In the Stuff to Blow Your Mind episode "The Horror," I chat a little bit about the horror movies at the local video store -- movies I never got to rent as a child, but movies with garish VHS covers capable of traumatizing and inspiring young minds like mine.
I mean, the 90s video store was such a fantastic thing -- this gallery of little painted boxes, each one encapsulating an idea. But unlike a book in a library or anything on the Internet, there was no instant gratification. You actually had to rent this crap to learn more -- and that simply wasn't an option for a kid like me. What the cover art hinted at (and maybe the back of the box if you were daring and dad was over in the war section) , your imagination continued to build upon.
And build upon for years...
At least, until you were finally old enough and bored enough to hunt some of these flicks down. YouTube and Wikipedia entries would ultimately drown out most of the mysteries. But I still get a sense of that old feeling when I walk through Atlanta's Videodrome rental store, where the various foreign, horror and video nasty DVD covers still echo those wood-paneled halls of horror and wonder I walked through in little old Paris or Fayetteville, TN.
So here are 10 VHS covers that had a profound impact on my young mind back then. Some of them horrified me. Some inspired me to write horror myself. Let's revisit them.
The Sell: That's the German VHS box, but the US version was pretty much the same. In short, horrible green little goblins IN SUSPENDERS will swim up through the toilet and bite you in the butt. Maybe your other bits as well.
The Film I Imagined: Non-stop scenes of horrible green monsters eating people to death on the toilet.
The Reality: One of many cheesy "Gremlins" knockoffs, it's full of bad puppets and worse everything else. Fun in a way, but zero scares.
The Scar: I spent years fearing the inevitable ghoulie invasion from the toilet bowl. In fact, after I saw it for the first time, I distinctly remember returning home and eventually pooping my pants because I was too scared to go to the bathroom. The trailer for the 1988 film "slugs" also featured a toilet attack, and the whole thing happened again.
The Sell: SOMETHING turns men inside out while they're still alive. Apparently it happens after they swallow a pair of blue jeans.
The Film I Imagined: Two solid hours of unknown forces turning screaming men inside out.
The Reality: I go into this in more detail in "The Blog That Turns People Inside Out," but this is a classic example of VHS cover art LIES. The distributors actually filmed a gruesome man-turns-inside-out scene for the U.S. trailer but didn't add it to the film itself. The actual movie is about fishmen and Italians.
The Scar: Still, at an early age I was forced to contemplate the fate-worse-than-death of being horribly everted like a dirty tube sock. I imagined impossible, blood-spluttering inside-out men as they shambled blindly through their living rooms. Looking for what? I don't know. But I imagined it making quite a mess of the carpets. This was before "The Simpsons" made the notion funny, mind you.
Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)
The Sell: A man with a glam rock murder drill terrorizes blond hotties.
The Film I Imagined: All right, so I saw this VHS cover long before I had the ability to fully process all that's going on here. Horrible playmate stereotypes? Check. Absurdly phallic murder weapon? Check. Weirdly sexual 80s rocker type? Sure why not. It's a rather pornographic bit of VHS cover art, but so many of these films were marketing sex at an audience without access to mature content. Oh, my small town video stores had a sexy section to be sure. They also had a back-room for adults only, but that was a doorway to shame. We all knew it. What if your parents or someone from Church saw you near that door? Horror presented a buffer zone, allowing us to consider sexually-charged material with the excuse that we really wanted to see blood. American culture is so backwards, isn't it?
The Reality: As you can see from this trailer, the actual film is hot-cheese injection worthy of "USA Up All Night." The killer prances around like Elvis, sings and occasionally drills his victims. I've never set down and watched this one, but from what YouTube has to offer me, the kills don't even seem that sexual. At least, they're no more sexually charged than any slasher film (and that's a whole different kettle of fish). Interestingly enough, the first "Slumber Party" movie was written as a parody by feminist Rita Mae Brown, also known for writing mystery novels with her cat.
The Scar: From an early age, this cover (and ones like it) firmly established the link between violent bloodshed and sexuality. Sure, I grew up to be a normal adult male who DOESN'T own a murder guitar, but most of the early images of sexuality I encountered -- well into high school -- came in the form of horror movies. Oh Linnea Quigley...
The Sell: Again this is a German cover, but the US version was essentially the same, promising you that a man would suffer severe physical pain and probably explode.
The Film I Imagined: I had no idea what this movie was about at the time, but the excellent VHS cover art portrayed a sense of bodily torment unseen in any film I'd ever seen. So perhaps I imagined Michael Ironside blowing up for a solid 90 minutes.
The Reality: "Scanners" is of course a David Cronenberg film, and while I grew to love the Canadian director's body horror in the years to come, I never cared for this one all that much. It contains some excellent moments,but the wooden lead performance and all the "psychics read computers" stuff didn't work for me.
The Scar: I learned that unimaginably horrific things can happen to you. I learned that your body does things you have no control over, and that all you can do is stand there and scream. Five is probably too young for such ideas.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
The Sell: A VHS cover is worth a thousand words. This one promises at least five: butts, knives and possible grave desecration.
The Film I Imagined: Again, I was probably too young to really process it all. But it was clear that while the women on the cover of "Slumber Party Massacre II" were helpless against their drill-wielding attacker, this lady was a different animal. Faceless, she kind of embodies every woman. She brandishes a standard slasher movie weapon and, as the text indicates, she benefits from either moral high ground or a legal loophole.
The Reality: I never saw this one (and have no plans to), but it's somewhat iconic in horror fandom as one of the grandaddy rape/revenge exploitation films of the 1970s. Somehow knowing that makes it worse that I was ogling the lead character's bottom at such a young age.
The Scar: In a perverse way, I suppose the scar from this VHS cover helps to counterbalance a lot of the overtly misogynistic nonsense that so many other VHS covers hit me with. Sure, the woman here is sexualized and "I Spit on Your Grave" is hardly a feminist masterpiece (Ebert gave it zero stars, calling it "sick, reprehensible and contemptible"), but at least there's a sense of female strength on that cover.
The Sell: Where to start? Clearly, a head-chopping monster-man terrorizes a grubby, green city and a rotten demon head somehow factors into the plot.
The Film I Imagined: My main exposure to New York City at this point was probably re-runs of "Night Court," but this film promised more of a cross between "Highlander" and "Taxi Driver" -- neither of which I'd seen at the time, but still. I always imagined the smaller figure on the cover was some manner of obese Caucasian wizard in love with Eastern sorcery and swordplay.
The Reality: There's not even a Wikipedia entry about this stinker, but the few YouTube clips I can find promise a thoroughly dull affair about voodoo. Oh, and it turns out that's Miami in the background. In my heart, however, it will always by the Big Apple.
The Scar: Cities are dirty. Cities are violent no-man's lands. Cities are where the black magic happens. A lot of other VHS covers helped to pound this notion home.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986)
The Sell: Clans of horrible, redneck monster men would like to kill you with chainsaws.
The Film I Imagined: Truth in advertising, I guess, because I rather imagined the sort of violent, rural rampage that the original TCM delivered on.
The Reality: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" is a loveable mess. Sure, there's a lot of fun camp in the picture. Bill Moseley cements his place in genre legend and Dennis Hooper runs around with gunslinger mini-chainsaws on a quest for vengeance. Kinky Friedman even shows up. There some fun horror in this one, but only one moment that I'd call amazing. Toward the end, the film's heroine emerges from a weird tower and you see the gleam of trucks in the distance -- it's a nice little moment that drives home how close all of this backwoods madness is to the civilized world we cling to.
The Scar: I grew up in the rural south so there were people IN THE VIDEO STORE who looked more or less like the maniacs on this VHS cover. I saw this box long before I knew what "Deliverance" was all about or heard legitimate tales of rural violence, so it haunted me with the idea that some of these rednecks and good old boys were potential serial murderers. The lonely homes we passed on drives through the countryside were all potential abattoirs. To quote Sherlock Holmes, "They always fill me with a certain horror ... the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
Silent Night Deadly Night (1984)
The Sell: Santa Claus will murder you with an axe.
The Film I Imagined: Nothing short of a bloody desecration of my family's most sacred holiday.
The Reality: It's a slasher film with a Christmas motif. It caused quite a stir when it first came out for obvious reasons.
The Scar: This VHS cover (and those of the various sequels) really disturbed me as a child. After all, as much as I loved Halloween, this was a violation of something innocent and sacred to me. I learned that such ideals were no more safe than my family was. Later on, the "Tales From the Darkside" episode "Seasons of Belief" came along and widened and deepened this early scar.
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
The Sell: Shish kabobs of death delivered in a threatening, homoerotic fashion.
The Film I Imagined: I always focused on the food angle here, so I imagined it was the tale of a homicidal chef who kills with fondu pots and the like.
The Reality: Aside from some mildly creative kills and a doppelganger element, there's not much to see here. The shish kabob murder on the poster isn't anywhere near this suggestive or graphic in the film itself.
The Scar: It's a rather horrific image. If nothing else, I was forced to contemplate violent forced feeding and one of my family's staple weekend dinners as a murder weapon. I can't help but feel there were strong homoerotic and potentially homophobic vibes in this image as well. But, alas, I didn't even learn that homosexuality was a thing for some time (though I was told that I shouldn't fixate on my He-Man doll's muscles too much).
The Sell: Caskets. Dwarfs. Creepy old men. Spikey death balls.
The Film I Imagined: The VHS art on "Phantasm" was excellent, so I imagined a psychedelic journey of fantastic horror.
The Reality: Lucky me, that's EXACTLY what the film delivered when I finally saw it years later on TBS (which was a kind of Don Coscarelli cinematic dumping ground in those days). It's far from perfect, but it's pretty unparallelled in terms of tripy, cosmic, gothic imagery -- and all set against the backdrop of a small town.
The Scar: Not so much a scar as a siren song, this was one of the covers that pulled me in closer and closer to a love of horror cinema and fiction. I still love the film, and sometimes ramble on about the "science" in it. I have to give similar props to the amazing VHS art for the dreadful 1985 sci-fi flick "Def-Con 4." I still love anything featuring a skeleton in a spacesuit.
Final Thoughts: Every now and then, I experience a dream -- a dream so vivid that I still second guess myself. In this dream, I visit some *other* video store in my home town, some run-down dump in an old gas station where all the VHS horror films are even stranger, even more disturbing-looking, to the point that I'm physically afraid. What terrifying ideas do they contain? And why do I want to see them so badly?