VHS tapes

A recent episode of The Projection Booth podcast (one I started listening to because I’ve enjoyed Mike’s Cashiers du Cinemart magazine) focused on the subject of VHS. While most folks have moved way beyond VHS (and physical formats in general), the giant cassettes have made a comeback in recent years with new producers popping up and collectible tapes fetching hundreds and hundreds of dollars on eBay. How popular have they gotten? Enough for this episode to be over four hours long featuring interviews with directors of four separate documentaries in the works about VHS (ETA: a few weeks later, they did a 2 1/2 hour follow-up!). Having grown up on VHS, practically living at Medford’s mom-and-pop rental shop (first West Coast Video, then Couch Potatoes, which existed up until just a couple of years ago) and still owning a pretty sizable VHS collection, I was enthralled by this look back at the history of the format, the huge cultural impact it had allowing people to not only bring movies home to watch but to record content from television, and the recent resurgence the format has seen. One of the movies featured in the episode is Rewind This!, a film whose Kickstarter campaign I tossed a few bucks at a while back. It looks like it’s going to a fun flick, as does the last one featured in the episode, Plastic Movies Rewound. The latter will feature a 30-minute segement on forgotten and virutally unknown alternate formats that go way beyond Beta, Laserdisc, and Videodisc.

The Projection Booth solicited call-in contributions, so I shared my memories. It can be heard at about 42 minutes in, or being the egomaniac I am, I trimmed it down to just my portion so I could embed it here:

In the first story, I discuss my attempts at copying tapes as a teenager. I would rent a bunch of movies on the cheapest day of the week from the local video store and the copy the ones I didn’t have a chance to watch (or that I really liked) using a crappy portable VCR that I’d rent from the public library for $1. Unfortunately, thanks to annoying (but admittedly clever) copy protection schemes like Macrovision, copies would fade in and out making them barely watchable. (Side note: how can there be no videos on YouTube with examples of what copies of copy protected videos looked like?).

In the second story, I talk about Movie Mania at the former Pennsuaken Mart in New Jersey. Movie Mania still exists at the “new” mart in Willingboro, but I haven’t visited so I can’t compare it, but the original was a wonderful place where the most obscure titles could be found and if not found, ordered. Indeed, I special ordered both Anguish and the big box version of Zombie for significantly less that they would have cost me paying “Rental-Only” pricing.

I admit to having some level of nostalgia related to VHS, but it’s not so much for the format itself. After all, the movies released on VHS were rarely letterboxed (at least until near the end of the format’s lifecycle) and the quality was not-so-hot compared to the formats that replaced it. What I am nostalgic for is the community that surrounded the VHS era. I practically lived at West Coast Video (and later, Couch Potatoes) and any money that I earned that didn’t go to CDs from Tunes went to renting movies. And rarely did I rent the blockbuster of the day. Instead, I was renting catalog horror titles–the weirder the better–or old, mid-80s WWF tapes. Usually the local video shop didn’t hassle me about renting R-rated films at 15-years-old, but every so often I’d run into an overzealous new clerk that was adamant about being an upstanding citizen.

There was also the thrill of visiting video shops in new towns or, when I was in college, making a trip to TLA Video in Philly since it was near where my dad worked. Their selection blew my mind and started to introduce me to the more obscure titles by foreign directors that I loved. I’d watched Peter Jackson’s ultra-bloody Dead/Alive probably two dozen times on the screener copy my friend Dave gave me, but it wasn’t until TLA that I was able to see his earlier work like Bad Taste or the sick Meet the Feebles. Likewise for the harder-to-find (at the time) Argento and Fulci films and even more obscure arthouse flicks I was just starting to get into.

I won’t lie: I love being able to stream movies from Netflix at will or being able to watch random Weng Weng movies in full on YouTube, just like I wouldn’t give up my MP3 collection and music streaming subscription for anything. But I still appreciate physical formats and, even more, the community surrounding and experience of finding, renting, and buying movies (and music) at brick-and-mortar stores. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of mini-resurgence of video stores in a few years the same way new record shops have started popping up. But, for now, I admit to longing a bit for the Friday night trip to the rental store to stock up on videos for weekend viewing.

Recently, I’ve been feeling a bit of an urge to revisit a lot of the old media that’s in my basement. For a while, the Normal Bias project has been underway, but I think I need to revisit my old VHSes. Perhaps a video series?

Also published on Medium.