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Ten VHS Horror Staples You Probably Never Rented…

VHS Horror
Belinda Carlisle was right. Heaven IS a place on earth.

Kids today will never know the joy of the weekly video store visit. When I was in middle school, my entire week revolved around which VHS cassettes and Playstation games I was going to rent Friday night. In a weird way, that weekly sojourn to the local mom and pop video store was almost a sacrosanct ritual. Sometime in the sixth grade, I made a resolution to check out every single horror VHS tape stocked at the neighborhood, no-name video cassette emporium, which was no small task seeing as how the entire back wall of the store was glutted with obscure slasher movies and creature features. While I never got anywhere close to realizing my junior high goal, I did watch a lot of way, way off-the-beaten path genre flicks in the process, the bulk of which I selected based upon one metric and one metric only: the awesome box art. Of course, nine times out of ten, whatever was featured on the VHS box cover had nothing to do with the movie itself, but that’s kinda beside the point. These movies lulled you in with promises of insane gore and creepy crawlies and hideous monsters and gratuitous nudity. Just being able to say you saw the movie behind that grisly artwork–no matter how terrible the flick itself may have been–always felt like it was worth it. Considering the deluge of horror VHS tapes glutting the market in the mid-1990s (is it just me or was that the largest genre section at every mom and pop video store in America?) it’s probably safe to assume that, while curious, many hardcore horror fans never got curious enough to check out the product behind the gorgeously sensationalized box art. While you were playing it safe with rewatches of Elm Street 3 and Evil Dead 2, I was plowing through grade Z fare like Link, Bog, and Gnaw: Food of the Gods Part 2 just to say I did. Indeed, over the years I subjected myself to viewings of hyper-obscure horror flicks on VHS, whose only real claim to fame is their outlandish video cassette packaging aesthetics. Below, you’ll get the skinny on ten films–all of which fostered notoriously weird/creepy/bloody box art–that you probably noticed during their debut on VHS but never ponied up the pocket change to rent. So, did these video store staples live up to the grandiose, Grand Guignol promises of their packaging? Read on, if you dare… 

American Gothic (1988)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: Two old people with bloody pitchforks and butcher knives hold a bunch of young people hostage in their attic during a ferocious lightning storm.

What The Movie Is REALLY About: After her baby accidentally drowns in a bathtub, a young woman and her friends visit a deserted island and get attacked by a bunch of middle-aged lunatics who act like children… one of whom has a predilection for necrophilia.

Should You See It? Yeah, it’s definitely some solid guilty pleasure material. And man, is it fun watching Rod Steiger and Michael J. Pollard chew the scenery.

This is probably not the loving homage to his artwork Grant Wood anticipated ...

This is probably not the loving homage to his artwork Grant Wood anticipated …

Evil Ed (1995)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: There’s this one guy–who may or may not be the titular Evil Ed–who, at some point in the movie, gets an axe cleaved through his skull. But since he ain’t got a brain or a skull, the only thing that leaks out is a bunch of pasta-looking plasma.

What The Movie Is REALLY About: Believe it or not, it’s a political satire criticizing the Swedish government’s censorship of horror movies, featuring a film editor who goes psycho after being ordered one cut too many.

Should You See It? Definitely. It’s pretty much the movie Peter Jackson would’ve made in-between Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive if Troma gave him the funding.

Well, this movie scores an F for "realistic depiction of the human anatomy", for sure.

Well, this movie scores an F for “realistic depiction of the human anatomy”, for sure.

Gothic (1986)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: From the same guy who brought you The Devils, it’s a movie about… an imp with big ears who sexually assaults sleeping women?

What The Movie Is REALLY About: Swerve! It’s actually a pseudo-biopic about Mary Shelley and the (hypothetical) stormy night get-together that purportedly inspired her to write Frankenstein.

Should You See It? After you get over the genre bait and switch, it’s not a bad little period piece. Natasha Richardson and Julian Sands are great as the Shelleys, and the soundtrack–provided by Thomas “She Blinded Me With Science” Dolby–is one of the more underrated auditory offerings from the ‘80s.

You know, there's a fine line between creepy box art and CREEPY box art. And this one crosses it about three or four times.

You know, there’s a fine line between creepy box art and CREEPY box art. And this one crosses it about three or four times.

Night School (1981)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: Umm … there’s a photo of a woman with her throat slit, and there’s also a blade on the box art itself cutting said photograph. And the title. And that’s pretty much it.

What The Movie Is REALLY About: Yep, it’s your standard early 1980s slasher whodunit, with all the usual red herrings and long-ass chase scenes. The antagonist of the film does get some props for using one of the more unique murder weapons in the annals of cinema.

Should You See It? Not really. The plot is interchangeable with about 40 other movies from 1981 alone, the acting is pretty ho-hum and the kills are unimpressive. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for Reagan era splatter, there are scores of superior movies out there.

Funny enough, the movie doesn't really feature a "night school," though.

Funny enough, the movie doesn’t really feature a “night school,” though.

Microwave Massacre (1983)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: A psycho chef likes to stick the heads of screaming blonde women inside a microwave unit for kicks and giggles. It remains unexplained, however, how the clearly severed head is able to scream while getting nuked, though. Oh, and for bonus points: you can actually press a button on the VHS box art itself to make the microwave light up!

What The Movie Is REALLY About: True to form, the movie is indeed about a psycho cook who likes to abduct hookers, hack ‘em up and heat up their remains in a giant, industrial-sized microwave for midnight snacks. Except it’s really more of a horror spoof, and the guy who plays the nutso cannibal is the guy who voiced Frosty the Snowman!

Should You See It? Without question. This is precisely the kind of glorious, non-P.C. horror-comedy bloodbath that made the 1980s arguably the best decade ever to be a genre fan. It’s an absolute must-see for hardcore, degenerate cinema enthusiasts – and those who enjoy a lot of bad puns.

I assume the battery-powered lights never lasted that long.

I assume the battery-powered lights never lasted that long.

Slaughterhouse (1987)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: A giant hillbilly in overalls and carrying an oversized meat cleaver likes to stand in front of mysterious, ethereally blue doors a lot.

What The Movie Is REALLY About: Yeah, it’s pretty much your run of the mill slasher flick and one of the weaker Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoffs from a decade that produced plenty of ‘em. It does, however, get points for featuring what might be the most ‘80s premise for a horror movie ever–the primary antagonist sends his dimwitted giant of a son to go out and kill people because he thinks local property taxes are too danged high.

Should You See It? Nah. There’s really nothing that stands out here, except for maybe Don Barrett’s hilariously unhinged performance as the psychotic tax-resister.

What's that? 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?' Never heard of it before, I swear.

What’s that? ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?’ Never heard of it before, I swear.

Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator (1989)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: Some guy who wears loafers runs around kicking women in high heels into industrial sized furnaces. Also, a blurb at the bottom calls it a “Hitchcockian thriller,” which has to be the first time that particular phrase has ever been used to describe a Troma movie.

What The Movie Is REALLY About: It’s a whodunit in which a bunch of yuppies go to a big dinner party and everybody gets killed off one by one… or so it appears.

Should You See It? Nope. This is one of the blandest, most boring Troma movies ever, which skimps out on all the gore, nudity and grossness you’d expect from the House of Toxie. And the “twist” ending is one of the worst in the history of horror movies–you can literally deduce it within the first five minutes of the film.

Troma's definition of what constitutes a classic is apparently quite different from the one in the dictionary.

Troma’s definition of what constitutes a classic is apparently quite different from the one in the dictionary.

The Brain (1988)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: There’s a giant turd-looking meatball monster on the loose, and it’s eating people whole!

What The Movie Is REALLY About: A Canadian televangelist preaching a Scientology-esque message brainwashes viewers into thinking they’re being attacked by mutant tentacles, and only a precocious high school student stands between him and world domination. But the giant turd-looking meatball monster does show up near the end, though.

Should You See It? I’m on the fence. The kooky premise and hokey acting make it entertaining, but the overall execution leaves a lot to be desired. Still, if you’ve got nothing else going on for a rainy, lazy Saturday afternoon, you could certainly find worse ways to squander your free time.

And the award for most generic-looking monster in a movie ever goes to ...

And the award for most generic-looking monster in a movie ever goes to …

The Kindred (1987)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: There’s a mutant monkey Martian inside a giant baby bottle and it’s ABOUT TO GET OUT!

What The Movie Is REALLY About: On her deathbed, a world famous scientist tells her son to destroy all her research before Rod Steiger can get to it. And oh yeah, he has a brother she never told him about, who just so happens to be a slimy genetic experiment gone wrong. Hi-jinks ensue.

Should You See It? I’d pass. The special effects are underwhelming, the actors are just phoning it in and the pacing is so slow and stilted you’d probably need a Mountain Dew enema to even get to the second act.

I think we can all agree: few things in life are more terrifying than baby bottles.

I think we can all agree: few things in life are more terrifying than baby bottles.

The Nest (1988)

What The Box Art Tells You The Movie Is About: Oh hell, there are giant cockroaches on the loose and now they’re strangling women in lingerie!

What The Movie Is REALLY About: Well, it kinda lives up to the box art’s promise. While the movie does indeed feature irradiated cockroaches chowing down on human flesh, for the bulk of the movie they’re all normal sized bugs and instead of chewing on nubile vixens, they tend to target really fat dudes and greasy cooks. But some human-sized cockroaches do wind their way into the plot in the final act – but I’ll let you figure out how on your own time.

Should You See It? It depends. If you have a taste for cheesy, VHS-era low-budget sleaze-baths like Slugs and C.H.U.D., this one will probably be right up your alley. But if that ain’t your bag? Best steer clear of this one.

It's almost like the studio TOLD the artist to think up the sleaziest looking thing imaginable.

It’s almost like the studio TOLD the artist to think up the sleaziest looking thing imaginable.

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Written by James Swift
James Swift is an Atlanta-area writer, reporter, documentary filmmaker, author and on-and-off marketing and P.R. point-man whose award winning work on subjects such as classism, mental health services, juvenile justice and gentrification has been featured in dozens of publications, including The Center for Public Integrity, Youth Today, The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, The Alpharetta Neighbor and Thought Catalog. His 2013 series “Rural America: After the Recession” drew national praise from the Community Action Partnershipand The University of Maryland’s Journalism Center on Children & Familiesand garnered him the Atlanta Press Club’s Rising Star Award for best work produced by a journalist under the age of 30. He has written for Taste of Cinema, Bloody Disgusting, and many other film sites. (Fun fact: Wikipedia lists him as an expert on both “prison rape” and “discontinued Taco Bell products,” for some reason.)
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