Horror in a Box (Portions NSFW)

The poster for 1981's "The Howling," which was one video box I could never stop staring at when I was a kid.

I am not a horror movie guy.  Sure, I’ll sit down and watch stuff like Halloween or Night of the Living Dead on occasion, but I am not the type to line up outside of a movie theater on the opening night of the latest Saw movie because I am promised that there are going to be 50% more genital mutilations.  However, I’ve always been fascinated by horror films, especially those which are outside of the mainstream.

This fascination began at an early age, when Sayville’s Video Empire opened in 1984.  This wasn’t the first video store that my parents frequented–that distinction belongs to Video Village, which was located in a very small house-like building next to what was Chicken Delight but is now Hot Bagels on Montauk Highway in Sayville; and Video Zone, which was across from the Oakdale train station–and those video stores were pretty cramped establishements with very little to offer me except for repeated rentals of Superman: The Movie and video collections of Mickey Mouse cartoons which, if you waited long enough after the cartoons were over, featured a long and terrible trailer for Disney’s long and terrible sci-fi movie, The Black Hole.

Video Empire, as I’ve mentioned before, quickly became my home video store after it opened because it was on the same side of Main Street/Montauk Highway as my parents’ house was, so that meant I didn’t have to worry about crossing it to get there on my bike; and it was pretty huge for a video store.  Now, it was nowhere near the size of a Blockbuster Video but for a mom and pop operation, it was pretty large.  The children’s section of the store was right as you came in, to the right, and if you kept walking toward the counter you found that the kiddie videos transitioned into the sci-fi/horror videos.  By this time in my life I had seen Star Wars a ton of times, so I would peruse the shelves hoping to find The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, both of which had just come out on video back in the mid-1980s and were highly sought after by Video Empire’s customers.

While perusing, my eyes would eventually land on the box for one of the many horror movies available.  These included your obvious classics, such as the Friday the 13th series (which at that point was up to Part IV, or The Final Chapter), the Halloween series (at the awful Season of the Witch), or something random like Psycho or Alien.  But they also included movies that probably didn’t make a lot of money at the box office and whose studios had decided to recoup whatever losses they had by making them readily available for the bourgeoning video rental market.  If there’s nothing else out, they have to rent something, right?  I mean, it’s a decent rationale.  Eventually, while my dad tried to figure out what new release action flick to rent and my sister looked for The Last Unicorn or some shit, I would pick up one of those boxes and turn them over, reading the description.

Along that right-hand wall of Video Empire in the mid-1980s were four movies that I think about whenever I remember my curiosity getting the better of me.  The first is The Howling.  Now, The Howling was a werewolf movie that actually was kind of a major studio production and it starred Dee Wallace, who had actually made a name for herself in the early 1980s by being in two other notable movies, Cujo and E.T.  I hadn’t seen Cujo, but I definitely knew E.T., so seeing her name on the box meant that someone I recognized was in it.  In fact, I am pretty sure that it made at least a little bit of money because I remember a couple of kids I went to school with had either seen it or had older siblings or cousins who’d seen it. 

I’d see it years later and can tell you that it is an honest-to-goodness piece of shit, but when I was seven and looking at the video box, I thought it was probably the scariest movie ever.  I mean, first of all, you’ve got the front cover with a screaming woman’s mouth and some sort of hideous claws tearing through the cardboard.  It’s a great visual that doesn’t give away too much.  On the back, you have a single shot of a woman in mid-transformation into a werewolf.  Now, I’d seen the video for “Thriller” a bunch of times, so the werewolf didn’t scare me, but something about the purplish skin and green eyes on a woman was way more terrifying than a man who sang like a woman becoming a werewolf.  It turned out that the shot was from a sex scene between two people who turn into werewolves in the middle of doing it.  Yes, you read that right, and the scene is really friggin’ cheesy (WARNING — COMPLETELY NSFW):

The poster for "Blood Feast," which was not the image used on the video box of my childhood.

Now, Blood Feast, I never actually picked up off the shelf because the oversized video box always grossed me out and I didn’t want to even touch it.  I’ve actually never been able to find a picture of that video box, but in doing a little background on the film itself, it seems that this was the first “splatter” film, which basically meant that a bunch of women got hacked up in gory scenes.  That does sound about right, considering what I remember about the box was that it was a still from the movie and featured a blond woman who looked like she had gone apple bobbing in a bloody pool or something.

I Spit on Your Grave, on the other hand, was not so much scary to me as it was hilarious to me and my sister.  My parents said that it was a “disgusting” film and we never actually rented it, even when we were old enough, but this being one of the most infamous horror movies of all time, they were actually right on that one.  If you’re not aware of the reputation of I Spit on Your Grave, it’s not going to sound at all shocking considering the type of torture porn horror movies out there now, but back in 1978 or so it was horrifying (sorry) to see a woman get raped repeatedly and left for dead only to come back and enact gruesome revenge on each of the men who raped her.

The original VHS box of "I Spit on Your Grave," the *ahem* butt of many jokes between my sister and I.

Okay, 99% of the population would still find this shocking today, but it seems that the 1% of people who get off on this has grown in number since I was a kid.  I mean, I can’t even watch CSI or NBC’s Dateline because “Dead White Woman Theater” is not something I find entertaining.  This all didn’t matter when my sister and I were kids because: a) we were never going to be allowed to watch I Spit on Your Grave; and b) I Spit on Your Grave was the most hilarious title for a movie ever.  The box itself made it even funnier because of the way the words were written in huge red letters.  I mean, I suppose I should have had some sort of “awakening” at seeing the backside of a scantily-clad woman but I was way more focused on saying “I SPIT ON YOUR GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAVE!!!” in a funny voice.

And then, well, there was the Faces of Death series.  This was a series of videos that supposedly featured “real” scenes of actual people getting killed.  In other words, snuff films.  I can’t imagine that’s true considering that I learned long ago that hype that big rarely delivers what it promises.  But seeing a skull with the title of the movie and the promise that it was banned in different countries was enough to pique my curiosity.  Not enough for me to actually rent it (as if I would have been allowed), but multiple trips to the video store over the years combined with multiple friends making similar trips caused Faces of Death and its sequels (I think that at that point they were up to Faces of Death III) to become somewhat of a legend on my elementary school playground.

The VHS box for "Faces of Death," which was as much forbidden fruit as the adult section of Video Empire.

Like an issue of Playboy, Faces of Death was the ultimate forbidden fruit for your average fourth- and fifth-grader.  Everyone had some older brother or cousin who had dared to rent it but would never talk about it after watching it.  You know, because it was like the video in The Ring or something.  Instead, we had to make due with glancing at the video boxes whenever we were at Video Empire and whispering about it as if it were the scariest thing imaginable.  And of course, when the time came for us to be old enough to be able to rent Faces of Death, we were no longer interested, having turned our attention to action movies, sports, or whatever porn someone had managed to get his hands on in those pre-Internet days.

Still, on the off chance that I’m in a video store or whenever I’m surfing Netflix, I will briefly browse the horror section and marvel at what enticing images are used to make it seem like some badly produced piece of B-movie garbage is the next movie that’s scary as hell.

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