VHS or Bust: An Introduction

Video. Home. System.

It’s unlikely JVC had any idea how prophetic their abbreviation for a home video player would be, but it couldn’t have been more perfect. When the VHS format first debuted in the late 1970’s, the world of movies (and, more specifically, movie watching) was forever changed. Never before had mass consumers been given the opportunity to control when and where they watched a film. Movies were frequently shown on TV, of course, but the primary place of consumption was still the theater. VHS changed all that, and within a decade the home video market had become not only ubiquitous, but also affordable.

Rental stores were a booming business, with Blockbuster Video leading the pack, its clean white shelves lined four-deep with stacks of the newest releases. Who could forget those clogged strip-mall parking lots, and the noisy stores teeming with families methodically scouring the shelves? Mom and Dad circled the new release wall, while brother hoped to slip a rated-R horror flick into the pile without notice, and sister picked up her favorite puppy dog or princess cartoon again, much to the nonplussed chagrin of both Mom and Dad, who would be forced to sit by when it was her turn. The very letters “VHS,” when strung together, automatically usher in a wave of nostalgia for millions of movie watchers. Ah.. yes.. This was the beginning. And as every hopeless romantic knows, it rarely gets any better than that.

Home video trends have continued to run in cycles, and format wars are now practically par for the course. But when JVC’s VHS format fought it out with Sony’s Beta-Max in the early eighties, it marked the first bloody battle of this ongoing war. Many a junk-heap graveyard has since been littered with the remains of other upstart format newcomers. Some never advanced beyond the pages of niche catalogs (HD-VHS? Video CD?), while others simply lost the bet (such as HD-DVD, which any XBOX 360 owner will roll their eyes at the mention of.) DVD and Laserdisc are the only real exceptions, formats that slid in and occupied the collectors market uncontested for a time, only to become passé in the shadow of a newer, sexier video format.

But VHS is the undisputed King Granpappy of them all. It’s the first one that WORKED, hook line and sinker, and it mapped the course for everything that would follow. Before VHS, home video as we know it today simply didn’t exist. Thus, for almost all cinephiles (or at least those who are old enough to have lived it) VHS played a significant part in their movie education. However, in the preceding years, VHS has fallen dramatically out of favor. By today’s content delivery standards, VHS is a rickety old dinosaur; a machine, with moving parts. Today, with as little as a mouse or remote click, a movie can be cued up and on your screen, often in higher resolution than it may have originally been shown. VHS was a contraption. It was heavy. It could break, and often, it did. And now, for most people, it’s history.

But let’s be realistic about this–It’s no good pouring too much hollow nostalgia on a dead format. Nobody clings to their abacus when calculators are built into every cell phone, right? It’s the movies that matter, and as long as they’re all still around, everything is OK. But the fact remains that the death of a format inevitably leads to a decline in the availability of certain percentage of content. Video companies go under, rights issues get muddled, and before you know it, another title is lost forever to the dust bin. This can sometimes be the case even with major studios; their outputs are so voluminous that it’s easy (and often also in their financial interest) to let certain titles slide into obscurity and focus their efforts on better known, more well-loved properties instead. Though most of the big players are savvy enough to put out feelers and gauge demand on certain titles, none of them can say that everything in their back catalog will survive on video forever.

There was a time when this kind of video-bounty-hunting could be driven to levels of epic sport. Bootlegs were one thing, but to acquire a proper VHS of something like Lynch’s Eraserhead, or Linklater’s Slacker, or even hardcore nostalgia junk like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie or UHF, was something akin to spearing the white whale. Later, of course, the internet happened, and pretty soon nothing was sacred or un-ownable anymore. The sport was gone.

So now then: if vinyl records can mount a commercial resurgence on a wave of nostalgia, why not VHS? We’re already seeing some rumblings of this (such as when House of the Devil was released on VHS early this year.) Picture quality be damned! Pan and scan! Warts and all! I think it’s time for a critical re-evaluation of the format. Who’s with me??

So, I give you “VHS or Bust.” This series will highlight rare, unloved VHS orphans, which have no proper Reg. 1 DVD release (let’s not wade into the murky waters of import DVDs), all of which are available via the Facets Videotheque. I may even perhaps dabble with occasional forays into some of the history, stories, and tips & tricks behind the format. I’m here to make you a VHS aficionado, and the Facets Videotheque offers an amazing catalog through which to acquire tons of the many gems that have gotten left behind in the many format crossovers since.

Bottom line: there are far too many movies you may never get the chance to see unless you are willing and able to find and view them on VHS. So wipe the dust bunnies off that old girl and head over to Facets, where they’ve got enough great offerings to keep you occupied until well after the next format war is over. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be more than happy to sit this one out.

FIRST UP IN THE SERIES:

Candy Mountain (1987). Directed by Robert Frank from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid).

WANT TO SUGGEST A TITLE? I’M ALL EARS. PLEASE SEND RECOMMENDATIONS TO: (emcflat at hotmail dot com)

RECOMMENDED READING: Total Rewind – An exhaustive history of the format through its many incarnations and its battle for home video supremacy, as well as a really nifty virtual museum of VHS curiosities and vintage machines.

Gregory Hess was born and raised in Chicago. He is a former video store clerk now in exile at Roosevelt University in pursuit of a career in journalism. His favorite movie is The Magnificent Ambersons and his favorite actor is Boris Karloff. You can find him elsewhere on the interwebs at http://bluecollarfilmscholar.blogspot.com and on twitter at http://twitter.com/emcflat. His VCR of choice is a GoVideo DVR4175 DVD/VCR combo unit.

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