Admit it. The instant you walk into a video store and find that the RoboCop 2 and Wuthering Heights you were after are out, you forget the name of every film you’ve ever seen and stare slack-jawed at the cassette-filled shelves. Video companies know that anybody can be persuaded to rent just about anything in this needy, near-narcotic state, but most of them would never take advantage of it.
Except for the Shameless Ones. They count on it.
For instance, let’s say that you loved Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves and want to see his other films. Maybe that baseball flick something about dreams, right? There it is, right on the shelf, with the star grinning away in a baseball jersey. But look before you rent: This isn’t 1989’s hit Field of Dreams at all. Instead, by an almost miraculous coincidence seized by video opportunists, it’s Chasing Dreams, a virtually unknown 1982 loser in which our ”star” appears and is gone in the first five minutes.
Welcome to the world of the video packaging scam.
Like grocery items with the buzzwords ”lite,” ”creme,” or ”buttery,” more and more video movies are coming wrapped in deceptive packaging. Blink-and- you’ll-miss-them appearances by future stars are hyped as leading roles. Tepid made-for-TV movies are slapped with misleading ”PG” ratings and passed off as theatrical features. Foreign art films are dubbed, retitled, and marketed to appeal to the drive-in crowd. Sexy models strut their stuff across B-movie boxes — and nowhere in the B movies themselves. And out-of-context critics’ quotes make turkeys look like cinematic pheasants under glass.
When video renters get burned by these tactics, they seldom know where to turn. Mark T. McGee, author of Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks (McFarland, 1989), urges them to vent their anger at the companies that let these dogs loose by taking it out on the store. ”People should be outraged,” McGee says. ”They should take that tape back and say, ‘This is not what it purports to be, and I want my money back.”’
That’s an option any reputable video store should — but may not — offer, and it’s about the only option. The Video Software Dealers’ Association, the industry’s leading trade organization, leaves truth-in-packaging regulation up to the various states and is not currently considering any packaging guidelines. That means consumers have to rely on their own sharp eyes to keep their VCRs lemon-free. With that in mind, here are some egregious examples of cassettes you shouldn’t judge by their boxes.
THE NAME GAMES
The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962, Sony)
While still a UCLA film school student in 1961, Francis Ford Coppola took a job shooting a few ”nudie” scenes to spruce up this dreary 1958 German melodrama for U.S. theatrical release. Now on video, the movie’s cassette package boasts ”classic screenwriting and direction by Francis Ford Coppola,” a come-on that should definitely be refused.
Terror in Beverly Hills (1990, AIP)
The package says ”Stallone” above the title, so it’s sure to catch the eye of Sly’s fans. When they notice that the Stallone at issue is his brother Frank, they may go looking for first blood. Hey, at least it’s not Jacqueline, their mother.
Yellow Submarine (1968, MGM/UA)
”Nothing is real” was this animated head trip’s original theatrical ad slogan, and it should have been carried over to the video packaging. Despite prominent references to the Beatles both on the box and in the movie’s title sequence, John, Paul, George, and Ringo had nothing to do with Yellow Submarine, aside from having recorded the songs used on the soundtrack and appearing in a brief live-action shot at the end. Four unknown actors supplied the voices for the animated mop tops.
Bad Girls (1968, New World)
Sounds like it stars Wendy O. Williams as a biker in prison, doesn’t it? Sorry. It’s Les Biches, French director Claude Chabrol’s masterful drama about the rocky relationship between two chic lesbians. Lousily dubbed into English and packaged as a sex teaser, this cassette shoots itself (and you) in both feet: Foreign film buffs won’t find it, and the Wendy O. Williams crowd will want to stomp their boots on it.
Stalking Danger (1986, Vidmark)
It has a real PG rating, and it was made by a real director, William Friedkin (The Exorcist). So you are forgiven for assuming this is a theatrical feature. In fact, it’s C.A.T. Squad, a pretty bad made-for-TV action film that has been retitled for video release. Think about that for a moment: The video company went to all the trouble and expense of getting an MPAA rating and shooting new titles just to pull a fast one on the consumer.
Mad Max (1979, Video Treasures)
Sitting at a bar somewhere is an actor who’s not Mel Gibson, and he’s telling anyone who will listen that he played the lead in Mad Max. He’s half right, too, but he can’t use the videocassette box to prove it. Without a clue on the credits, this original video release of Mad Max dubs Gibson’s dialogue with the anonymous actor’s voice — ostensibly to replace the Australian accent that Gibson seems perfectly able to drop at will.
SKIP THE FILM, WATCH THE BOX
Perfect Victims (1988, Academy)
In the film, the perfect victim is model-agency head Deborah Shelton (Body Double), who is stalked by an AIDS- infected rapist. Shelton also served as co-executive producer, and maybe she felt that posing seductively for cassette-box art would be beneath her: The beautiful models who do appear on the box don’t appear in the film.
The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick (1988, South Gate)
Rarely have the visual cues on a cassette package been manipulated with such shamelessness. For the theatrical run of this cute coming-of-age tale about a Jewish boy in the Canadian hinterlands, the movie poster showed its teenage star in a pensive close-up. The same artwork is used for the cassette box — but the video marketers have airbrushed a brim onto the kid’s yarmulke, making it look like a baseball cap cocked to the side. Instant innocuousness; just add chutzpah.
Grand Prix (1966, MGM/UA)
Still think some home-video marketing tactics don’t intentionally try to steer you wrong? Here’s how the cassette box for this James Garner racing film quotes movie critic Leonard Maltin: ”Spectacular racing sequences.” Now here’s his whole quote, from TV Movies and Video Guide: ”Use of split screen and spectacular sequences won’t mean much on TV.” Thus is a spinout transformed into a come-from-behind win.
Young Frankenstein (1974, Key)
If a movie itself has escaped colorization, that doesn’t mean the cassette box has. Mel Brooks’ atmospheric spoof of old Universal horror flicks, in which the eerily referential cinematography is a highlight, is one of dozens of black-and-white movies packaged as though they were in color.
Wings (1927, Paramount)
Silence is not golden on video, judging by the way some early classics are promoted. Take Wings, the first film to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Its ”digitally recorded score” is prominently touted on the box, but what the packaging fails to mention is that Wings was made as a silent film and has no sound other than that newly recorded score.