news is your date is here. The bad news is… He’s dead.
Campy? Most definitely. But it’s that level of interplay that made these sleeves so much fun. If you were willing as a kid to play along, to allow your imagination to engage with the cover – any horror was possible. It all begins with the raw visual and textual information from the sleeve – but from there, it's up to the non-renter to take this data and extrapolate upon it however their imagination feels fit, stemming off into any number of offshoot narratives that encompass the vocabulary of the video.
First off – I am presumably not the intended target of this attack, given the fact that I’m not this zombie-dude’s date. That said, however – I’m the one being attacked here. The title itself proved confusing for me as I tried to comprehend just what these creeps were and why exactly this was supposed to be their night. Is my date a creep? Is our evening on the town a part of this proverbial night of creeps? Creeps, plural – as in, there are more creeps out there tonight. So where are the rest of them right now? Suddenly, I’m looking over my shoulder in hopes of making sure that I’m still alone in the horror section. I had a part to play – and here I was, playing it. All of a sudden, I'm some eighteen year old girl (presumably), waiting for my date to arrive and pick me up, only to discover he's one real big creep. And there are more creeps coming, as I've been told by the helpful and informative VHS cover.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan.

Somehow I did get the chance to catch Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves when I was younger – though truth be told, most of its soft-core art-house meanderings went right over my ten-year-old head. All for the better, frankly. I remember thinking this movie was a little too mushy for my pre-puberty tastes. That said, the video cover’s fusion of Grimm’s fairy tales and lycanthropic-horror was such an assault on my senses and sensibilities that I still can’t shake it.
The image stems from the film’s model of werewolf transformation. Rather than the human body altering itself into the beast, in Wolves the skin is literally shed like a rubber suit in order for the wolf to manifest. It lives within the individual, independent from the individual – and therefore, far more uncontrollable.
What the picture on the VHS sleeve displays is a bare-chested man in mid-transformation – his neck cricked back, eyes wide open in extreme agony. His lips are peeled disproportionately back as the snarling snout of a wolf slowly reaches out from the tight confines of the man’s mouth. The beast must rip itself free from its fleshly detention – and here we see it tearing this man apart, from the inside out, as a busty young woman in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit watches on in distress.
There’s a palpable sense of violence in the image. Incapable of embracing the sexual metaphors of this image as a kid, I did pick up on the notion that brewing inside us all is something far more primal than our individual exteriors can oftentimes express. Here, relenting control over our own body is an excruciatingly painful endeavor.
Is there something like that brewing inside of me?

Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel. Directed by Sam Raimi.

Full disclosure: My enthusiasm for this movie will never wane. I want to believe I'm a star pupil of Sam Raimi's School of Gonzo Film Pastiche Appreciation, taking to heart one of his film’s primary lessons that horror and comedy can go fluidly hand-in-hand – blending Romero's Night of the Living Dead effortlessly with The Three Stooges.
But before I was old enough to rent the movie, there was its cover to contend with – complete with its intense close-up of a bare skull, a pair of eyeballs settled into its sockets staring right back at me, sans eyelids, sans flesh, sans all that much distance between us.
Its tagline: Kiss your nerves good-bye!
Seemed like the guy on the cover sure had. His nerves had long since been stripped. There was nothing left of him but the bone. The eyes were all that remained – and here they were, silently accosting me. I couldn't tell if this decimated individual was in pain or in a fit of horrific ecstasy – but the eyes continue to stare, boring their way into my psyche while their intent remains a mystery. There was no way, no power imaginable in my possession that would allow me to let go of those eyes. They followed me through the video store. Stepping back, they kept staring. Stepping to the left, they only rolled with me. And there was never any flesh left over the bone to twitch, no eyelids left to flinch. All they could do was look – look at me, watching on as I ran out of the aisle. Grinning.


Sadly, the demise of VHS cassettes inevitably brought along the decline of this level of horror film interplay. Once DVDs overtook the market and video chains spread across the country, cover art began to matter less. Quantity was now key. Multiple copies now crammed the shelves. Rather that have a video facing outwards on the shelf, most video chains chose to stock their older movies in a library-style, exposing their spines and nothing else. The eye had nothing to latch onto but the title. There was no visual image to engage with. The imagination was lost.

Another offense brought along by DVD was the sacrilegious decision to redesign a movie's cover art. When most films made the transition from VHS to DVD, often their own packaging was rebranded, doing away with the original iconography of the film in favor of some new whitewashed, Photoshopped image.
But the final nail in the coffin was Netflix. Blockbuster may have helped hasten the decline of VHS cover art, but the true death blow was dealt by Netflix's ubiquity. In a single swing of the mail-order axe, Netflix has left us to drown in a river of red, an endless stream of bloody envelopes shipped directly to your very door. Individual packaging no longer exists, thanks to Netflix's insistence on mailing movies in their own generic, type-written sleeves. All I see now is red. Red, everywhere.
I can't hop on my bike and ride the five minutes to Video World now. They shut their doors years back. As did Blockbuster. Now, thanks to Netflix – the movies come to me. But in the process, I lost my imagination. Video stores have been rendered utterly obsolete now, replaced by virtual video stores that privatize the decision making process so much, too much – all I'm left with is the movie the filmmakers intended for me to watch, rather than the movie their covers manifested inside my mind.
I can't help but feel sad for the subsequent generation of ten year olds hoping to find their horror films. The horror section no longer exists at the back of the store, hiding – waiting for them to enter at their own risk. Now it’s only a click away. They no longer have to engage with a tangible product, taking the cassette into their hands (if they dare). A jpg of death just doesn't have the same ring to it. Our fear stimulus is dwindling due to this digital distancing-effect. There's no threat in front of the computer screen. There is no longer an image in which our subconscious can adhere itself to because the value of an image has been diminished by Netflix's persistent packing-brand, diluting the impact of the movie in our own memory.
We no longer have opportunity to manifest our own horror movies based upon the visual vocabulary of a video/DVD's cover, losing a level of engagement that actually enhanced the movie-viewing experience.
We no longer walk through that dark woods at the video store. That element of threat on the shelves found in the horror section, the very immersion into violence and horror – is long since dead.
Heaven pity you children, too young to rent these movies. How will you film your own nightmares now?
You'll just have to find another way of frightening yourselves.

December 6, 2011

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