Mourning The Allure of VHS

Michael Campbell is feeling nostalgic!

A Love/Hate Relationship

I have a love/hate relationship with modern cinema, or more specifically, the manner in which it is sold to audiences.

Part of the problem for me, is a lack of appeal in the marketing methods currently given priority for new releases. I would argue that today’s slate of upcoming releases is superior at any given point than during any other period in film history. There is so much interesting cinema out there, though this isn’t always reflected by the selections served up in mainstream UK cinemas, or the taste that is shared by the vast majority of mainstream cinema audiences.

A big problem for retro-fans such as myself, tends to be the bland, corporate manner of advertising films. So few are trailered in major cinema chains, and those that are, tend to be box-ticking exercises of the most banal sort. Trailers today, consist of plucking out “cool” slow motion action shots (which way too often are a detriment in the finished film), the repetitive announcement of “this year”, the sound of a solitary musical note (to denounce a film being “artistic”, but worst of all- highlighting the entire plot in abbreviated form.

Obviously this isn’t always the case. Campaigns such as those for Independence Day, The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity movie were all great campaigns. Most however, subscribe to depressing production-line approach of feeling it’s necessary to give consumers a sample of every different little flavour they’re going to be exposed to.

Such is today’s fear or buyer’s remorse, and need to consume things that you’re already comfortable with and have been weaned onto knowing exactly how they’ll make you feel. One aspect of the film-making process that has vanished almost entirely is in the imagery used on posters and in home releases.

Unfortunately, and this makes me sound a hundred years old, I’m sure, the art of producing movie posters and the skill behind presenting an enticing trailer are dragging decades behind what they used to be.

When I first became enamoured by movies, it was for one primary reason. That reason wasn’t the star (that would come later), or the director (again, that would become a deal-breaker, but not for years), for the most part, my interest was based around the cover art and visual side if the promotional materials. Aside from reputation (“Have you watched Candyman? Did you say five times?”), I would wager it was the strongest reason for enticing kids in the Eighties and early Nineties into shelling out their one pound Friday night rental cash.

The allure of the video-nasties

When I entered the fusty realm of VHS in my local store, I was greeted by an onslaught of insanely lurid pieces of artwork. As anyone who was familiar with these dingy emporiums (and not the more sanitised, bland Xtra-vision stores- rather, the independent stores) would know, they were typically sectioned off by genre.

They weren’t all good mind, you had comedy (the worst section by far for interesting artwork), family (not typically much better) and “new releases”, which got increasingly worse as I got older. Those that contained more thrilling sleeves included Kids (we’ve all soon the amazing pieces that displayed The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, or Return to Oz, to name just three), the likes of Sci-Fi/Fantasy (uh hello, Beastmaster?) action (American Ninja had a ninja, an American dude with a sword, and a US flag, what else could be needed?) and pretty much anything that featured Dolph Lundgren (Dark Angel, Masters of the Universe, Red Scorpion, The Punisher…need we go on?).

Of course, horror movies boasted the best VHS sleeves of all. I didn’t actually manage to catch The Exorcist until I was roughly fifteen years old, but I sure as hell enjoyed gazing at the spectacular cover for The Exorcist III in the Spar’s video section.

The VHS artwork for the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, was ingenious… benchmark stuff. The Freddy’s Nightmares series kind of ruined it, but I remember being terrified by the dreamy, painterly work on the main releases, with horrific glimpses of Freddy’s toasted flesh on the reverse. When I first caught the artwork for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the snap of the char-grilled villain himself in a bow-tie haunted me for years.

Even repetitive series’ had their little touches and details that made them feel satisfying individually, while retaining a shared identity. The effective Friday the 13th pictures enjoyed a sense of uniformity that made them enticing once you’d been exposed to one, promising at much worse than was actually contained within the material.

For the longest time, I salivated over individual releases that I absolutely was not allowed to rent. Michele Soavi’s The Church was a disgusting temptress, with a shocking cover depicting an enormous animal skull, comprised of numerous gloopy human bodies.

It was also proof that still photography could be as effective on a sleeve as an illustrated piece, providing the quality wasn’t, you know…duff. Even my fairly liberal da balked at the idea of me watching that one though.Any number of Gremlins imposters… yes (and they all had great covers- Critters, Troll, Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, etc..), but not something featuring the potential for copious nudity, gloop… and in Italian!

Mis-selling and ‘alternative facts’

There were others that didn’t skirt over their lack of quality, but completely lied about the content instead. Thus, films such as Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma boasted incredibly cover art, masking an utter dog turd of a movie. I was allowed to catch Witchboard at a young age, thanks to a kindly 15 certificate, but in truth, the cover was a million times better than the resulting film.

Really though, are the bombastic flops of the past with speculative artwork of yesteryear really any worse than a studio selling us Suicide Squad and pretending it’s in any way a decent picture?

In fairness this dishonesty is part of the game, and surely much worse for example, is the marketing of recent misleader, It Comes At Night. Directed by Trey Edward Shults, it’s an absolutely superb character study, a thriller with a high-concept, topical focal point that leads to bone-crunching tension.

But the trailers and posters certainly suggested a typical horror film, specifically, a post-modern suspenser, with the notion of there being an “it”, a night time threat that emerges during the course of the plot. It’s way more cerebral than that, hence the air of disappointment for many who would have no interest otherwise.

In terms of poster artwork though the meek efforts of today rarely attempt to tantalise (or you know, just lie) as they did in the past. So many are duff, transparent, stripped of their charm and devoid of any real content. More often than not, their job is to simply sell a franchise, thus audiences are bombarded with the unpleasant floating head syndrome that informs you of who is in it, and who is the most important.

That’s it- it’s assumed we’ve no interest beyond those stats. The only positive to this is the occasional rumour you hear out of Hollywood that delusional performers have gotten into ego-fuelled squabbling over who is positioned where on a poster. This is nothing new either mind you- famous past examples include the debate over Steve McQueen and Paul Newman’s heads on The Towering Inferno artwork, or Marlon Brando’s billing on that of Apocalypse Now.  As compensation though, at least that had a great piece of artwork itself!

Sadly, the truth of the matter is that business comes first, and art is secondary. Studios wouldn’t scrimp on it if if was of proven benefit when it came to the box office.

Mourning the loss of an artform

Kevin Burke’s 2016 documentary, 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters is an absolute must watch, for anyone who remotely agrees with mourning the lost art. An examination of the changing fate of illustrated movie poster artwork, it takes us through the rise and fall of the creative process, and the business reasons behind the output.

While I may lament the passing of the illustrative era of movie marketing, and thoughtful trailers rather than revealing ones, it would be a shame to look back upon those things with bitterness. Indeed, the sheer volume of film-making that achieves a high quality which is attainable and available these days really does defy belief and is more than compensation.

Documentaries like Burke’s, or luxurious tomes such as Marc Morris’ seminal Art of the Nasty, can help inform us and lead us in discovering yesterday’s decadent delights. Meanwhile, the lucrative trade in retro prints and art-work means that those of us who miss that facet of film, can still enjoy their fill.

Still, nothing will ever quite beat that feeling as a ten year old, pursuing the dilapidated racks of the Video Shack, spluttering over the layers of dust adorning a wonky copy of Mausoleum, Phenomena, SubSpecies, or any number of demented treats. Those really were the days… even if appropriately enough, you had to get your fingers dirty to really enjoy them.

Written by Michael Campbell


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