Judging a VHS Tape by its Cover

When the video rental business finally made it to my town in the mid-80s, several pre-existing business tried to get in on the act, including a small, now-defunct electronics shop and the local convenience store. But the video rental place that won the battle of the boob tube was a new place called K&K. Unlike its local competitors, K&K lasted for almost two decades, until its inability to keep up with the transition to the DVD format finally drove it out of business. I can't say for sure exactly why K&K stayed in business for so long, but I suspect that much of it had to do with its willingness to stock its shelves with just about anything--especially in its early days and in the genre of horror, which brings me to the subject of this post.

Sure, K&K stuffed plenty of cheap, obscure exploitation titles in between the more well-known, bigger-budgeted, theatrically-released titles--there seemed to be no end of Rambo, Conan the Barbarian, Death Wish, Mad Max, Animal House and Enter the Dragon rip-offs. Yet the most obvious examples of video selections that no one heard of and appeared to be made on a shoe-string budget were in the horror section, which was located at the back of the store. Unlike the other genres, many of the horror movie boxes were bigger than regular VHS boxes, and the covers were some of the most lurid things I have ever seen; imagine several rows of these sorts of boxes lined up together across a wall and you have yourself a graphic display of horror imagery that was like no other. Adding to the visual impact of this display was K&K itself: Not only were the owners really into taxidermy, with various stuffed animals and animal heads mounted throughout the store, but K&K was located outside of town along a small, backwoods road, a perfect setting for an obscure, low-budget horror film--say, Video Dead 2?

I've long had a greater appreciation of movie posters that are painted than those that are more photorealistic. Even if the film itself is average, below average, or abosolutely unwatchable, a creatively painted movie poster is a work of art in my opinion. Apparently, my opinion is not unique--almost all of these big box horror videos featured painted covers, as if to compensate for their obscure, budget-impaired titles. (In fact, of the makers of these films put half as much effort into their filmmaking skills as they did in the VHS cover art, their films might actually be worth watching.) Read on . . .

Of course, there were mixed results from this obvious ploy to entice video renters through impressive cover art. The worst was that many covers had little or nothing to do with the movie itself. To show you what I mean, let's take a quick quiz using two covers.

Question 1:

The movie that features this cover is about:

1. A funeral home that is suddenly overrun by an army of zombies (like Return of the Living Dead).

2. A funeral home that is the site of sinister, paranormal happenings (like Phantasm).

3. A funeral home where visitors are terrified by a rotting, possessed hand.

Question 2:

The movie that features this cover is about:

1. An inn visited by a horribly disfigured serial killer who uses an axe to murder his victims.

2. An inn visited by a zombie that is capable of using blunt objects to attack his human prey.

3. An inn haunted by ghosts of two murdered children who re-animate dead bodies as their way of seeking vengeance among the living.

If you selected one of the provided answers for both of these questions, you're wrong. Both of these films are in fact hokey rip-offs of Psycho, the first one from Canada and the second one from Australia.

Nevertheless, among these cheap, forgettable movies were a few genuine cult classics. While the later years of the video rental industry was (and still is) flooded by direct-to-video titles, the early years featured low-budget films from all over the world from the 1960s and 70s, some of which were re-named from their original release titles. Thus, K&K had three movies from Italian horror guru Lucio Fulci, two of which went under different names:

The Gates of Hell
(Original Title: City of the Living Dead)

Seven Doors of Death
(Original Title: The Beyond)

The House by the Cemetery

Alas, the era of mom and pop video rental stores such as K&K is long gone, and these gore-a-palooza displays of horror art for the sake of moving cheapie movies have disappeared along with it. Slasher Index and Critical Condition have plenty of VHS horror title cover art and information about this period of video rentals, and Cover Browser has a huge collection of VHS cover art from a wide variety of genres. In closing, here are a few examples of creepy cover art from titles carried by K&K that I loved to look at but never gave much thought of watching:

Also, check out the covers of these two pre-Dead Snow nazi zombie movies:


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