Wed
Mar 20 2013 12:00pm

10 Sci-Fi VHS Boxes that Blew My Mind

Awesome VHS Covers

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)

VHS Covers Saturn 3 Robert Lamb

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)

VHS Covers Warriors of the Wind Robert LambThe 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)

VHS Covers Def-Con 4The 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)

VHS Cover Future Kill H.R. GigerThe 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)

Enemy Mine VHS CoverThe 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 Eliminators Tank/Human Centaur VHS CoverThe 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.

As a side note, Waxfactor (AKA Pete Gleadall/SasQwax) sampled some lines from the film to excellent effect on his album Sci-Fu, which you can still download for free right here.

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)

VHS Covers Slave Girls from Beyond InfinityThe 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:

 

R.O.T.O.R. (1988)

VHS Cover R.O.T.O.R.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:

 

Arena (1989)

Arena VHS CoverThe 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)

Split Second VHS CoverThe 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.

16 comments
Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
I was going along fine with all this until you started being down on Split Second, which I will hold is one of the greats of its kind and era.

Also, given the time range you are covering, did Richard Stanley's Hardware ever cross your radar ? It would have been just at the late end, I think.
Bryan Cogswell
2. shmoo
My 14-year old self wants to spend the weekend watching all of these movies. My 38 year old self will pretend that they are a LOT better than my imagination thinks they would be - a whole lotta MST3K potential here (if that was still around)

oh and Reagan not Regan.
mirana
3. mirana
The Warriors of the Wind edit was horrendous beyond words. It didn't even make any sense and that box art is so, soooo terrible! How did that mess even happen?!
Kit Case
4. wiredog
I'm pretty sure the poster for Defcon 4 was originally an illustration in SpaceWreck: Ghost Ships and Derelicts of Space
Luis Milan
5. LuisMilan
Dude, Split Second is one of the most awesomest movies I've ever seen on cable. From the seriousness of most of London underwater due to global warming and suffering from plagues, to the cheesy lines that you just gotta love, this movie deserves to be seen at least twice to be fully enjoyed.

I loved watching the cool, smart, highly-educated detective turning into a caffeine-fueled maniac (exactly like his partner, Rutger Hauer) after witnessing an attack by the devil-y alien-y monster, and shouting for the first time in film (that I know of) this great quote:

"We need to get bigger guns! BIG FUCKING GUNS!"
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
Max is the best of all robots.
Except maybe VINCENT.
Sky Thibedeau
8. SkylarkThibedeau
I used to go to all these Cheesey Movies on matinee night in the 80's. Then got a VHS and rented them.

Some of my Faves were Damnation Alley with Jan Michael Vincent.
Spacehunter with Molly Ringwald
Cheesiest of all though the cover does it justice is Ladyhawke with the aforementioned Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pffeifer, and Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller's ancestor.
mirana
9. RobinM
Enemy Mine is one of my all time favorite movies ever. Don't forget Beastmaster or Hawk the Slayer in epic 80's fantasy movies that I liked. I'm trying to forget Spacehunter and Ice Pirates ever existed. They are tied for 1st place on my worst movie ever list.
Liz J
10. Ellisande
I remember I made a special effort to find and rent Arena because it had a whole bunch of actors in it that I liked from B5 and DS9. And from the position of someone who's watched a lot of bad movies for my favorites, it's not terrible (for values of 'not terrible' equalling 'terrible but also fun'). I mean, c'mon, Ivanova, Gul Dukat and Quark all in a movie together, how could it not be awesome? LOL
Kit Case
11. wiredog
@8 Saw Spacehunter and Damnation Alley in the theater. They were, well, tolerable. The book version of Damnation Alley was decent.
@9
"Ice Pirates", shudder. I only remember it because it was so awful I walked out of it. The only other movie I walked out of was a Bill Cosby caper movie, because I fell asleep and started snoring, disturbing the other patrons.
Douglas Freer
12. Futurewriter1120
Funny thing about the cover for Warriors of the Wind, they were trying to market a boy film for boys. They just assumed that a film featuring a female hero was a girl film and thus tried to make it more boyish by adding things to attract boys. How the pegasus fits with that I don't know.
But I'm really curious to see how it looked in the same way you watch DiC's version of Sailor Moon to the original.
mirana
13. Robert Lamb HSW
"Hardware" is one of those films I should have seen on the shelves but have no memory of. I think I finally discoverd Stanley's films for myself when I got to college.

Two other films I wish I'd have seen on the shelves back then: "Mutant Hunt" and "Neon Maniacs." Wow!

And maybe I should give "Split Second" another chance.

~rl
mirana
14. Prjweaponx
My Mom owned a video store when I was a kid and after it shut down we kept ALL the VHS in storage. Looks like this weekend I will be going through stroage and pulling these 80s B gems out. Awesome article, my innerchild is dancing.
mirana
15. J3
Oh man, Def-Con 4. I never rented it but I ALWAYS stopped to look at the box when I went to the video store. Freaked me out for some reason.
mirana
16. Aunt Bonnie
Thanks for this post. I love Miyazaki's films and just found
Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. on Amazon in the original Japanese with english subtitles. It is winging it's way to me now. I love his films, but only with the subtitles. I had forgotten that this was on my wishlist!

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