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Book Review: VHS Video Cover Art – Author Thomas Hodge

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As a movie lover for the better part of forty years, one of the most important aspects in my overall enjoyment of a film is my impression of it through the film’s advertising campaign, usually through the coming attractions trailer but mostly through the advertising artwork, also known as the movie poster. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, like most of my friends and colleagues I had no way of knowing anything about a film other than what was written about it in Time or Newsweek or in local newspapers. The movie poster art, referred to as key art in the industry, was really all I had to go on in getting a feel for what the movie would be like. Each week I would eagerly await Friday’s newspaper as it showcased the advertising artwork of the new releases just coming out in a much more overt fashion that it did from Monday to Thursday. In those days, the advertising artwork was just that: it was artwork, designed, conceived and actually painted by an artist. This appears to be something that has gone by the wayside as a result of the new tools that are available to studios, such as computers and software programs like Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator, which make it very easy for just about anyone to slap together homogenized key art for DVD and Blu-ray covers. This new type of advertising art appears to have been sapped of the most important ingredient: originality. In fact, so much is being done on computers nowadays that even masters like make-up artist and designer Rick Baker can no longer afford to do their craft as the work has been replaced by computer graphic imagery (CGI).

The first video cassette that I ever rented was Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) which I watched on Independence Day in 1985. I had seen the film theatrically but in those days it usually took six months to a year for a movie to come to home video. I loved Matthew Joseph Peak’s artwork; it was sinister and gorgeous and it perfectly reflected the overall feeling that I got from the film. There was something about being able to watch it on video that was enormously appealing to me. From that point on, the artwork that I saw on the cover of VHS cassettes, in particular horror movies, left me salivating in the video store aisles. After getting my driver’s license, my friends and I made innumerable trips to local and independently owned video stores to both rent movies and gaze at and admire the cover artwork of all the boxes on display. This was my generation’s equivalent of going to the local drive-in and, just like the local drive-in, the independent video store, in the year 2015, is nearly extinct.

A long overdue and beautifully illustrated new coffee table book, appropriately titled VHS Video Cover Art, is now available from Schiffer Publishing. Compiled by Tom “The Dude Designs” Hodge, it showcases nearly 300 pages worth of VHS sleeve artwork from movies made in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The covers are derived from the British VHS releases of these films and are broken into six genres: action, comedy, horror, kids, sci-fi, and thriller. Being an admirer of these types of films, which are both cult movies and forgettable flops (of the “so bad it’s good!” variety), what is truly amazing to me is the number of films presented that I personally still have never even heard of. A lot of the titles are movies that American audiences will be familiar with, however since they are derived from the British sleeves, often the artwork and the titles are completely different from the American counterparts. Case in point, Searchers of the Voodoo Mountain (1985) is better known in the States as Warriors of the Apocalypse. And I still never heard of that film! Like a lot of the schlock movie posters of films of the 1950’s and 1960’s, these colorful cover art were sometimes better than the actual movie they were designed to advertise. Fifty years ago, a movie poster was drawn up and the film was made on the basis of the title and the poster. I’m sure the same held true for some of these VHS titles as the availability of home video created a perfect opportunity for studios to make movies that were released directly to VHS, completely bypassing cinemas altogether.

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Each page of this beautiful book displays the film’s title, the company that distributed the film on VHS and best of all, if known, the name of the artist. In the action section, movies such as The Avenger (1987) boast a guy with muscles and a beautiful young blonde with big 80’s hairstyle; Deathline (1986), which is not to be confused with Gary Sherman’s brilliant Death Line (1973), features a character clearly inspired by David Carridine’s race car driver from Death Race 2000 (1975); Enforcer II (1986) directly rips off the key art for the Sylvester Stallone actioner Cobra from the same year; Fireback (1986) is one of the countless Rambo wannabees made 30 years ago; and Lightblast (1985), which stars Erik Estrada(!) before he began pushing tracts of land in his Glengarry Glen Ross-like infomercials (A.I.D.A.!) The one common denominator among all of these titles? Everyone on the cover is grasping a gun!

The comedy section boasts the usual testosterone-fueled teenage sexcapades of the 1980’s. Dreams Come True (1986) was painted by Italian artista Enzo Sciotti, who is responsible for some of the best Italian horror film art for films by Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (his work for Luigi Cozzi’s dreadful Paganini Horror (1989) is an example of the ad art triumphing over the movie). Oddballs (1984) and Sour Grapes (1986 – also done by Signor Sciotti) make all the visual puns about sex that one comes to expect from such fare.

The horror section is, as you can well imagine, also highly colorful and imaginative. Nightmare Vacation (1984) is a strange cover for the film better known in the States as the infamous Sleepaway Camp; Spookies (1985) promises horrors that look fairly ludicrous; and The Wailing (1987) features female nudity, making good on the axiom that sex sells.

I don’t know who Peter Billingsley offended, but the kid on the cover of The Dirt Bike Kid (1986) looks nothing like him. He does on the American poster, but on the British cover it looks like he ran into a pane of glass! The Go-Kids (1986) is a ridiculous title for the Henry Thomas outing The Quest, but the cover art is spectacular. Did you know that 1977’s Japanese sci-fi epic Space Wars, aka The War in Space, is one of the best space war movies ever made? No?! That’s what the cover of the box says! And with a Wookie-like creature with Viking horns, how could it not be?

The sci-fi section boasts Land of Doom (1985) and Wheels of Fire (1985), obvious Mad Max rip-offs, but the artwork is terrific; R.O.T.O.R. (1987) is an even more blatant Mad Max clone, going so far as to mimic the titular character’s stance with a gun, albeit in the reverse direction.

Rounding out the book is the thriller section, with the Franco Nero favorite Hitch Hike (1987) and Fair Game (1986) being just two of the stand-outs.

What is beautifully acknowledged and so eloquently stated in this book is the sentiment that all cineastes can understand and appreciate: as nice as it is to watch clear, high definition copies of the films that was grew up watching on VHS, the activity of watching movies on DVD, Blu-ray, Hulu, Netflix, etc. somehow deprives us of the experience that we had of going to the video store, looking at the VHS cover art and the synopses, taking the film home and watching it, and having that feeling be a part of how we felt about the movie we were watching. Our opinion of the film was tied to our experience viewing it, and what was going on in our lives at the time we viewed it.

This book was obviously a labor of love and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It belongs in the library of all diehard cinema aficionados. Even if you aren’t a fan of these films, the artwork alone is truly something to behold and appreciate. I hope that there are follow-up volumes in years to come because there are thousands of titles out there.

Click here to visit Tom “The Dude Designs” Hodge’s website.  

Click here to order VHS VIDEO COVER ART.

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