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The Monstrosity Exhibition: Lost Terrors of VHS Sleeve Cover Art

April 19, 2010 By: Category: Horror Films You'll Never See, Movie Reviews, Movies

The Monstrosity Exhibition: Lost Terrors of VHS Sleeve Cover Art
written by Clay McLeod Chapman

Black Christmas

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 childrens 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.

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6 Comments to “The Monstrosity Exhibition: Lost Terrors of VHS Sleeve Cover Art”

  1. God, I loved “Troll.” I must’ve watched it a million times.

    I had the same experience with these covers as you. Where I grew up we had Video Land, where all the employees roller skated. It was awesome and enormous and had more obscure titles than I Blockbuster or Hollywood Video would have. It was the only store in the county that had “Shock Treatment,” the little known Rocky Horror semi sequel I was obsessed with.

    Two horror covers I really, really remember being obsessed with:

    1. “Blood Beach” on which a girl in a bikini is being sucked into the sand.

    2. “Gator Bait” a girl in daisy dukes writhes around on a log

  2. “Blood Beach” was awesome, Josh! Monster worms tunneling through the sand!

  3. God yes, I remember those days. Looking at video casettes and thinking “Gee, this must be really good!”. Conguring up terrifying images in my brain. Most of the movies turning out quite uninteresting. While some others were actually pretty good, but it’s true, nothing could match the movies that played out in our heads. Movies like the “Basket Case” series, “The Stuff”, “Pumpkinhead”, “Jason Goes To Hell”, “Night of the Demons 2″ and so on. I remember my imagination would get carried away sometimes even if the cover never looked realistic at all. I remember the moment I laid eyes on “Carnosaur”, it looked like the best movie there. Why? it certainly wasn’t the “realistic” dinosaur on the cover, and far from a work of art, but my imagination saw a movie scarier than “Jurassic Park” in my mind. I remember seeing the cover of “Tale’s From The Crypt: Demon Knight”. This was long before I knew the Cryptkeeper had a “Live Action” appearance, and was horrified by his look! As a child, you get scared by the strangest things because your imagination gets carried away. (The Eel from super mario 64 scared the crap out of me, I was having nightmares for weeks.)

    I remember the movie that captured my imagination the most though, after I got over my fear of dinosaurs, it turned to the ocean depths. I has an obsession with Giant Squid, my parents knew this, and one day they were reading some movie club thing they had, colombia house or something, and they caught site of a movie, Peter Benchley’s “The Beast”. They immediately said, “Tommy, were gonna get this movie for you!”, they showed me the picture, and I went silent. My mom told me of dreams she had of buying me that movie, while I told her I was having dreams of being in that movie, killed by a giant squid over and over in the twilight of the ocean depths.

    I will always miss the old small town video stores, and their Art Galleries of movies I wasn’t sure if I could see. (oddly enough, my parents didn’t mind me seeing horror movies as a kid. My imagination was scarier to me, and my parents eventual gave up covering my eyes at scary parts cuz I used to tell them off.)

  4. Release the Kraken of your imagination, Thomas!

    …And I totally hear you on the “Carnosaur” front. I think that’s exactly what Roger Corman was hoping for: Convincing movie-viewers that his film was a gorier, scarier version of “Jurassic Park.” He at least got the gorier part right!

  5. I feel quite lucky in my little town of Scarborough, England, that we still have an independant video store which as well as having a much better DVD selection than the local blockbuster also still rents out films on VHS. They’ve diminished in number and quality over the years but there’s still an entire wall of them and many are still packaged in their original artwork. I remember spending hours as a kid pulling out the ’18′ rated titles and examining the cover art with a mixture of lurid curiosity and fear. The one’s that really stuck in my mind were Chopping Mall, The Dead Pit, Basket Case 1,2 and 3, Troll and The Toxic Avenger. Each created a whimsical nightmare in my brain that for the most part the actual films never lived up to, but i’ll always cherish my memories of those grotesque images. It really is sad that you rarely see that sort of cover art around anymore.

  6. I love the FUTURE KILL cover. Rented it as a kid, I really enjoyed it. I own the DVD now. Its obviously Edwin Neal’s character Splatter on the cover.