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The Lost Art of VHS Boxes

By: jkatz
It was a different time.

Before you could read a zillion reviews by everyone and their grandmother on any given movie online and then even download said movie, a film had three real shots at selling itself: word of mouth, reviews in the papers (remember those?), and the cover art. I've heard the same story a dozen times from a dozen people about how back in the day you could spend a whole afternoon in the video store just pouring over the lurid VHS boxes. The movies themselves were more often than not pretty terrible, so it ended up being kinda like Russian Roulette; except that the only things at stake were a few bucks and whether or not you'd go "that totally sucked" at the end. This article isn't about that. What it is about though, is which movies I would've totally rented the hell out of without a moment's hesitation, had there been a video store that would for some reason have international editions of random b-movies.

Where to start with this one? There's a train exploding and a helicopter looming in the background, with a team of bloody, battle ravaged commandos firing their modern-looking guns (never mind that this movie is supposed to take place in World War 2!) into random directions. Meanwhile, you've got a airplane/tank battle going on, which admittedly looks pretty great. All this and its rated PG too, which means fun for the whole family.

If you've seen this movie, you know just how much of a fabrication the cover is. No scantily clad women, no naked muscular robots (much to my disappointment) or robot dinosaurs, hell, there's not even any mass genocide of robots perpetrated by Nazis! There's not much else to say about this cover except that I like the weird-looking bad guy hidden in the clouds.

Where would direct to video movies be without the "Namsploitation" subgenre? These movies followed in the wake of Rambo's success by either having a Vietnam vet go on a rampage or by having a troop of soldiers in the Vietnam jungle go on a rampage. More helicopters and people clutching their guns. HOLY S**T there's a guy beheading another somebody! I love the pink on blue "Electric Video" logo too. Totally eighties.

Can't read Russian Greek? Disappointed that you won't be able to understand the synopsis on the back? The good news is that you don't need to, 'cause you have me. I'll explain for you: "Robowar is the heart-wrenching story of a group of army guys and their helicopter. They meet a shiny guy with a crossbow. The end."

Why do I suddenly feel the urge to play Contra?

Ah yes, the Joseph Lai/Godfrey Ho ninja movies. There are literally hundreds of these d*mn things, and all of them are awful and have similarly bizarre titles. The neat covers they come with make up for it though. I haven't seen this particular one, but I can tell you for a fact none of the awesome things shown here will actually be in the movie, including the helicopter (hmmm, I think I'm beginning to notice a theme here!). The half-skull ninja rules though, and in a better world he'd be the star of a multimillion dollar franchise that includes sequels, an animated series, and canned pasta. Why must life be so unfair?

I couldn't finish writing this without talking about at least one horror cover. What's not to love here? From the gleaming robot hand that clutches the bag of severed body parts to the tagline, you get a sense right away that this movie takes death and mutilation lightly. Admittedly, nothing like the poster actually happens in the movie either but in this case, it turned out to be fun anyways.

So what have we learned? We learned that video companies were filthy, filthy liars. We learned that helicopters were a popular thing to include in the artwork for no apparent reason. Most of all though, I wanted to show that there was a time when even cheap b-movies would come with gorgeous artwork, before photoshop was commonplace and posters and covers became less inspired as a result.

Do you have a favorite VHS cover? Be sure to leave a comment below where you yell at me for not including it!
Thanks for reading (or skimming!)

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Vaporman87 Posted on Oct 01, 2014 at 07:44 PM

It's cool jkatz. I usually leave enough there so that it's obvious what the author wrote, but also keep it friendly to those who don't care for it.

jkatz Posted on Oct 01, 2014 at 06:25 PM

@Hoju Koolander I don't think the wraparound style was exclusively Greek. I can't think of any examples atm but I'm positive it's been done in the states too.
Also, didn't know swearing was discouraged here. I'll try to tone it down next time.

Vaporman87 Posted on Oct 01, 2014 at 03:54 PM

Your right. The wrap around style is sweet. Not something you saw an awful lot of back in the day.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Oct 01, 2014 at 03:49 PM

Pretty unique selections here. So are these box art examples from Greek releases? Is that why I've never seen this wrap-around style of VHS art before? I feel like trips to the video store would have been even cooler if the back of the box wasn't just text and 2-3 small photos, but part of a complete mural.

Vaporman87 Posted on Oct 01, 2014 at 03:06 PM

I can recall the hours upon hours I spent collecting the images for the VHS Covers section of the site from VHS Wasteland (with the owner's permission, mind you) and having to sort out the really gruesome images from those that could safely be viewed here.

I purposefully left out the horror section because they were just so horrific, some of them. That is a testament to the effectiveness of the VHS cover. As you said, you had only a few ways to attract a customer outside of giant ad campaigns and being viewed on thousands of movie screens.

The thing is, after so many times renting that eye-catching film with the great VHS cover and being sorely disappointed with the actual film, you start to catch on. But apparently that didn't stop others from making the same mistake, because the market was FLOODED with cheap direct to video movies for SO LONG!

But I really feel like the VHS cover was an art form unto itself. A really great cover could be all the difference between losing your hat or scoring big.

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