When my dad plunked down a few bucks at a rent-to-own store to take home his first VCR, he and I christened it with a double-bill of AIP’s Frogs and Ator, the Fighting Eagle. My dad may not have had highbrow taste, but he knew a good VHS box cover when he saw one.
There are many things I no longer remember from my childhood. I can’t tell you the name of my second grade teacher. I don’t recall the make or model of our family car. But I remember Frogs. I remember Ator, the Fighting Eagle. And if you put that rent-to-own VCR in a line-up, I swear I’d still be able to pick it out, even three decades later.
That is the nostalgic sway of the VHS era for a certain generation of movie fans, a gravitational pull that swept up Tom Hodge when he made his first childhood trip to the video shoppe and came home with a copy of Tron.
A British artist known for his throwback posters of WolfCop, The Heat and Hobo With a Shotgun, Hodge shares his affection for the analog format in his new book VHS Video Cover Art, out now from Schiffer Publishing. The book brings together more than 250 pages of rare British genre covers. Hodge spoke to Deep Fried Movies about selecting those covers, finding dodgy Rambo bootlegs and what’s left on his VHS wish list.
It’s funny that we both have clear memories of the first movies we ever rented. Why do you think people who grew up in the VHS era still have such fondness for those experiences?
Tom Hodge (TH): There was such a buzz of excitement going to the video store and picking out a movie. Even now, looking at tapes on eBay or strolling around flea markets to look for them, I still get that same sort of excitement. It’s ingrained in us and it never leaves really.
(In England) we didn’t have the weather for drive-ins and the cinemas were all in the cities. So I didn’t really have access to the cinema. The video shoppe was my way into movies. The covers were the face of the films and even the crappiest film had the greatest artwork behind it. It was like going to an art gallery. I used to sit holding the video box and watching the film at the same time. Going down to the video shoppe is what first inspired me to get into design.
Were your parents pretty lenient in what they let you watch?
TH: I had quite old parents so I just don’t think they sort of got it, but they probably didn’t think it was any worse than the cowboy films they watched as kids. We used to have a mobile video van as well that would come around so that was how you could slip things through. And the mobile video shoppe man would give us old boxes of VHS covers so we’d collected those.
Did you have a Holy Grail film you were always trying to get your hands on?
TH: My cousin was obsessed with getting this film called Jungle Burger. It was a 1970s erotic cartoon drawn like The Pink Panther. Eventually he did manage to get it.
The original video nasties – the Cannibal Holocausts and those sorts of banned films – were a bit before my time. When I got really into horror films in my teens, there was a second wave of video nasties in the UK. There was a murder trial with two kids and the papers tried to push (the blame) onto Child’s Play. UK tabloids are pretty world-renowned for the way they attack things and video nasties became really connected to that trial. I lived in a small village and I remember hearing that the video shoppe man had said to my aunt, “I don’t know why (Tom) rents all these nasties, these horror films.” What you rented all got written down and you were a bit conscious about renting too many horror films out.
It seems like your cousin was kind of your partner in crime growing up.
TH: My cousin was a little bit older so he was the one who got the dodgy pirated copies of Rambo. I’ve got loads of drawings that we used to do of Rambo blowing people apart. When you watch Rambo II now, it’s almost a kids’ film. It’s so cheesy. There with this crossover in the 1980s between the adult films and kids films like Rambo and Robocop. They knew all the kids were watching and they’d turn those movies into cartoons. I’ve got the Rambo cartoon series covers in the book.
I read that as a kid you would draw your own original box covers.
TH: I’d make boxes for films I’d record off TV. I remember doing covers for It, The Thing and Halloween II.
Do you recall what any of those covers looked like?
TH: I based the Halloween II cover off of a book cover I loved. It had this pumpkin with teeth and the teeth were squashed around a number 2. When I left (high) school and didn’t know what to do, I went to apply for my (design) course in college and in my portfolio I had loads of those video covers that I’d made.
Your book is comprised entirely of British release artwork and most of the films are relatively obscure. What were your criteria for choosing which covers to include?
TH: I tried to look at the merits of the artwork rather than its rarity or collectability, but I did steer clear of Friday the 13ths and those sorts of things because I wanted to choose things that people hadn’t seen. England was really quite a bit of a hub for early VHS. At one point, there were more VHS recorders per person in the UK than anywhere else in the world. A lot of films – like Evil Dead – basically found popularity in the UK first. Because it was such a big industry over here at the time, a lot of films taken on by small distributers were creating these amazing artworks that weren’t really seen outside of the UK. The idea behind the book was to introduce these artists and these artworks to the US. Hopefully when people read the book, they’ll look up these old artists like Enzo Sciotti, Renato Casaro and Graham Humphreys. And I’d love to see people like Mondo and Scream Factory bringing in some of the old guard to do new work.
In addition to digging through your personal collection, how did you go about finding the covers?
TH: A few of the covers in the book are ones that I’d saved from the sample boxes that I got growing up from the mobile video van. The Chinese Typewriter and Trapped are two that hung with me all these years.
Through the poster artwork that I do, I’ve come into contact with a lot of collectors, particularly through social media. People like Dale Lloyd of Viva VHS and Phil Baker of Video Collector. Between the two of them, they’ve got something like 9,000 tapes. I raided their collections. I spent a few days manically going through them and then I brought a load back with me and spent months and months scanning covers.
You decided to leave the tapes largely “as is,” complete with rental stickers.
TH: That was particularly the point of the book, that the covers are “objets d’art.” This is how they were meant to look. I wanted the big rental stickers on them because that’s how we remember them. Those stickers show the travels and the history in a way. I wanted to keep them warts and all.
Were there any covers you wanted to use but couldn’t clear the rights?
TH: I steered clear of anything from (big companies) like, say, Warner Brothers, just to be safe. But I would have liked to have (included) The Protector.
The Jacky Chan buddy cop movie with Danny Aiello? Haven’t seen that one in a long time.
TH: You have to watch it again. It’s terribly good. It’s one of the only serious films that Jackie Chan’s ever done, really. Most of his stuff is a bit more friendly, but The Protector involves nudity and blood. It was going to be one of his inroads into America films. The films I remembered him from growing up were The Protector and Police Story. In the book I’ve got covers of two of his films that I was obsessed with – Project A and Project Part II. I absolutely loved those as a kid.
Now that the book is complete, are you still collecting tapes?
TH: Yeah. I’ve got over a thousand tapes now – a number that was boosted the moment I started doing the book. I was on eBay constantly. That’s the only format I purchase now, really. I like the fact that the experience can’t be recreated. When you get these tapes, they’re artifacts. If you get a DVD, there’s really no difference from watching that compared to the digital version. But when you watch a VHS, there’s something special about it. I know the quality is not as good, but for some of these movies that’s not a bad thing because it covers up a lot of the poor effects.
What are a few prized tapes from your collection?
TH: Neon Maniacs is a big one. It took me ages to track it down. Another is a film called Creepers, which I had as a kid. It was released in America as Troll 3. I would’ve put that one in the book, but I got it too late to drop it in. (In the movie the villains) dump chemicals in this town in America and the chemicals infect the roots of the trees. Then the trees become creepers that kill people. The final scene is literally a toy helicopter and a toy tractor against the creepers. It’s terrible.
Is it worse than Troll 2?
TH: Troll 2 is one of those films, along with Miami Connection, where they’re bad, but they’re not boring. Unfortunately, Creepers is a bit boring. I also recently picked up, which I was quite stoked about, the video release of Roar in the UK. Have you heard about that?
I interviewed one of Roar’s editors, Ted Nicolaou, but I haven’s seen the movie yet. He had some great stories about the making of it.
TH: It’s one of those things where you think, “How did anyone think this was a good idea?” You could’ve made that movie in half the time and half the budget with staged interactions with lions. I’ve also got Savage Harvest with Tom Skerritt and it’s a similar plot, but without the chaos of lions eating everyone on set. A lot of times the actors in Roar are just trying to stay alive and say lines at the same time. (laughs) I got it quite cheap on eBay. I don’t think anyone was that wise to it yet. There’s a couple others I’m still after. I’m still desperately after Silk II, which has a great cover, and Equalizer 2000. That’s one of those 80s Mad Max style of post-apocalyptic films and (the hero) has got this massive gun with loads of different things on it. The trailer is great because it’s just the gun revolving in between clips. I really want to see that one, but I refuse to watch it until I’ve got it on VHS.
More VHS scans from Tom’s book…
And some of Tom’s own work done under the moniker “The Dude Designs”…