Lost & Found: Iconic VHS Cover Artist Corey Wolfe's Subliminal Designs

Digital culture and the rise of DVDs have spawned the fun and often mysterious “easter egg” attribute found in many releases. The term refers to hidden features on a DVD or Blu-ray disc that must be discovered by the viewer. Whether it be a simple image or a portal into deleted scenes, photos and additional information about the release, these are placed without the knowledge of the viewer.

In retrospect, artwork can often feature similar attributes, such as the hidden initials of the artist. Alchemists from the Middle Ages often hid meanings and formulations in the images of their texts, creating a secret language made up of symbols. Much of this was due to what would be harsh and swift punishments for any claims of heresy.

Here at the Sanctum, we take pride in offering the original artwork of Corey Wolfe, a veteran illustrator who has been creating iconic VHS cover art since 1979. Some of his greatest known works include Magnum Entertainment’s Driller Killer and Drive-In Massacre, Vestron’s releases of The Kindred and Chopping Mall, and many others. 

Wolfe also has illustrated covers for Disney (more than 1,200 jobs) and sci-fi/fantasy publishers such DAW Books. Contrary to the urban legends surrounding Disney’s infamous classic VHS release for The Little Mermaid, which was recalled due to a perceived phallic symbol appearing in the original cover image, Corey Wolfe and another artist competed for that artwork. “We both submitted front and back sketches for the release,” Wolfe told the Sanctum. Disney selected Corey to design the back of the box and the questionable image from the other artist was selected for the front cover.

“I used to hide my initials in most Disney pieces,” Wolfe said. Due to a strict “no attribution” policy, artists were not permitted to sign their work for Disney. With a trained eye, however, the letters “CW” can be seen intermingled in the coral on the lower portion of The Little Mermaid's back cover. “I placed my initials in that coral five times in the hopes that one would survive,” Wolfe added. Shortly after the artwork was submitted, Wolfe received a call from Disney citing they had discovered and deleted all "four" instances where his initials had been placed in the art.

“I nearly got fired, so I slowed down on placing my initials in the art,” he said.

Wolfe remains active in the illustration field with an impressive selection of clients. His lifelong interest in metaphysics has created other references in artwork for which collectors are mostly unaware.

Magnum Entertainment’s 1985 release of Speeding Up Time, an obscure Blaxploitation/Revenge film from 1971 starring Winston Thrash and directed by John Evans, features a four-sided cover presenting the film’s main character with a burning tenement in the background, which is relevant to the plot of the film. On the back cover, Wolfe included the names  “Theo + Sophia” (i.e. Theosophy) in graffiti on the bricks above the dumpster.

What most collectors and viewers don’t know is that Wolfe placed this in the image as a reference to what he was studying at the time. Theosophy refers to systems of esoteric philosophy concerning the mysteries of being and nature, the divine, hidden knowledge or wisdom and branches of mysticism. According to Wolfe, he sought to "subliminally open the minds of viewers,” although, he conceded, no one ever questioned the reference or names. 

While not all of his illustrations hold clues to the artist's thinking, Wolfe says he is influenced by the writings of Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater and Zen philosopher Alan Watts. At the time of this writing, Wolfe was reading Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot and says he has a deep interest in radionics.

Video Sanctum is proud to work closely with Wolfe to select original paintings, sketches and printed advertising pieces used for many of our favorite VHS covers to offer to Video Era art collectors in our gallery. Each item comes with a signed Certificate of Authenticity from the artist.  Below are some of our favorite covers from Wolfe.


UP ALL NIGHT: REEL WILD CINEMA, GRINDHOUSE & LATE NIGHT TV

This members-only catalog from REEL WILD CINEMA (RWC), a mid-1990s TV show that revived lowbrow, low-budget B movies on basic cable, was created and distributed by Mondo-A-Go! Go! Productions Inc. out of N. Hollywood, Calif. Hosted by comedian and actress Sandra Bernhard, RWC was conceived by Something Weird Video's Mike Vraney , a purveyor of wild-and-weird cult films and other cinematic "trash" through his Seattle based distribution company. The show ran for a brief, two-year stint, although today's internet audiences can now watch entire episodes on Something Weird's YouTube channel.

Check out the intro from Vraney and the RWC executive producers.

TRANSCRIPT:

"Hang on! Your TV set is about to explode! REEL WILD CINEMA intends to shake things up with the most outrageous, the most obscure and the most shocking movies NEVER before shown on television. This catalog has many of our favorite exploitation/sexploitation, horror and sci-fi movies from the RWC archives.

"These 'labors of love' (often filmed on a shoe-string budget in a matter of days) have been transferred directly from their original source print or negative. Against all odds, these movies have miraculously survived decades of obscurity and adversity.

"In their day, many of these films were considered utter trash and were only shown in cheap grindhouse theaters and drive-ins across America. When the drive-ins went dark and multiplexes moved in, these movies were nearly on the brink of extinction. Due to the valiant efforts of the cinema sleuths at RWC, you can sit back and enjoy these one-shot wonders for years to come!"

Sinister Cinema: Crawling Eyes, She Beasts and flesh eaters

Audio/Video Plus's archives have turned up some of our favorite horror and sci-fi movie inserts, which were sent as a press packet to the Houston store in the mid-1990s from Sinister Cinema's Medford, Oregon headquarters.

"A man dissolves...and out of the oozing mist comes the hungry eye," reads the synopsis from THE CRAWLING EYE. A horror/terror double feature of THE SHE BEAST and THE EMBALMER advertises a full "old-time drive-in intermission." Check out HORROR HOTEL, where one only ring for doom service and the guests are over 300 years old. And THE FLESH EATERS promises "one of the greatest shockers of all time"--an ex-Nazi tests a flesh-eating strain of bacteria on shipwreck survivors on a deserted island.

Enjoy these low budget B movie scans with original artwork by James Rubino from the Sanctum!

(Images courtesy of Audio/Video Plus Archives.)

'YER PAL, MIKE VRANEY': A NOTE FROM SOMETHING WEIRD VIDEO

Audio/Video Plus was Houston's home for obscure horror and exploitation titles from 1979-2012. While the retailer catered to mainstream audiences and worked to promote the "big" releases, the store had founded itself on the premise that, "If it's released on any format, we have it."

By the mid-to-late '90s, many distributors were still releasing an abundance of film, but the heyday of stripping catalogs of the most obscure titles to simply "feed" the market were beginning to taper. Many niche, mail-order companies began offering obscure grindhouse fodder to fans of wild-and-weird cinema.

Seattle-based Something Weird Video (SWV) was probably one of the more notable distributors to come out of this era. Beginning in 1994, founder and fringe film aficianado Mike Vraney, binged on a wealth of unknown prints from the glory days of grindhouse theaters such as NYC's The Deuce (42nd Street) and the wide expanse of peep shows and drive-ins throughout the US. After joining forces with exploitation giants such David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, SWV became synonymous for delivering the strangest films on record on a mail order basis.

Fortunately for Houstonians, Audio/Video Plus covered this realm for the duration of the Video Boom. Excavated from the AVP archives, we have uncovered evidence (on SWV stationary!) that Mike Vraney made a call-seeking distribution to AVP founder Lou Berg.

Note the stationary's marquee-inspired promotion of Something Weird's drive-in trash!, naughty schoolgirls!, big bad bikers!, 60s go-go chicks, roadshow rarities, way-out hippies, blood guts & gore!, musclemen & maidens, lust-crazed psychos, dope pushers & vice dolls!, and more. 

Something Weird Video filled an important void for collectors in the mid-to-late '90s by releasing a number of titles that were either out-of-print or had yet to be discovered. The pre-dawn of the internet required the use of catalogs and US Postal service. With this letter, Mike Vraney supplied Audio/Video Plus with a near complete compendium of SWV catalogs up to 1997. Thankfully, AVP founding owner Lou had the foresight to file these away in his archives!

VidAmerica Inc. VHS/Beta Catalog "The Collectibles" Summer/Fall 1981

Collecting videotapes to keep the physical medium alive isn't new. As early as 1981—when video rentals revolutionized home viewing—a NYC-based company compiled a wide range of titles for its Summer/Fall catalog, dubbed "the collectible library."

"Whatever your tastes," VidAmerica's pocket-sized pub includes a random, obscure assortment of films, including sports documentaries Ali: Skill Brains & Guts (1975), unknown world docs such as Charles Berlitz's The Bermuda Triangle (1979), risque exploitation films such as Sugar Cookies (1973), Euro sleaze standards such as Joe D'Amato's Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976), Sci Fi, Horror classics such as The Thing (1951) and King Kong (1933), and even the oddball instructional video such as Caring for Your Newborn with Dr. Benjamin Spock.

This vintage catalog from Audio/Video Plus's 1980s archive is now a living document in the Sanctum. 

THE CIVILIAN ANTI-TERRORIST (1987)

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan decried, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" While the world was changing, the threat of invasion was real in the minds of many. All Seasons Entertainment answered the call with an instructional series titled the "Civilian Intelligence Action," promising a no-holds-barred approach to fighting invaders from your front porch. Video fans slept well knowing that Chuck Norris was on the scene and keeping America safe, but apparently the world needed more!

The Civilian Anti-Terrorist press kit advertises a live demonstration of the Manville 24-shot "Full-Auto" riot gun (12 gauge), which was manufactured and quickly taken out of production during prohibition when mobsters ruled the US. To date, the only evidence we've seen of this video release's existence is this very press kit! To the best of our knowledge, All Seasons Entertainment remained active through 1988-89 but it's unclear whether the press kit generated enough interest for a widespread release. The item is stated as a "mail-order" release so its likely only a handful of these made it into the hands of interested video viewers. Please shoot us a line if you own or have seen this release! (This press kit was featured previously by Lunchmeat.)