Book Review: VHS Video Cover Art by Thomas ‘The Dude Designs’ Hodge

VHS Video Cover ArtBy Ben Bussey

And so, the digital age’s canonisation of the video era continues. Not without reason, either. Where once VHS rental stores popped up on every street corner, nowadays home viewers are more likely to be streaming their movies online, or if there’s a physical copy involved at all it’s more likely to come from a self-service machine in a supermarket foyer – or, if the prospective viewer’s feeling a smidgen more daring and just a little deeper-pocketed, they’ll most likely find an aisle of that very same supermarket stocking the latest DVD releases. However, running your eyes across the lower shelves of these aisles you’ll find cover after cover that looks like it was whipped up within 15 minutes on a computer, makes no effort to connect emotionally, and tells you nothing about the film itself other than how utterly apathetic its marketing department are about it. Maybe this isn’t such an obstacle anymore, now that a buyer can look up a title on their smartphone, read all about it and watch the trailer right then in there.

VHS Video Cover Art - Black RosesHowever – watch out, here comes the nostalgia – it wasn’t always this way. In the golden age of VHS, from the early 80s to the mid-to-late 90s, with no IMDb and only a humble smattering of movie magazines to guide us, the strength of a video cover was more often than not the deciding factor in picking up a previously unseen movie. Without doubt there was still some unimaginative hack work going on back then, not to mention a huge amount of shameless misinformation: epic, grandiose images which often promised far more than the films themselves actually delivered. But these were almost always original, hand-painted images – and, most crucially of all, there was always feeling. The action movie covers looked insanely exciting, the scary movie covers looked fucking terrifying, the sexy movie covers were enough to make you hunch forward and cross your legs right there in the shop. (Look, don’t judge me too harshly, I used to frequent the video shop throughout those awkward developmental years.)

At last year’s Abertoir Horror Festival, attendees were lucky enough to get a little taste of that experience, as to mark the 30th anniversary of the infamous Video Recordings Act the Abertoir team had the cinema foyer at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre decked out like a 1980s video shop, with a slew of now rare and coveted VHS sleeves stacked high on shelves and a VHS tape of 80s horror trailers playing on repeat. As a thirtysomething, it was a sobering thought that for a great many younger festival attendees this was literally the first time they had been in such an environment – and almost certainly the only time they ever would be, given that both the VHS format and the video shop as an establishment are to all intents and purposes extinct (though I for one am sceptical that physical media is indeed on the brink of dying out completely, as seems to be the consensus view these days).

VHS Video Cover Art - Dead End Drive InThis, of course, is where a book like VHS: Video Cover Art comes in. A glossy, finely-printed, hard-backed, coffee table art book, its 265 pages are taken up almost entirely by flawless full-page, full-colour reproductions of original VHS artwork, often still boasting price tag stickers and frayed cellophane sleeves. On the one hand, it’s an acute recreation of the video shop experience inasmuch as it gives you absolutely zero information about the films themselves beyond the cover; on the other, there will doubtless be those who question presenting such unabashedly low brow material as bona fide art. I’m not nearly well-versed enough in art theory to give an informed argument for or against VHS covers being presented in this fashion, but given how ubiquitous movie poster books have been in art shops for time immemorial, this was surely a logical progression.

Besides, I may not know much about art, but as a film fan I’m painfully aware of how illustrious (read: expensive) the trashiest films and their associated literature and memorabilia can be; why, just last week I both rejoiced on seeing Stephen Thrower’s book on Jess Franco available for pre-order, then cried a little inside on seeing how much it cost. And that would be no skin off the nose of a really serious VHS collector, with coveted titles now reportedly going for thousands of pounds. If you’ve got the pennies to spare, then more power (and, I should hope, higher taxes) to you, but for the rest of us I don’t think VHS: Video Cover Art’s asking price of less than £30 is at all unreasonable. It’s a handsome addition to any film fan’s bookshelf, no doubt about it – and not just horror fans, given that it also devotes sections to action, sci-fi, comedy, kids and thrillers. Some of them will be films you’re well aware of, and a great many more will be considerably less familiar if not completely unknown. For myself and I’m sure countless others of my generation, I get a curious rush of nostalgia flicking through these pages; while there are plenty that ring no bells at all, there are many I clearly recall seeing on shelves, and others I’d completely forgotten until seeing them again here. As a Brit, it also makes the whole thing feel that bit more personal given that the vast majority of these are British sleeves, given away by the BBFC ratings and such familiar distributors as Medusa Home Video, Vestron and Palace Pictures.

If there might be one small complaint to make about VHS: Video Cover Art, it would be the almost complete lack of information about the actual artists responsible for these artworks. Also, given that the editor of the mighty tome is today’s predominant master of cover art Tom ‘The Dude Designs’ Hodges, I couldn’t help feeling it would have been nice to see a bit more of the man’s own work… but then again, that would surely warrant an art book all of its own, which I certainly hope we see some day. Still, VHS: Video Cover Art is without doubt a must-buy, not only for all 80s nostalgists, but also for anyone with an eye for the changing face of movie marketing and pop culture, as proof, if needed, that even within the confines of arenas typically dismissed as artless, true artistry can indeed be found.

VHS: Video Cover Art is available now from Schiffer Publishing Ltd.