Friday, August 7, 2015

Don't Call It A Comeback — Return Of The VHS?

Is VHS making a comeback?

Never mind the vinyl revival. Collectors, horror fiends, and even academics are fighting to save VHS movies from the dustbin of history
Since the mid-Eighties, Vulcan Video has been renting movies to the cineastes of Austin, Texas, from two locations. It’s pet-friendly, has free parking and boasts an extensive Jerry Lewis DVD section, as well as shelves dedicated to Asian Horror and Canadian TV shows. But the store’s unique selling point is a room full of VHS cassettes that owners Bryan and Kristen are determined to preserve – despite the fact that only one or two are rented per day.
Vulcan Video recently became world famous thanks to the US TV host Jimmy Kimmel and Matthew McConaughey, who teamed up to make an ad for the store as part of Kimmel’s late-night talk show. The result is ramshackle and very funny, but most viewers will be left doing a double-take: “Wait, video shops are still doing business?” Despite the ubiquity of online streaming services such as Netflix or iTunes, the answer is yes. But Bryan and Kristen aren’t the only ones who care about the future of VHS.
Nine years after the last major Hollywood release on the format – David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence back in 2006 – a movement to protect and preserve the obsolete format has begun. Take Yale University, which in March added a collection of 2,700 tapes to its library, to stand alongside Egyptian papyri and Lewis & Clarke expedition papers.
Josh Johnson, director of Rewind This!, a documentary about VHS collection and preservation, is delighted by the move. “It’s a small step, but it’s really the first time we’ve seen a step like this taken by an established and respectable organisation. There is no organised archival effort for preserving this material. In most cases, it’s not being done at all. My hope is that the news will motivate other universities and other organisations to do the same thing.”
Seven years after the last stand-alone video cassette recorders rolled off the production line, there is a growing realisation that the wholesale move from VHS to DVD left behind not only a wealth of films that were never transferred over but an entire culture and time period. It was VHS, after all, that first democratised film viewing and made it widely accessible.
Whole genres sprang up in this newly fertile world, from the cheaply made “video nasties” that caused a moral panic in the Eighties to the straight-to-video action movies and sequels that launched some A-list careers – including McConaughey’s – and many more Z-list ones.
But VHS protection goes beyond that. As Johnson points out, “We may not have the perspective right now to know what is worthy of preservation. Something like a training video for a fast-food corporation may seem completely without value but it could be an important way to analyse who we are and how we perceived ourselves as a culture at a particular time. So it’s imperative that we don’t treat videotape as garbage, because if we do a piece of our shared history is going to vanish.”
Trash or treasure? Yale University is preserving thousands of VHS titles
(Flickr/VHS Dude)
By some estimates as many as 50% of films available on VHS have not ever been released on DVD, and lots more cover art – some hand-drawn, some lurid, but all emblematic of an era – risks being lost forever. Video collector Dale Lloyd, who runs the Midland-based Viva VHS, adds, “It's not just the films. A lot of the trailers that play beforehand are extremely sought after and could be lost forever if not preserved.”
Lloyd curates selections of trailers to screen at the Good Bad Film Club at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, and in March ran a pop-up rental operation called Video Palace as part of Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival. For him, it’s the chance to discover new films that is key to his collection.
“I am constantly baffled by so-called movie lovers who dislike videotape,” he says. “I mean, what self-respecting film fan would close the door on the mere notion of extra material? You should want to be able to see everything. For example, fans of Richard Linklater can only own the brilliant SubUrbia on VHS. The same goes for Edgar Wright and his debut feature, A Fistful of Fingers.”
While VHS collecting is still a largely underground culture, rare and sought-after titles – most of them banned as video nasties – can cost thousands of pounds. 1977’s The Beast in Heat will usually fetch upwards of £1,000, largely because few copies escaped the ban intact.
Museum pieces: fake modern-day
VHS covers designed by Julien Knez (
Among the films on most collectors’ holy grail lists are the John Carradine-hosted shockumentary Journey Into the Beyond, nursing school horror The Jekyll and Hyde Portfolio, Nazi monster movie Flesh Eaters, haunted house horror Satan War and 1975 vampire drama Lemora, Lady Dracula. Find one of those in good condition, and you can pretty much name your price.
Time is running out to preserve video, because even aside from the limitations of the format itself – the scratches, the dust, the risk that a faulty VCR will chew up your tape and spit it out – video mould will soon chew through any tapes not properly cared for. “I have probably lost a hundred or so tapes since I began collecting to dreaded mould issues,” says Lloyd.
“Once on the spools, it can't be easily cleaned and I warn against placing it in your video player for fear of infecting other tapes. As long as you keep them in a controlled temperature and not against an external wall, you will be free from mould. But that's easier said than done when the collection is, like mine, over 4,000.”
Even aside from the academic case for preserving all of those films and their cover art and attendant trailers, there’s a nostalgia element to VHS, from the old BBFC certification warnings to the scratches and jumps on a much-loved tape. How else to explain the choice of some filmmakers, even now, to celebrate the format?
A special edition of the horror film V/H/S
Horror anthology series V/H/S builds its stories around a tape collection; digital files and downloads clearly lack the same power to shock. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse experiment replicated those endless trailers and some of the scratchy title sequence of a rental video.
Some companies have even sprung up to continue releasing VHS. Boutique US labels like Bleeding Skull! produce limited edition videos of hard-to-find films, most of them in the horror genre, and offer digital downloads for those who want the content but not the bulky box.
“We want these movies to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible,” explains Bleeding Skull! co-founder Joseph Ziemba. “All the Bleeding Skull! Video titles were released on VHS in tiny quantities, only released in foreign markets, or never released. But they were originally intended for the VHS format. That's why we release these movies on VHS. After decades, filmmakers like James Bryan (Run Coyote Run) and Pat Bishow (The Soultangler) can finally see their visions realised. At the same time, we understand that it's 2015. Not everyone owns a VCR. Our video-on-demand options make it possible for anyone to see the movies.”
If VHS preservation efforts are to really take off, they are going to have to go beyond mere collection and into archival efforts and digital duplication, so that the content will outlive the physical objects. “We breathe a sigh of relief after each movie is transferred,” says Ziemba. “Digital archiving is very important. Most of the movies that we release were shot on videotape, and those masters won't last forever, mostly because they were stored under someone's bathroom sink for 30 years.”
Bleeding Skull!'s VHS reisssue of James Bryan's cult exploitation film Run Coyote Run
In the new Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young, the twentysomethings played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried fill their Brooklyn apartment with hipster effects like vinyl and VHS tapes (as Noami Watts's character observes: “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it). So will VHS become the new vinyl, a cool symbol of your great taste in films?
Well, probably not. VHS wasn’t the best quality format even in its heyday – Betamax was better – and now it pales into comparison with DVD, Blu-ray and hi-definition streaming services.
“I don’t think the VHS revival will ever take on the same numbers as vinyl,” says Johnson. “A lot of audiophiles prefer the sound of vinyl but even people who are enthusiastic about collecting VHS tapes don’t view the format as inherently superior. A majority are seeking a nostalgic recreation of the way they initially experienced this material, or they’re looking to access material that isn’t available any other way.”

Godfather Trilogy VHS Collection courtesy of theKONGSHOP via eBay
But hard-core collectors show no signs of giving up on the format. Says Lloyd, “Any videotape containing material that isn't widely available on DVD/Blu or streaming platforms should be treated as a cultural artefact. It should be digitised and preserved for future generations to enjoy.”
And as Ziemba puts it, “As far as the recent interest in the format goes, I’m glad that people are obsessing over something that makes them genuinely happy. I’ve been collecting VHS my entire adult life, and in my house, VHS will never die.”

Seek and ye shall rewind: 5 great films only available to own on VHS

  1. • SubUrbia
     (1997). Richard Linklater’s misanthropic comedy about disaffected teens is director’s only film not to be released on DVD.
  2. • The Decline of Western Civilisation Part 2 - The Metal Years(1988). Very funny all-star rock documentary, finally getting a DVD release in June.
  3. • Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970). Carrie Snodgrass was Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of woman trapped in a loveless marriage. VHS copies are rare.
  4. • Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back (2000). A predictably overblown rock biopic, starring the singer himself in the title role.
  5. • The Last Roman (1968). Even its dazzling cast - Laurence Harvey, Honor Blackman, Orson Welles - couldn’t secure this lavish historical drama a DVD release. — Helen O' Hara | The Telegraph

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