The PopCult Bookshelf
A couple of months ago I wrote about a Roku channel called Bizarre TV. Fans of that channel, and B-movies everywhere, will love VHS: Video Cover Art 1980s to Early 1990s. This is an art book, but it’s got quite a twist. This book is a celebration of VHS packaging from the 1980s that was designed to pitch cheesy movies to movie rental store patrons. This is “lowbrow” even by Lowbrow Art standards.
Thomas Hodge has collected a treasure trove of lurid, sleazy, exploitive and in some cases misleading examples of VHS wrap-around cover art. This is like a trip back in time to a really cheesy art gallery…and it’s great!
He is based in the UK, which adds some extra charm as the movies have the 1980s British ratings codes on them. This is also a little disorienting, in a pleasant way, because a few of the movies were released with different titles in the US.
Now that video stores are largely a thing of the past, this book serves as a reminder of what it was like to actually travel to a video store and choose among the physical copies of the movies without having the benefit of IMDB to use to find out if they’re any good. VHS cover art has become a quaint antiquity, like penny candy, gas ration coupons, green stamps and a living wage. This book takes you back to a more innocent age where women were sent to prison on tropical islands and gangs fought over cocaine in city streets.
VHS: Video Cover Art 1980s to Early 1990s divides the movies into six categories: Action, Comedy, Horror, Kids, Sci-Fi and Thriller.
There is a heck of a lot of spillover here, and many of the movies could have landed in more than one category. The emphasis is on schlock, but there are a few serious movies included, probably because the box art was woefully inadequate. I’d say it’s a safe bet that most of these movies won’t wind up on the Library of Congress film preservation registry.
Where possible, the artists are credited. The art itself is spectacularly lurid. These little video boxes were meant to act as carnival barkers, attracting customers with promises of thrills, explosions, action, nudity and raunchy humor. Some of the movies even delivered on those promises.
This was a unique age of advertising art, and it’s well worth preserving, if only so we can learn from the excesses of history.
You can sort of imagine a coke-fueled, balding Don Draper looking at these, saying “More explosions! More cleavage! We gotta sell this crap!” It was the 1980s, after all.
In his brief introductory text, Hodge writes, “The video rental shelves were like a surreal twisted art gallery, rows upon rows of fantastically fun, crazed art depicting moustached muscle men, buxom beauties, big explosions, phallic guns and nightmare-inducing monsters.” That is a promise that this book delivers in spades.
Hodge has curated a loviong valentine to a crude era of incredibly blunt art. The charm is in the pure gall of the hard sell with these pieces of art. They knew their target audience and they pandered like nobody had pandered before.
Well, maybe somebody did. The video B-movie boom was really the next evolutionary step of the 1960s Grindhouse and 1970s Drive-in movies. The box art for the VHS tapes is very much in line with the movie posters of the earlier exploitation movies. Still, this is a cool artifact of a bygone era before the internet made everything available immediately for almost free.
VHS: Video Cover Art 1980s to Early 1990s is a great addition to the library of any film buff who enjoys walking on the wild side. Hodge has crafted a fitting epitaph for the industry that Netflix killed, and has rescued this awesome art from the dustbin of history. VHS: Video Cover Art 1980s to Early 1990s will be in bookstores May 28.