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CanFilm Five: Rewind This! Director Josh Johnson

“CanFilm Five” is the Canuxploitation blog’s ongoing guest column, which brings together prominent filmmakers, bloggers, critics and programmers to discuss their most loved offbeat Canadian films.

Along with film partners Christopher Palmer and Carolee Mitchell, Josh Johnson is deep in production on  REWIND THIS!, a documentary that will trace the cultural and historical impact of the VHS tape by examining its impact on art and technology and its societal perceptions. The first film of its kind to tackle the subject, REWIND THIS! will document the rise and fall of video cassestte culture via interviews with filmmakers, studios, archivists, rental chain operators, personal collectors and media experts, who each explain the importance of this film format. An expert and devout disciple of the home video revolution, Josh took a break from a packed schedule of interviews to present his five favourite VHS covers from classic Canuxploitation releases.

Josh: In recent years, the VHS boxes of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s have become a fondly remembered and obsessively documented form of pop art. Nostalgia for the video era has seen a resurgence of the VHS cover design aesthetic in a slew of modern design arenas. Because of the uniquely democratic layout of the average Mom ‘n’ Pop video store big studio product and micro-budget SOV scorchers were placed side-by-side with only the video box art to distinguish them from each other. Since most Canadian films lacked the stars or marketing funds of the Hollywood system they were forced to sell a concept rather than a personality.

1. BLUE MONKEY (RCA / Columbia Pictures)

Monsters stalking young women is one of the staples of film salesmanship. Generally speaking, the monster depicted on a VHS cover would be the beast at the core of the film and the title usually provided a description of said beastie. On the other side of the spectrum is the confusing art for Bill Fruet’s BLUE MONKEY (1987), which showcases what appears to be a black (not blue) insect creature (not a monkey) sending a trio of sexed-up nurses running in terror. We’re not sure what we’re seeing here nor are we clear on how the film’s title relates to this image. Also worth noting is that although the film is set in a hospital–the main reason we see nurses–the image itself completely avoids depicting any particular time or place. The monster is emerging from what could be assumed is a doorway, and yet towers over the women to such a degree that it is impossible to understand why there would be a door that size in an area inhabited by human beings. There appears to be some sort of foggy transdimensional something-or-other occurring, but having seen the film I can offer no explanation. This box is a great example of what made this period in advertising so thrilling. You know the film you’re being sold can’t actually exist but you can’t resist the urge to find out anyway.

2. THE KEEPER (Trans-World Entertainment)

The importance of illustration in the video era cannot be underestimated. Utilizing the skills of illustrators provided opportunities to package abstraction and realism into one cohesive piece. On this example, for the 1976 B.C.-shot film THE KEEPER, the likeness of Christopher Lee as The Keeper is striking. We even recognize it as Christopher Lee despite the lack of pupils and other defining characteristics. The other faces seen on the cover are much less identifiable, but they all still feel like they fall within the aesthetic parameters of this particular piece of artwork. Likewise, the hanging timepiece and the imposing floor pattern all contribute to a strong visual that doesn’t depict any particular scene or moment from the film but rather an overall feeling, which was a common approach at the time especially for low budget films. The video box for THE KEEPER successfully conveys that sense of atmosphere and suggests the tonal quality the film might have. In this case, however, the artwork is much better than the film–I suspect a good many people found that out the hard way.

3. SCREWBALLS (Warner Home Video)

Boner romps were all the rage in the 1980s after the success of PORKY’S–especially in Canada–and the main selling point was always young girls losing their shirts. The prospect of seeing exposed breasts became a guaranteed profit machine for small film companies and thus the video shelves were flooded with VHS tapes of T&A juvenilia, every last box featuring clothing-challenged ladies and titles in wacky, askew fonts. The brilliance of this illustrated cover, which adorned the clamshell cases for Rafal Zielinski’s 1983 tax shelter teen romp SCREWBALLS, is that it takes this idea and presents it as a moment of action, a piece of a scene that we complete in our mind. We can see the tension of that bathing suit top stretching to its limit. We can almost hear the snapping sound as it comes unhooked and that imaginary woman’s breasts are revealed. The youthful anticipation of witnessing nudity is encapsulated in a single image, like a climactic moment of pubescent male frustration frozen in time.

4. REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE REPORTER (Magnum Entertainment)

Selling a movie to an adventurous video rental store customer wandering up and down the aisles often depends on lying. This is something that most people probably bristle at, but it’s still true. For example, the film contained within this box, a 1991 horror/comedy of sorts by first-time director Craig Pryce, is a brutal exercise in crushing tedium. But the box for REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE REPORTER itself is vibrant, exciting, and indicative of a film that will be equal parts entertaining and transgressive. All of those promises are false, though–the film avoids excitement like the very concept was radioactive. But the amazing thing about the video rental market is that it doesn’t really matter–there are brilliant, wholly satisfying films that could easily have been skipped over on the shelf because they have the misfortune of being placed next to the video box of a hideously mutated figure crawling out of the earth and reaching for the audiences throat while a nuclear disaster occurs off in the distance. Blood drips from his fingers down the front of the box and his tie is barely staying in one piece. Who wouldn’t want to take this home?

Spasms5. SPASMS (Throrn-EMI)

Taglines were a key part of home video salesmanship. The horror market built itself into an empire during the video boom by making claims to push the audience further than it was prepared to go. The tagline for SPASMS says, “Once you see it…you’ll feel it the rest of your life”. How incredible is that? The major thrust of the marketing for this film is to promise long-term, irreparable damage to the audience. You won’t just have nightmares or be scared half to death during its runtime. It will ruin your life….forever! I miss this sort of hyperbole in marketing. I long for a time when watching a film could mean certain death and placing a tape in your VCR involved a bittersweet mixture of exhilaration and dread. SPASMS isn’t likely to leave any lasting scars on you but it sure is fun to imagine that it might.

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  1. BTSjunkie says:

    REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE REPORTER is by far the worst film in the best packaging on this list. Great job, Josh! MORE VIDEOGEDDON!!!!!!

  2. Patrick says:

    I like how deeply explained the video covers are. Treated like real art, which they are.

  3. joanna ebizie says:

    tax shelter teen romp could be its own movie genre… looking forward to more on cover art in the future