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The Nostalgic Attic: Video Sleeves - Then and Now (part one)

21 May 2014

Video Sleeves - Then and Now (part one)

While I was going through some older reviews and updating them with more hi-res art work, I was saddened to see how some of these excellent covers had been altered or outright ditched in the progression from analogue to digital. I figure there could be many reasons for this - rights may have lapsed for artwork commissioned for certain regions, for example - but a lot of the time I feel it boils down to distributors having to justify having an art department. It can only account for some of the lazy and downright shoddy cash-grabs made by some of these guys.

Let's have a look at a relatively simple change first. We'll use The Money Pit (1986) as an example, and here is the original UK video sleeve:

It essentially is the same as the one sheet, just slightly more cramped. And you know what? It sums the film up perfectly. The happy couple out the front, with the house falling to pieces, cartoon-style in the background, which is the guts of the film. The house is nearly as much a character as our two leads are. It gives a great sense for what's in store, in terms of both comedy and drama, and it could appeal to both younger and older viewers. Now, the DVD has made some changes:

They basically cropped right in on Hanks and Long, and the house only seems to be an after thought in the design. In fact, at a glance, you probably wouldn't even notice the house. By focusing so much of our attention on our two leads, the artwork loses sight of what the film is essentially about, and turns it into a romantic comedy, which it isn't. Of course, this is done to maximize audience (or at this point, potential DVD buyers) recognition of the star, Hanks, who was far from a household name in 1986, but is beyond famous now. What was once a fine little piece of informative design ("we don't know exactly what is going to happen to the couple, but we sure know they just bought a wreck!") has become watered down, and by doing so, changes the perception of film from one thing to another.

Next up, another comedy. Hotdog: The Movie (1984) is a relatively obscure teen sex comedy, and here is the UK VHS sleeve:

Now, the film being quite low budget, and without having any recognisable stars (beyond David Naughton, but he is hardly a box office draw), the distributors went with the commissioned artwork style, that many teen comedies and horrors did at the time. It was eye-catching, and you knew you were going to get plenty of skin and hi-jinks when you popped this one in. I will say that they don't really do much to sell the 'skiiing' aspect of the film, though. But the front cover is enough to get you to pick the box up, and then you will be sold on the nudity and skiing on the back sleeve. The DVD changed things quite significantly:

In a way, I can understand the change here, in that the cartoon-style of the original might seem outdated. It certainly isn't a marketing style used anymore, unless it's specifically created for a 'retro' feel. Also, it was probably artwork that was made specifically for the UK market. You still get the same impression for what the film will contain - sex, nudity, hi-jinks, and hey, there's now guys skiing on the front cover! It looks modern, and could probably sit on a shelf beside something like 'Road Trip' and not look too out of place. So in a way, the art department did a good job. However, I would argue that due to the relative obscurity of the film, who is likely to pick this up, or seek it out? People who saw it when they were younger, or when it was released, no doubt. I can't see modern teens sitting down to something like this, let alone blind-buying it. So why not give us the old cover we remember so well?

Next, let's look at something horror related. Night of the Creeps (1986) was a film that many of us waited for what seemed like an eternity to land on DVD. Here is the original VHS sleeve from the UK:

The American VHS differed in that it used the one sheet, from what I can see, which had this image on the front:

Once again, both traded on the lack of stars, but both are great at selling the horror aspects. The tag lines both point to the humour that runs throughout, and gives a good sense of the atmosphere that film entails. Horror fans were delighted when it was finally announced that this B movie classic was getting the DVD treatment that it deserved, with the original and alternate endings included on the disc, along with a pile of other special features. Sadly, I was somewhat disappointed when I saw what was to be the DVD artwork:

Once again, I can sort of understand what they were aiming at; the film does play as an homage to the 50's horror and sci-fi genres, with the prologue even taking place in that decade. But the film is very much an 80's horror comedy, and this new take to the artwork just feels 'off', like it took the 50's design concept too far. It doesn't inspire the same nostalgia that the original cover does, or even the poster which we never saw over here. This release would have been perfect with any of the original sleeves in place, in my opinion.

Finally for today, another horror, and one that would irritate genre fans everywhere. Near Dark (1987) had a great looking sleeve on VHS:

The UK used the same front image but changed around the rear images:

The original cover design hints at the the mixing of horror, art house and road movie, to great effect. It's a striking image, one that doesn't give those looking at the cover the easy option of knowing exactly what kind of film it is, in terms of its horror. Much like the film itself. Over the years we've had several DVD re-releases, some with fine artwork. But this one below, which was a cash-grab on a certain popular teen vampire series is disgraceful:

Besides the leads being unrecognisable, trying to tie a very non-romantic, dark, gritty vampire film in with Twilight is something that never should have left a board room meeting. I won't waste much more time complaining about this, as my DVD is the older, Anchor Bay release, but Optimum should have known better.

Ultimately, it all comes down to personal taste. Me? I'd rather the original artwork, whenever possible. And some companies get that, and go the extra mile. Even reversible art sleeves are welcome. But to me, it's about preserving that culture and style from when the film got released. We don't need revisionism of obscure B movies, in the same way we don't want Greedo shooting first in Star Wars. No matter how small a niche these titles may fill in the 'bigger picture' of film history, they still belong there, and are part of that history. They are worth preserving. It would be just as sad for the artwork to disappear into the annals of time as it would for some of these films to be forgotten about completely, and with the costs of getting Blu ray discs onto the market, the likelihood of that happening to many titles that have never even made it to DVD doesn't seem too far fetched.

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At 21 May 2014 at 12:39 , Blogger Wes M said...

Fantastic post John, being a film art lover, I really enjoyed it, and I agree with all your selections - in every case the re-issued editions are catastrophes of badly judged graphic design. For me the biggest casualty on your wall of shame has to be Near Dark, the VHS artwork is one of the best pieces of illustration ever rolled out for VHS - this was also used for the British quad which looks even more spectacular - wow! what an image ! That Hot Dog DVD design is really desperate - looks like every element of the design was pullled together from a pool of stock images - ski-sopes ? Check, bikini girl ? Check. Can we get her wearing a winter tea-cosey ? Sure thing... I think Masters of Cinema are to be commended for sticking with original artwork, even when it's as old as the one-sheet made for Die Nibelungen or The Iron Horse, a favourite of mine. I think the worst Masters of Cinema cover has been Repo Man which substituted the great poster artwork for some dreadful thing, even ditching one of my favourite taglines (...It's 4am, do you know where your car is?)... They rarely mess up a transfer but the Criterion Design Dept. have produced some huge howlers over the years - I'm thinking of their edition of Last Year At Marienbad, which featured only a raised white logo on white background - Criterion's graphic designers were probably trying to factor in that ethereal quality of Resnais' great film, but it's really a dud. Criterion's Breathless is pretty dreadful as well - what is it about these huge omnipotent logos ?

At 21 May 2014 at 13:00 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes! Agreed on Near Dark, the VHS s one of my favorites, too, as I said, it suits the film perfectly. Whoever came up with the re-issue should have been beaten with it. The Hot Dog one is exactly what you said - stock images, but then again, the VHS isn't exactly killing itself to represent any of the actors on the cover, either!

The original Repo Man poster is a knock out, but for some reason I didn't mind the Masters of Cinema one... but then again, I don't own it. They usually do stick with the original art, so it is surprising that they changed it, maybe they felt their 'arty' interpretation was a bit more 'highbrow'? I'd never seen that one-sheet for The Iron Horse, it's lovely!

Once again, I've never bought a Criterion DVD (or Blu Ray), so I've never witnessed first hand what they've done. I just checked out those ones you mentioned - christ, that Last year at Marienbad one is terrible! And they usually cost a fortune too. Ugh...

At 26 July 2014 at 19:35 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

As someone who features four movie posters a week at his blog - I obviously love movie art. I am also a fan of VHS covers - it was a wonderful time when the movie and video companies might try anything to get you to pick up the box among those miles of movies on shelves. And you're entirely right - most new cover art for DVD and Blu-Ray releases leave me mostly cold. Maybe there should be an IVBDB - the Internet VHS Box Database. Who wants to pick that up and run with it? ;)

At 27 July 2014 at 04:28 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yeah, I agree Craig - I mean, I'll still pick the DVDs or Blu ray's up, but it doesn't mean I'm happy about what's on the cover. Sadly, as the media becomes smaller, so too does the packaging, meaning the cover sleeve seems to be less important a selling point, especially for home video.

Ha, thankfully there are plenty of great folks out there preserving these VHS sleeves, but yes, having them all in one place would be excellent!! If I had website skills I most certainly would be on it :-)


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