Growing up, I spent a lot of time walking the aisles of various video stores, enraptured by all the flashy and trashy VHS box art.
Last time I focused on the horror movie covers and how they affected the young me. But it wasn’t all Slumber Part Massacre II and Ghoulies. The pinewood shelves of that mom-and-pop video rental store also offered some amazing sci-fi visions. Like their horror counterparts, the sci-fi boxes tended to advertise far more than they delivered. I wouldn’t see most of them till years later, but the box art alone filled me with futuristic dreams.
So in this series, I’m running down the 10 films I remember the most, starting in 1980 and following the boxes up through 1992.
Saturn 3 (1980)
The Sell: Even as a kid I knew that was a crappy robot. After all, I’d already fallen in love with the imposing symmetry of Maximilian from The Black Hole. This ugly thing from Saturn 3, on the other hand, was clearly over-torsoed and had a desk lamp for a head. Still, the dark box art, lacking even a touch of humanity, inspired visions of a soulless, mechanized future in which the human form is all but forgotten.
The Reality: The space scenes were pretty cool, but the rest was just Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett running from Harvey Keitel and a clunky robot puppet. Now when I look at it, all I can think of is Bobcat Goldthwait’s character from Freaked. Everything that was new and sexy in 1979’s Alien was old and crusty in “Saturn 3”—which makes perfect sense considering your leading man was 64 at the time and the director made his name in 1950s musicals. Yet it was written by Martin Amis of all people, so go figure.
Still, it all doesn’t look half bad when you set it all to some Aphex Twin, as this fan video illustrates for us….
Warriors of the Wind (1984)
The Sell: How about a movie involving a Pegasus, a robot man, light sabers, gliders and machine guns. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget an enormous Hell monster intent on swallowing us all whole.
The Reality: As you’ve probably gathered already, this was an early (and highly-edited) U.S. release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. As U.S. audiences would eventually learn, the original film is a masterpiece. Everything works in it. Everything matters. The Warriors of the Wind edit, however, was cut into a kid-friendly product devoid of its powerful environmental message. Yet while there’s no Pegasus in the film, it does manage to sell the blasphemous horror of the Giant Warrior. I remember catching part of it once on HBO and I’m to understand this would have been the edited version. When I finally saw the movie years later, it was fortunately Miyazaki’s original cut. It remains one of my all-time favorite films.
Here’s the trailer for the diluted version:
Def-Con 4 (1985)
The Sell: A vessel crash lands on a caustic, inhospitable alien world (Is that sand or swamp? My interpretation has varied over the years) and we’re left to guess what might have killed its doomed crew member and reduced him or her to bleached bones and a shredded space suit. Really, the sense of alien space horror in this bit of VHS box art is simply incredible.
The Reality: Yeah, so none of that actually happens in “Def-Con 4.” What you have here is your typical crappy post-apocalyptic film with some Reagan-era Star Wars plot points added in for flavor. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite bad movies are 1980s post-apocalyptic flicks. I’ll watch The Road Warrior or even Warriors of the Wasteland at the drop of a hat. But don’t lure me in with the otherworldly scent of space horror art if you’re just serving re-heated Mad Max stew.
Luckily, filmmaker Paul Donovan went on to co-create the TV show Lexx, so he sort of makes it up to us.
Now let’s check out the trailer for this flick so you can see how little it has to do with that skull guy in the desert/swamp.
Future Kill (1985)
The Sell: Surrealist H.R. Giger contributed art and design to a number of motion pictures, ranging from sci-fi masterpieces to utter cheese fests. But 1985’s Future Kill is the only film to benefit from Giger poster art. So when you look at Future Kill on a video store shelf, you instantly envision a futuristic, biomechanical world full of dead-eyed, long-fingered ghouls. I remember feeling a definite sense of frightful intimidation when I looked at this one as a kid. Was I prepared to enter such a cinematic world?
The Reality: A group of inner-city mutants terrorize frat boys. Oh and don’t get your hopes up too high on the whole “mutant” thing, because we’re basically talking the sort of homicidal, Mohawk-and-mascara punk that only existed in Regan-era nightmares. The hitchhiker from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Edwin Neal) stars as the lead, chrome-plated mutant and Marilyn Burns appears as well as a topless, murderous maniac. Other than that, there’s not much to see here.
Still, the trailer promises a certain amount of trashy VHS fun. If only the cover art didn’t oversell it so.
Enemy Mine (1985)
The Sell: A scraggly human and a reptilian alien hold an intense staring contest set against the cold background of deep space. It’s simple but evocative, so it always stood out to me on the VHS racks. Racial differences alone seemed the cause of their conflict and it forced even a young mind to ponder the real world analogs.
The Reality: In a rare moment of VHS box art honesty, the film delivers on everything promised on the cover—at least for the first two acts. Wolfgang Peterson gives us an intense, personal encounter between two individuals whose cultures are locked in interplanetary war. Granted, it’s a bit heavy handed, especially for modern audiences. But it’s a rare case where I could have probably seen the film at a much earlier age since it beats you over the head with some positive, thought-provoking sci-fi ideas. The special effects and Louis Gossett, Jr.’s performance really carried the picture.
By the way, all of this was based on the work of author Barry B. Longyear.
This teaser trailer for the film was pretty great as well since it’s essentially an Enemy Mine motion poster:
The Eliminators (1986)
The Sell: Holy crap, this movie promised exactly the sort of stuff I doodled on the back of all my homework. To be honest, it’s still the sort of stuff I doodle. A tank/human centaur with a robot eye and a wrist gun? It was absolutely perfect.
The Reality: In reality, the sell isn’t too far off. A mandroid with a heart of gold teams up with a beautiful woman (Denise Crosby), a mechanic and a ninja to battle the power-armor clad BRITISH mad scientist (Roy Dotrice) that created him to begin with. I never saw The Eliminators as a kid, but I probably should have because it’s ridiculous, cheesy and ultimately harmless.
Anyway, the trailer is pretty fantastic—distilling all the cheesy fun in this film down to an easily digestible capsule of B-movie wonder:
Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987)
The Sell: This box promises silver-headed androids, horned monsters, a castle and bikini women with laser weapons—so it was everything I desired in middle school. But there was also an air of danger surrounding this film because the mom-and-pop video store my family went to had a backroom for all the adult movies—and this was one of the movies that wound up on the shelf of vaguely naughty titles just outside that gateway to sleeze. So I never got to get a good look at the box since I didn’t want to be seen checking out videos so close to the depravity vault.
The Reality: So this film really got a bad rap for what really amounts to some partial female nudity in a sexist but otherwise harmlessly cheesy sci-fi flick. Think USA Up All Night (if you’re old enough to remember such things) and you’re on the right track. It didn’t help that Jesse Helms singled the film out on the Senate floor in 1992, but its absurdly tame by 2013 standards.
The trailer is awesome, but be warned that it contains (barely) visible boobies. So it’s probably NSFW:
The Sell: Incredible box art unloads an apocalyptic vision of gun-slinging cyborg shenanigans in a Hellish, war-torn wasteland. Plus, the similarities to the Mad Max poster are far from subtle.
The Reality: As you might expect, this hybrid Robocop/Terminator rip-off fails to deliver anything close to that. While the image may well represent how R.O.T.O.R. (Robotic Officer of the Tactical Operations Research/Reserve Unit) looks with its skin blasted off, we never see such things in the film. Instead, R.O.T.O.R. always just looks like a white motorcycle cop—like the T-1000 without all the liquid metal FX or Maniac Cop without Robert Z’Dar’s chin.
Hey, but at least you get great lines like, “You fire me and I’ll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin, brother.”
Enjoy the trailer:
The Sell: Imagine the perfect movie for a 12-year-old-boy and it probably looks like this. It combines all the glory of pro-wrestling and kick-boxing movies with the grandeur of space monsters.
The Reality: It’s another Charles Band production, so you know you’re in for a cheesy, entertaining romp with decent monster FX. It’s your basic underdog fighting tournament flick just with space opera flavoring. So in other words it’s tremendous—at least if you want to see a man in his underwear box a giant space slug. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
And if you’re looking for a double feature, you can always follow up Arena with a good dose of Robot Jox, another Charles Band film—this time directed by Stuart Gordan (Reanimator) and written by Hugo Award-winning author Joe Haldeman. Jox is more sci-fi wrestling action, only with mechs. And I think it had a co-ed shower scene in it as well just to keep things classy. Haldeman, you dog! Still, the VHS box art didn’t hold a candle to Arena.
Anyway, let’s get to the trailer….
Split Second (1992)
The Sell: Imagine the epitome of a sci-fi, grimdark future city—you know, the sort of place where it’s always midnight and always raining oil. Now add Rutger Hauer in a trench coat and a deadly, inhuman killer that comes off like the buck-naked offspring of Venom and Judge Death. The 14-year-old me was all over that, especially since the trailer also offered giant guns and the promise of a Kim Cattrall shower scene.
The Reality: Oh, this one is bad. Poorly-written cop movie dialogue serves as the framework and the rest is all gun blasts, murder scenes and pigeons that fly around Hauer’s apartment for no reason. And the monster turns out to be just another guy in a cheap, rubber costume—with what appears to be a built-in Laser Tag visor.
I’m as shocked as you are to learn that Wendy Carlos did the soundtrack. I’m somewhat less shocked to learn that the screenwriter went on to create the “Fast and Furious” franchise.
Anyway, let’s go ahead and watch the TV trailer, where you’ll get just a chase of all the rain, street puddles and grumbled Rutger Hauer one liners contained in the picture.
Originally published at HSW: 10 Sci-Fi VHS Boxes that Blew My Mind
Robert Lamb is a senior writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. If you’re into that sort of thing.