Monday, November 9, 2009

"Confessions of a video virgin" or "What's in the boooox?"

For someone who grew up to be a fairly devoted cinephile, I was a pretty sheltered kid. I grew up in the country, in a converted grain barn half a mile from the nearest paved road. We got four, sometimes five channels on our fuzzy 19-inch TV, depending on the weather. (Even if we’d had the money for cable, I don’t think our local provider delivered that far out.) We didn’t own a VCR until my great uncle gave us a hand-me-down RCA behemoth when I was around 12. Before that, we’d occasionally rent a video player and a stack of movies as a weekend treat. My selection was pretty limited, as my parents were very dutiful about keeping my brother and me on a righteous path and protecting us from the uglier side of the entertainment industry. There were a lot of re-watchings of the Star Wars trilogy, Yellow Submarine and old Laurel & Hardy shorts.

The point I’m very gradually getting to is that I didn’t see horror movies as a kid. The closest I came was when the local Fox affiliate showed a week’s worth of those Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy/Frankenstein/The Invisible Man movies one summer, but there wasn’t much resembling genuine scares in those. I didn’t see a bona fide horror film until my fifth grade field trip to Washington, D.C., when someone played the not particularly terrifying The Lost Boys on the bus-wide video system.

You’d think that this combination of protective parenting and backwoods exile would have kept me ignorant of the horrors of Hollywood. Quite the opposite, actually. In the grand childhood tradition of yearning for that which is forbidden, I became obsessed with horror movie video boxes. Every time we took a trip to the video shop or the grocery store, I couldn't help myself from lingering in the horror section, where out-of-context imagery from all sorts of '80s trash played hell with my fragile, Christian psyche. I had no idea what the actual movies were like – and I had no real desire to find out – but there was more than enough evil stuff going on on the covers to keep me wide awake at night, listening to the coyotes howl in the valley (seriously, we were hill people).

I was reminded of all of my video box nemeses recently when The AV Club ran a Halloween feature on “Entertainment that terrified us.” That inspired me to seek out some of the old nightmare fuel and see just how much of the terror holds up. I was plagued by dozens and dozens of covers back in the day, but these are a few that stand out as the worst offenders.


I think what got me about this one was the ambiguity of it. Whose severed hand was that? What business did it have with the residents of the titular house? How the hell did it float like that? I lost a lot of sleep coming up with answers to all of those questions. It didn’t help any that the artwork reminded me of the illustrations in those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, another reliable source of middle-of-the-night terror. The dangling veins and tendons made me look down at my own skinny wrists and reflect on how fragile a thing the human body really was.

Current take: I’ve never seen House, but looking back, it seems silly to have been scared of anything that prominently featured George Wendt.

The Nightmare on Elm Street movies

I think most of my classmates had similarly sheltered existences, but in a school as small as Leon Elementary (Fewer than 100 students, grades 1-6), pretty much everything is a community experience. Just the images of Freddy Krueger’s claws and scars would have been enough to freak me out, but mixing them with Brian Brooks’ vivid descriptions of Freddy’s various eviscerations created a potent cocktail of dread.

Current take: I’ve seen a few of these as a grown-up. They’re pretty fun, really. Wes Craven at the top of his game can craft a damned entertaining horror flick, and Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy is deservedly iconic.


I really couldn’t tell you what disturbed me so much about this cover. There’s nothing inherently scary about it. For some reason, though, I found the image of little Drew Barrymore glaring intensely while some sort of inferno erupts behind her deeply unnerving. Obviously, something terrible has happened to push her to this point, and whatever she’s doing is going to lead to even worse things. I know some kids would have found the idea of a girl their own age being able to wreak havoc on the adult world exciting and liberating. Me, I never got the whole resentment of grown-ups shtick. Grown-ups made my meals, got me to school and kept me safe from the evils of the world. Why would I want to give that up?

Current take: I caught Firestarter on TV a while back. There was nothing to be afraid of – it’s really more of a thriller than a horror film. I was surprised at how much I liked it. I might even call it the best performance of Drew’s career.

Basket Case

Once, when I was around eight or nine, we were at my parents’ friends’ house and I stumbled upon their teenage son’s stash of comic books. The first story I flipped to involved a soldier waking up from surgery to discover that his arms and legs had been amputated. There was a full-page splash panel of the terrified man reaching his bandaged stumps up to the ceiling and screaming, “What did you do to me? I’m a BASKET CASE!” I shut the comic right there and went home that day with a shiny new disturbing image to worm around in my brain. From then on, the Basket Case box was a double-whammy for me. I was mortified both by the slimy claw creeping out of that wicker basket and by flashbacks to that unfortunate soldier in some unknown ‘80s horror comic.

Current take: I recently watched Basket Case and rather loved it. It’s a perfectly sleazy little slab of exploitation cinema, the way mama used to make it.

Mother’s Day

OK, this one still makes me shiver a little bit. There’s something about the combination of that grinning, skull-faced old lady, her freakish sons and the frozen scream on the lips of that decapitated head that moves beyond horror and into the realm of pure sadism. This one didn’t scare me so much as fill me with an existential dread. I’d heard and read enough stories about real-life serial killers to know that this kind of evil did exist in the world. I was still at the age of wanting to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, and the smirking cruelty of this video box called that into question.

Current take: From what I’ve heard about Mother’s Day – it was one of my wife’s traumatic childhood movies – it’s every bit as brutal as I’d imagined it. I like a good horror film, but I don’t take kindly to rape and torture.


Why was Xtro my number one video box bogeyman? It’s hard to say. Looking at it now, it’s by far the cheesiest of any of these images – just a badly drawn alien juxtaposed with a serious-faced little boy. I think what really got to me was that tagline. I interpreted that to mean that the boy on the box was going to slowly turn into the abomination behind him. There was something about unholy transformations that shook me to my very core. I was also frightened by the pull quote from Twilight Zone Magazine (seriously) about Xtro making xenophobes of us all. Not knowing the definition of “xenophobe,” I used context clues to surmise, ironically enough, that it was the name of an alien race. The notion of everyone I knew and loved being transformed into slathering space monsters invoked terror on par with the Book of Revelations for me.

Current take: I’ve never seen Xtro – I’m not even sure if it’s available on DVD – but I’ve heard it’s pretty laughable. I kind of want to watch it and I kind of don’t. I’m pretty sure the real thing wouldn’t live up to my nightmare visions, and some part of me wants to preserve my boyhood fear. In a weird way, it’s sort of comforting.


  1. I loved Basket Case. Somewhere in the recess of all the junk I have stored is my own home made version of that movie I made with Star Wars figures, my cousin and a home movie camera. I remember it being awesome... now if I watched it, it would probably be sad.

  2. Ira, great post. I've got a piece forthcoming online at Annalemma that details my video store cover art obsession. No kidding.

  3. Oh, excellent. I look forward to reading that. Analemma is a great publication, even if the title sounds like it could be on the cover of a very different kind of video box.