by Travis Vogt
We often think of art as a reflection of the past, or at least the specific time period in which it was produced. Leonardo da Vinci’s work shows us the world of drab lady fashions and Christ suppers that were common in his day. Andy Warhol takes us back to a quaint time when Campbell’s soup was virtually inescapable. Less commonly regarded, but equally important are the works of art that attempt to portray the great unknown—the vast mystery that theoretical physicists commonly refer to as “the future.” Depicting the future is one of the most advanced forms of art-making there is, because most people don’t know what the future holds. Even the great masters, for the most part, were far too cowardly to attempt to paint future-scapes. Da Vinci once speculated about a time when naked men would have four arms and four legs and live in giant hamster wheels. But even he thought that this idea was dumb.
The visionaries who gave us some of the greatest VHS box art of all time, however, were fearless in the face of the unknown. They practically lived in the future, offering one spectacular and mind-bending possibility after another, most of the time only loosely based, at best, on the premise of the movie for which their art was created to promote.
Magnum Entertainment’s unforgettable classic Street Asylum gets a bit more credit than it deserves for this striking piece. One is tempted to give high marks to the artist for this rendering of a half-robot-faced G. Gordon Liddy. While the finished product is indeed effective, it is instructive to remember that Liddy actually was a half-robot—the result of the massive injuries he sustained during the Watergate burglary. Still, I give him credit for having the humility to appear in his natural form in this important Wings Hauser vehicle.
Some people enjoy making fun of how our ancestors viewed the advent of computers and the potential cyber-havok that they might have theoretically unleashed. I know I do. But it’s important to keep in mind that 25-30 years ago, people didn’t walk around with supercomputers in their pockets. In 1989, when Split was made, only 100 people in the world owned a computer. Then-president George H.W. Bush doesn’t own one to this day. If you didn’t regularly interact with these glowing, buzzing, potential Skynets, you might just think that bald, naked, Matt Frewer look-alikes were just moments away from bursting out of the screen to perform terrifying Shakespeare soliloquies. Sure, the idea seems goofy to us now, but cut them some slack. People were much dumber in 1989. They didn’t have anything even close to Wikipedia.
Okay, let me get a few critical insights out of the way before I make my larger point. The framing is typical but well executed, with a proud-looking Robo-C.H.I.C. in front of a future car in front of a lightening hell-scape. The title lettering is also on message, evidently constructed from steel and rivets. You know, like a robot. My real problem is with the tagline. No, not “She Always Gets Her Man,” that’s pretty standard stuff, though it does imply that if she’s dealing with a female perp, results may vary. My issue is with the faulty ripoff of the classic Robocop math equation: “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.” Robo C.H.I.C. is unabashedly a Robocop clone; it makes no bones about that. But why must they screw with the math? Robocop isn’t “All Man,” you see, because a lot of him is actually robot. That’s why he’s referred to as “All Cop,” because being a good cop isn’t contingent upon being entirely human. It’s kind of inspiring.
Robo C.H.I.C. thinks it’s being clever by switching things around, but it’s ruining the premise. First of all, I can see her being “Part Machine.” But “PART COP”? What in the hell is that supposed to mean? She only works part time, like 15-20 hours a week? She only took half of her cop vows? She only upholds 1/3 of the law? And not to belabor the point, but how is she “All Woman”? She’s a goddamn cyborg. Is that just supposed to mean she’s sexy-looking, so that makes her a woman? She was built in a lab by some pervert scientist! She hasn’t faced the struggle against the patriarchy that real women endure every day. She just came online one day looking like a hot lady and started busting perps. Exclusively male perps, apparently.
This belongs firmly in the genre of VHS box art that I refer to as “LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!” I mean, seriously, all of the bad stuff is coming from the other direction, pal. That being said, Raiders of Atlantis is a classic example of the medium. There’s all kinds of sci-fi in here, from souped up modern gear like mega-guns and supercopters to the otherworldly, baroque bikers zooming out of a tidal wave. Most importantly, there is a giant, glowing sci-fi orb of indeterminate power. There are few greater tropes than the glowing sci-fi orb of indeterminate power. They’re handsome to look at, and they can pretty much do whatever they need to do in order to suit the story. Some people are impressed with iPhones and self-driving cars. Sure, those things are neat. But I won’t truly believe that we’ve reached the future until somebody creates a glowing sci-fi orb of indeterminate power. And no, I don’t mean just some dumb glowy ball. It’s got to be able to read minds or travel through time or kill on contact. Or all three. Let’s get on that, whomever is in charge of Apple these days.
I enjoy this box because it’s clearly just a work-up that the producers were too coked up to realize had yet to be completed. I like to think the meeting went a little something like this:
ARTIST: Okay, here are some of the ideas I had for how to do the—
PRODUCERS: IT’S PERFECT! CUT! PRINT! STOP THE PRESSES! HERE’S YOUR CHECK!
ARTIST: No, but…well, I was actually just checking to see if you approved of the layout. I’m going to add the super human strength and the split second reflexes. It’s gonna look really cool when I—
PRODUCERS: CAN’T GET ANY BETTER, KID! WE’RE GONNA MAKE THOUSANDS ON THIS BABY! HIT THE ROAD, WE’RE OFF TO THE TRACK!
The strengths of this piece are twofold: certainty and simplicity. Certainty is in the title—there is no room allowed for debate. Aliens ARE coming. They just are. You might think that the second sentence in the tagline implies at least a bit of uncertainty (“But who is the Enemy?”), but the pertinents have already been established. 1. Aliens are coming. 2. It’s War. This ain’t some kind of “we’re here to teach you how to truly love” alien invasion. It’s the other kind. Besides, if the artist told you exactly who the enemy was on the poster, why would you pay whatever the 1980 equivalent of $13 was to see it? Yes, I realize that this was a TV movie, but you get my point.
Simplicity is reflected in the straightforward imagery. If you use the right details and storytelling tools, you don’t need a giant UFO to signal that aliens are coming. You don’t need space suits or lasers or “greys.” Sometimes, all you need is a dude with pants and a belt on a mattress in space. It works for me. And I am clearly very demanding.
First off, the praise: this is a damn masterpiece. Certainly it’s more in line with the tropes of the horror art genre known as “Monsters Inside Things That It’s Really Messed Up For Monsters To Be Inside Of.” I can only assume that there are science-y and fictional reasons for this terrible creature being where it is. Also: great monster. Also: great darkly humorous tagline. This is a 9.5 in execution. But now I have to call bullshit.
There’s no way in hell that this is what the movie is about. In fact, I doubt that this monster ever appears in a bottle. There is simply no way that this movie is as amazing as the box art suggests it to be. Why would they give a godforsaken nightmare creature in a baby bottle a name? At least, why would they give it a standard name like Anthony? I could see naming it “Necronomicus” and then hurling it into a volcano, but that would be a very short movie indeed. No, there are undoubtably much more boring things going on in this movie for the vast majority of the running time. Non-monster-bottle related things. Pass.
You flew too close to the Sun, The Kindred box art.
Is there anything more sci-fi than lenticular printing? Yes, of course there is, but bear with me. When I first witnessed the use of lenticular printing—likely on a lunchbox or a trading card of some kind—my mind was completely blown. “It’s like having an extremely short, shitty movie in the palm of your hand!” is what I might have said. Now that pretty much everyone has full length, regular-quality movies in the palms of their hands all the time, lenticular printing has gone by the wayside. George S. Lenticular himself actually filed for bankruptcy in 2007, a true signpost of the changing times. But I still have a soft spot for things that look vaguely different when you look at them from another angle. That’s why I have some affection for the otherwise very underwhelming Deadly Weapon art. It was ambitious as hell to go lenticular for a VHS box cover. Everything else is weak. One image is outer space and the other is a boy with a blaster? These two images are not pleasingly connected at all. I have to give it a lowly B+.
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Blog. You can—and must—follow him @travisvogt.