Don’t get me wrong, streaming is great. You can’t complain about the convenience of pulling up a movie without having to leave your bed. But there’s one thing that we’ve lost in our post-rental store age: cool movie covers. Sure, Netflix will display algorithmically designed thumbnails, and trailers for movies play above Redbox kiosks. But gone are the days of the crinkly Disney clamshell or the lenticular image of Jack Frost shifting from a smiling snowman to a Shannon Elizabeth-attacking beast.
As that last point indicates, no genre is hurt more by the end of the rental store than horror. No longer did those looking for depravity need to leave their homes to visit shady cinemas in Times Square or dusty drive-ins. Now, they could go to the rental store and plan their own double-feature. To appeal to those amateur programmers, production companies commissioned incredibly eye-catching VHS covers, images that promised all the sex and violence a movie fan would want, even if the film itself could never realize those depraved dreams. For those who never got to browse shelves in the days of video store glory, or fellow olds who want to relieve their youths, here are ten of the best horror covers of the VHS era.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Yes, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best-known horror franchises of all time, which is why DVD and Blu-ray releases of the movie can rely on such frankly ugly covers. You already know what you’re getting with these flicks, so they don’t need to convince you to pick them up. But back in 1984, nobody knew who Fred Kreuger (Robert Englund) was, nor did they really know Wes Craven – his only studio film at that point was a (pretty good, in my opinion!) Swamp Thing adaptation.
Years away from total Freddy saturation, Craven and his team had to rely on a catchy cover, and the artists delivered in spades. The original Nightmare cover features a painting of final girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) lying in bed, staring up at the viewer with an expression of determination and terror, her hair splayed along her pillow. Reaching above her is a skeletal hand adorned by four gleaming claws, one seemingly balanced above her nose. Unlike so many on this list, the image only hints at the amazing movies that would follow, securing Kreuger’s position in the horror hall of fame.
All the covers on this list want to grab the attention of movie fans, but few do so as vocally as Frankenhooker. The VHS case came equipped with a sound chip and a button above the image of star Patty Mullen as the titular sex worker/monster. When you pressed this button, Mullen would croak her character’s catchphrase, “Wanna date?” Believe me when I tell you that this box provided my friends and me with endless pre-teen hijinks.
As clever as the gimmick may be, it should not distract from the fact that Frankenhooker is a legitimately great film. Directed by the master of intellectual schlock Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case), Frankenhooker is about a woman (Mullen) who gets reassembled by her physician boyfriend Jeffery Franken (James Lorinz) after a horrible accident. Rather than put her back together as she was, Franken assembles her from the parts of sex workers, allowing him to construct his “dream woman,” sending her to the streets. Also, super crack is involved. As with Henenlotter’s best work, Frankenhooker improbably combines moral screed with amoral exploitation.
The cover of Chopping Mall promises way more than the movie could possibly deliver. Producer Julie Corman chose an effective image, featuring a spiked metal hand gripping a bag from a luxury store. Inside the bag, we see a selection of body parts, including ears and eyeballs, complete with what appears to be an intact, but apparently very tiny, head peering through a tear. Capping it off is the only possible tagline for a movie such as this: Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg.
Sadly, the actual film provides nothing in the way of such gore. While the movie does indeed involve killer robots inside an 80s mall, they off their victims with lasers or explosions, never leaving enough viscera to be collected in a bag. Worse still, none of the robots, security machines dubbed “protectors” have arms, let alone spiked knuckles, better resembling Doctor Who’s Daleks than anything suggested by the cover. Despite that shortcoming, writer/director Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall remains a delightful bit of 80s cheese, complete with appearances by horror greats Barbara Crampton and Dick Miller.
Night of the Demons
The cover of this 1988 film from director Kevin S. Tinney amounts to a horror version of a diss track. “Angela is having a party,” the tagline declares. “Jason and Freddy are too scared to come… But you’ll have a Hell of a time.” To head off charges that she might just be a bunch of big talk, next to the tagline we see Angela (Amelia Kinkaid), clutching an invitation and smiling into the camera. The makeup job on Angela is outstanding, complete with yellow eyes, rotting flesh, and random razor-like teeth protruding through her gums.
As great as Angela looks, she doesn’t quite live up to her claims. No part of Night of the Demons is as scary as the best moments in Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. But the movie does have a raucous sense of humor that puts it among the best lesser-known 80s horror flicks. The story of dumb teens who decide to have a séance in a cursed house, on Halloween no less, Night of the Demons has rich production design and a better-than-average cast of hard-partying victims, including the legendary Linnea Quigley.
Okay, I hear you. Making Contact, the debut film from modern disaster meister Roland Emmerich isn’t really a horror movie. It’s an E.T. rip-off about a lonely boy who befriends and goes on product-placement adventures. If that sounds like the infamously bad movie Mac & Me, then you’re not alone – Mystery Science Theater 3000 made the film the subject of a recent live tour.
But let me tell you a little something about young me. He was an easily scared idiot, and that cover terrified me. We see the back of the main character Joey (Joshua Morrell) blasting lightning into his closet like a pubescent Palpatine trying to destroy contraband before his mom takes a look. Around him swirl bits of bedroom ephemera, a walkie-talkie, and a skateboard. But the thing that terrified me was a ventriloquist dummy glaring down at young Joey, seemingly shrugging off the blasts to make his way at the boy. I fully understand that most people don’t find dummies scary but let me tell you something else about young me – he was a nerd who practiced ventriloquism and had dummies in his bedroom. What seemed like cheap nonsense to most was an existential threat to me.
Yeah, it’s a dumb little green guy in a toilet. “That’s pretty funny,” you say? “Nobody would be scared of that,” you say? Then you’re a dirty liar. Or rather, you probably didn’t see this cover when you were little. Older kids understand the comic potential inherent to a commode, but younger children can think of few things more terrifying: it interacts with your most vulnerable parts, it makes a loud noise, and what exactly is in that hole anyway? The Ghoulies cover only confirms what children already suspect, that all is not well with our ivory thrones. It’s no wonder that the cover inspired so many youngsters to run away after flushing, not bothering to even wash their hands.
Really, the best way to cure a kid of Ghoulies-inspired fear is to show them the actual movie. If the kid is anything like I was when I was young, I assumed Ghoulies to be about toilet-dwelling beasties who jump out of the water to, as the tagline promises, “Get you in the end.” But not only does only one scene feature a monster protruding from a toilet – an unoccupied one at that – but there are only three monsters in the entire movie, all portrayed by puppets with approximately 1 point of articulation. Few movies could match the tortuous imagination of a frightened five-year-old, but Ghoulies falls remarkably short.
Class of Nuke ‘Em High
For the uninitiated, Class of Nuke ‘Em High is a Troma movie. While Troma still exists, it hit its stride in the 1980s, when VHS was everywhere. Low in budget and lower in taste, Troma films largely existed to offend. While that sounds good in theory, it can be kind of a bummer in practice, as the movies often play like listening to a junior high kid tell his dirtiest joke. But Troma films rarely failed to make an impact in one area: their covers. Lurid, shocking, and gleefully ugly, covers for The Toxic Avenger or Tromeo and Juliet (debut film from James Gunn) captured all the appeal of a Troma movie, without requiring anyone to actually watch the movie.
That’s certainly true for Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a movie about rampaging teens in Tromaville, a town with little-to-no infrastructure but a giant nuclear power plant. Although the VHS cover gives us no sense of the film’s cheesy humor, it does suggest a teenage toxic wasteland. In the foreground, we see a trio of Max Max cast-offs, which isn’t that scary by itself. But when you realize that these are the students, then the movie takes on a different feel. And, of course, the twisted mutant face hovering in the background doesn’t help either. Sure, the movie isn’t as scary or exciting as the cover suggests, but that’s not the fault of the image.
Few things scream the 80s like the aerobics craze, in which people willingly stretched pastel lycra over their bodies and went to shopping malls to get yelled at by a coked-up guy who earned all As in gym class. In pursuit of physical perfection, fitness nuts drove themselves mad, even undermining the very health they sought to protect. In other words, it’s a perfect subject for an 80s horror movie.
Directed by Michael Fischa, Death Spa is a solid slasher, which follows the genre’s standard formula – a wronged person from the past returns to punish her tormentor – but stands above the others by using fitness equipment as the means of execution. But the good times start with a glance at the cover, which features two figures. In the background, we see a built brow strapped to a machine that is somehow ripping his chest open. In the foreground stands an attractive lady, her sexy features undercut (or enhanced, I don’t judge) by the singed skull she sports as a face. Even better, that stuff does kind of happen in the movie!
In many cases, VHS covers from this era promised far more than they could deliver. Cybernetic raiders and giant beasties imagined in paint arrive on the screen as actors in tin-foil and unconvincing foam puppets. From Beyond, the second H.P. Lovecraft adaptation from director Stuart Gordon (following Re-Animator) takes the opposite approach. The cover features only Ted Sorel’s face with a ghoulish smile, seemingly unperturbed by the right side of his face dissipating. To be sure, the image and its sinister tagline – “Humans are such easy prey” – gesture toward madness, but it doesn’t give us enough information to guess the nature of that madness.
Here’s the thing: whatever horrors your imagination concocts, they’ll still fall short of the glorious phantasmagoria of From Beyond. Reteaming with producer Brian Yuzna, Gordon somehow outdoes Re-Animator. In less than 90 minutes, we see Jeffery Combs bite out an eyeball, Barbara Crampton become a crazed dominatrix, and Ken Foree get his lower half reduced to bones and blood. Somehow, the movie’s lack of restraint makes the cover that much better, as if it’s drawing unsuspecting viewers into its insanity. Easy prey, indeed.
Honestly, the image on the cover of the 1984 slasher The Mutilator is completely unnecessary, because the movie has an amazing tagline. “By sword, by pick, by axe, bye bye,” reads the copy, a masterpiece of Hemingway-esque prose. But even though the cover artist didn’t need more, they kept going – perhaps too far. The cover of The Mutilator features four teenagers hanging on hooks, their faces in various states of dismay. Three of the teenagers appear only in torso, not because they’ve been sliced in half, but because the artist clearly wanted to focus on the figure closest to the viewer, a writhing woman in a tiny bikini. In the foreground, we see a hand clutching a menacing hook, presumably to harm the troubled young lady.
To be sure, The Mutilator is exactly the lurid slasher that you would expect from such a cover. Men and women are dispatched in horrid ways, the latter usually in a state of undress. Pitchforks go into necks, guts are ripped open, and swimmers get harpooned. But what the cover does not prepare you for is just how wholesome the movie is. No, not the content – save for the movie’s theme song “Fall Break,” which sounds like it belongs to an 80s sitcom – but rather the acting, which has an “aw shucks” tone the non-professional actors bring to their roles.