A column where horror and nostalgia meet. Topics range from VHS, Vinyl, repertory screenings and a hodge-podge of anything else horror related that that harkens back to the days of yesteryear.
The VHS format rocks. Mono audio? Tracking issues? 4:3 picture? Bring it. Let me tell you why.
After a prolonged absence spanning most of the ‘00s until last year from watching films on VHS I decided to give the format a shot again. Like the transition from tapes to CDs, I quickly dropped VHS in favor of DVDs (and then later DVDs for Blu-ray). I suffer from early-adopter syndrome. That combined with the promise of higher quality home viewing it seemed an obvious progression, and it certainly is for the vast majority of films. However, there lives another breed of nearly forgotten films along with classics that demand to be seen on VHS.
I trace back my VHS revival to revival (aka repertory) screenings. I’ve attended hundreds of classic 35MM presentations of cult classics, films not even the most dedicated cinephile has even heard of, and just about everything in between. Those screenings are, without doubt, my favorite cinematic experiences (as long as the audience is there to enjoy the film, not mock it.) Even when the print is faded and the audio sucks it’s still a great time. I attended a screening of The Funhouse last year at Cinefamily in Los Angeles and I swear it looked like we were watching the flick through a goddamn lampshade. Still, that screening captured something that the streaming or DVD version can’t. There’s a rawness and grittiness or, as the French and Americans trying to be French say, a certain “Je ne sais quoi” to those old 35MM reels. This is something that I happily found out also translates to VHS.
Which brings me back to my decision to jump down the VHS rabbit hole. All it took was a trip to the Goodwill and six bucks. That visit netted me a VHS player and a rather old looking copy of Halloween. (It turned out to be an original release from MEDIA, a prominent distributor in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, which was founded none other than Charles Band of Full Moon and Wizard fame.) Seriously, six bucks to get going and the Goodwill was even playing that Macklemore song while I was there. Not even joking. Then I did some digging at home and came across an old box which contained the remnants of my VHS collection. This consisted of a tape of a family vacation to Alaska and for some unknown reason a copy of The Dentist 2 starring Corbin Bernsen. For reference, the best I can tell is I bought that tape new in 1998 and kept it with me through about 10 moves covering 3 states. One cannot simply get rid of Corbin.
I quickly discovered my inner collector had just found something “new” to set its laser focus on. Sure, I already collect original one sheet posters and even a few dolls (I mean bad ass macho action figures), but VHS was altogether a different beast. I was hooked on both the aesthetic box art and the actual joy of watching the films on the same format that I and many others had first enjoyed them on. From there it wasn’t long before I was scouring thrift stores, eBay and local shops for flicks I wanted. It also didn’t take long to realize that this endeavour would not always be so cheap. If you’re gonna collect VHS you might as well get the first editions, right?
Not too long after all of that I hosted an all-horror VHS night at my place and invited a few like-minded friends over. I arranged my rapidly growing VHS collection to mimic a Mom and Pop video rental shop that I named Micah’s Pick-a-Flick. I let guests peruse the collection before deciding on the evening’s picks. It was a Friday night straight outta 1995! The group settled on the absolutely awful Xtro 2 followed by the classic Stephen Dorph vehicle The Gate. We drank, ate boxed movie candies and had a freakin’ blast. Next time I think I’ll institute a ‘80s/’90s dress code. Wait. Did I just become a horror hipster? F*ck.
Kidding aside the night did evoke a strong sense of nostalgia and lengthy discussions about the days of renting videos based almost solely on the box art. Taking a chance on something you’ve never heard of. Discovering a gem amongst the crap, which is how I discovered Evil Dead — a night I will never forget. There’s something magical in those old box covers and tapes. Something that almost everyone who grew up during the home video boom remembers fondly. One of my friends brought up how the creatures in The Gate appeared scarier than they did on the HD version (formerly available on Netflix) due to the limits of VHS clarity. She was right.
And VHS appears destine to continue its comeback and not just in my apartment. The flick V/H/S and its soon-to-be-released sequel play on this trend by blending old and new formats rather cleverly. Numerous films are being released and re-released on VHS format (including the aforementioned V/H/S that sold out of its first U.S. VHS run in a few hours and whose UK PAL version commands serious quid on eBay.) Wizard Video unearthed a ton of original clamshell-sized VHS from their horror heyday and are re-releasing them (with newly duplicated VHS tapes.) And now in 2013 two documentaries focusing specifically on VHS are being unleashed (Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking). Rewind This! recently played to much success at SXSW. Adjust Your Tracking premieres on April 5th in Los Angeles at the Days of the Dead convention.
I asked one of the co-directors of Adjust Your Tracking, Dan Kinem, for his thoughts on VHS post-completion of his film. He had this to say:
“I feel like VHS is here to stay. For many it never truly left and for others it just took some time to remember how great it was. For as long as there are movies you can only watch on VHS I will always keep a VCR running. And for as long as there are people who remember growing up with VHS it will always hold a special place in their heart. Some of my earliest memories as a film fan are watching VHS so I’m never going to throw that away for any new format. I think the value of tapes that are truly rare is only likely to go up the older they become and I think marketing limited and collectible VHS, for the right types of movies, will continue. Fans of genre cinema love collectibles and in my cases the movies being marketed on tape nowadays works best on the format with the gritty, imperfect-look VHS provides. Collectors who are in it for the fad will die out eventually, but there will always be a hardcore fan base of collectors scouring the thrift stores and flea markets and looking on eBay at 3 am hoping to find a steal no one else has noticed. VHS will live forever.”
I’m in that latter group. I forgot how great VHS was. It’s a relationship that I once neglected, but going forward will cherish always.
So tell me: Has the VHS bug bitten you? Did you ever stop collecting? Are you down with new films on VHS? Do you remember a tape you used to watch over and over? Let’s chat.
Follow Micah on Twitter and make sure to check out Poster Collective, his movie poster specific site which is releasing a brand new limited edition screen print for the sic-fi classic, Metropolis, on April 5th.