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The VHS Effect: Farewell to a Friend

It started off innocently enough.

“Maybe I’ll just upgrade JAWS. I hear the picture on the new DVD is excellent. And it’ll be nice to get rid of this bulky two-tape version.”

My intentions were good. Even pure. Why not obtain my absolute favorite film at its technical best? Why couldn’t that be the lone exception to my otherwise “VHS only” mindset? It’s not like buying one DVD would open the door to ditching all my VHS tapes.

No way that would happen. No. Way.

…But it did.

The transition was slow. Barely noticeable. At first my reasoning dictated that the titles I chose to upgrade had to benefit from the dynamism that only DVD could offer.

Die Hard.

The Perfect Storm.

Even Speed!

And then there were the less showy films I absolutely loved and wanted at their best.

Session 9.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Ace Fuckin’ Ventura.

It just got way out of control way too fast. Before I knew it, I was trading in tapes hand-over-fist, or selling them online for substantial cash. I was delighted to accumulate shelf space; to regain “the whole film experience” (a widescreen aspect ratio); to look at my VHS collection with a more critical eye and determine if I really, truly needed to own Mountaintop Motel Massacre. (Spoiler: I did. But I would realize it far too late.)

halloweenMy first VHS purchase was a Blockbuster exclusive release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was 1995, I was in fifth grade, and I had ridden my bike six miles to obtain it. For ten years following, I would be an avid collector, amassing well over a thousand tapes (including seven different VHS iterations of Halloween). Stacks of tapes were brought home nearly every weekend, and from multiple choice spots–from the shiniest Hollywood Videos to the scummiest farmer’s markets. Special excursions, reserved only for every so often, found us in nearby cities in video stores bigger than libraries, and it was there that you could actually purchase titles off the rental shelf. Personal points of pride during this rich period were Return of the Living Dead, Phantasm III, and Eraserhead, in their original, uncut cases. I planned it so that my one thousandth tape purchase was Freddy vs. Jason, a film I not only unabashedly loved, but which also represented the culmination of the franchises that cemented my love for the genre at a young age. My last tape purchase would be Tod Browning’s macabre masterpiece Freaks, two years following the release of the final VHS tape by a major studio (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence).

During this recent VHS resurgence, commemorated by the loving retrospective documentaries Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking, I’ve found myself looking on in sad awe at the featured collections not unlike the one I used to have, recalling my own oddball titles, and whispering to the impassioned collectors on screen, “I used to be one of you.”

VHS was magic. A time capsule. A revolution. The next step in loving film. No longer was the flickering picture on the silver theater screen confined only to your memory, nor was the one-time chance to catch its rare airing on broadcast television your only redemption. You could wait, patiently, for West Coast Video or your local mom-n-pop store to begin selling off their excess rental copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, or you could snap it up on release day, brand new, for a paltry $99. Either way, those pizza-loving heroes in a half-shelf had to be yours—and they would be, at any cost.

VHS encouraged casual film fans to become collectors, and organically, these collectors became cineastes, swapping tapes with gleeful collaborators clamoring to see the newest, greatest discovery. Little-seen films spread from person to person like a beautiful virus. Small films that made small splashes in theaters were appropriated by legions of fans and eventually became favorites. It no longer mattered that The Monster Squad failed to ignite at the theatrical box office; on video, it would, instead, ignite the imaginations of horror-loving children (as it did mine)—over and over again.

Like most things, VHS wasn’t fully appreciated until after it had passed away. DVD had taken off like a rocket, so the purging of this magnetic tape technology was a sad inevitability. But the change didn’t really hit home until video stores went through their own transformation. No longer on their shelves were there handfuls of warm, inviting cardboard covers stuffed with styrofoam blocks proudly showing off a reworked iteration of the film’s theatrical poster; in their places were cold plastic cases in capitalistic amounts, labeled in sterile company fonts, automaton-like in their uniformity.

In the beginning of the DVD transition, everyone had questions.

“What does that mean for the ocean of VHS tapes already in the world? What about someone like me who refuses to upgrade to DVD? What if I accidentally break or lose my copy of Batman or Clerks? Will studios still be making new ones? And what if my VCR takes a shit? Will stores still carry them? How much longer will VCRs be produced if companies are no longer putting newer films on VHS?”

“What’s going to happen to my collection?”

Overnight, VHS went from a premier technology to a clunky pile of hard plastic stacked in every corner of every living room, where certain titles would be cherry-picked before the leftovers hit the goodwill box or garbage can. This thing that had literally changed the way people discovered and loved films had instantly been looked upon like a bad dream: quivery picture, the “pan and scan” frame, and except for the very rare release, no special features to speak of.

We even had to rewind them! What cavemen we were!

VHS to DVD was a massive quality upgrade—we know this—but there’s no denying that it left much of collecting’s magic behind. Sure, films had become available in their directors’ original aspect ratios, with their preferred color timings permanently locked into that digital sea of ones and zeroes, never to fade as their magnetic tape counterparts began to dissolve. Mind-blowing releases like Anchor Bay’s four-disc Dawn of the Dead provided fans with every alternate cut of their favorite film to enjoy, and massive supplements to pore over—all which provided fabulous new heights of appreciation for a horror staple. Admittedly, it was an exciting time to be a film collector—especially horror. But for each title resurrected in a brand new digital release, a little mystique was taken from it in the process. Because certain films wear their age and budget like a badge of honor. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one—a low-budget, late-‘70s, semi-sequel to his bonafide classic Night of the Living Dead. If you’re like me—born after the theatrical bows of many 1970s-’80s classics and therefore were only able to experience them in your friends’ basements—you discovered Dawn of the Dead like I did: with a forbidden VHS tape, smuggled into the house behind your back, to be played only after double- and triple-checking that your mother had gone to bed for the night.

Dawn_of_the_dead-vhsFilms like Dawn of the Dead felt forbidden; relics from another time; created and then instantly forgotten. Same for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes (films that actually play better the shittier they look). Without previous knowledge of that baggage “classic” label, they felt dangerous and not meant for human eyes, and this feeling of obscurity became married to the entire VHS format. There was an excitement in going to record-and-tape traders, pawnshops, yard sales, and flea markets, never knowing what you would find. Forget Dawn of the Dead—stumbling upon those really aloof titles like Crazy Fat Ethel 2, or Dead Meat, or this fever dream I once had called Gore-Met: Zombie Chef from Hell, felt tantamount to discovering pornography at thirteen. It was exciting to explore this uncharted territory, always with the sensation that you should not be doing this. Because…anyone could make a film and put it on VHS. And knowing that, what madness awaited you? Sliding a mysterious tape into your VCR became Russian Roulette: you had no idea if you were going to have the best night of your life or your worst. Films of this questionable pedigree felt even more forbidden post-DVD when knowing these particular titles hadn’t been salvaged and transported into the new format. And maybe they never would be. Maybe VHS copies and the occasional one-sheet sold on eBay would be the final sign, long after their original casts and crews have died off, that these films actually existed. For every schlock title like The Pit or Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror that was resurrected for DVD, a little magic was lost. Films that felt like your little secret suddenly had Amazon description pages and appeared in DVD review columns of print and online publications. People hadn’t forgotten these films existed after all, and it ruined the fun—just a little.

If that weren’t bad enough, there was, and is, another issue plaguing collectors—the physical tapes themselves.

Within the recognition that nothing lasts forever, the very components of VHS technology are especially temporary. With each viewing of your film of choice, the magnetic tape within degrades—just a little. Incrementally. Over time, your repeated viewings begin to manifest in the form of scrolling lines, fuzzy scenes, or a white flash-bang explosion as your VCR struggles through two inches of splicing tape. Whether you watch that VHS religiously, or once every few years, the clock is ticking on its integrity, and there is nothing you can do about it. Store it in the most ideal environment, sans humidity, temperature-moderated, sealed in plastic—that tape is going to rot. While this is the worst aspect of the technology, it’s also a philosophy that should extend to every aspect of your life. Your relationships, your passions, your life’s work—it’s all as temporary as your copies of Split Second or Pumpkinhead 2. Nothing lasts. Everything is fleeting.

Cherish what you have while you have it.

commandoOne sole VHS tape remains in my semi-possession—via joint ownership with a chap named Brian, my good friend of many years. The final holdout to have survived my magnetic tape purge—my love for it, and what it represents—is a constant reminder of what I gave away. Yes, that used copy of Commando I’d purchased for three dollars all those years ago is still going strong. (It’s outlived two VCRs and is currently dominating a third.) It doesn’t play nearly as well now as it did eleven years and three hundred viewings ago, but it’s still willing to tell us the same thrilling story of rescue and revenge and absurd masculinity, now sporting an array of scrolling distress lines over the scenes we rewind over and over. (They usually involve Sully.) Effort is made to watch it at least once a month when we get together—even just a few minutes. We easily pick up where we left off, whether it’s John Matrix leaping from an airplane’s landing gear or arch villain Bennett waxing philosophically about the worth of men. Like a good friend, the film stops when the night ends and loyally waits for us to pick it back up at our next session. That tape might as well be a photograph, or a journal entry. It has played over and over during bad breakups, first houses, new jobs, the passing of family and friends. It’s captured life, in snippets, and it represents me: what I love, who I love, and the simple things that bring me pleasure. (And as John Matrix always says, “Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure.”)

One of the most conflicting movements in recent years has been that of the VHS revival. Like vinyl, which had momentarily regressed into an easy punchline to signify someone’s out-of-touchness with the times, the VHS resurrection is romantic and inspiring…but also a little sad. It’s romantic because this very people-led rebirth, far from the money-driven clutches of film studios or distributors, is refusing to let the format die. These collectors of the past are traversing the world to find the most random title, the most obscure release, to rescue it from the tote or shelf or cardboard box where it’s spent most of its post-digital life—all to give it a permanent home.

That’s a beautiful thing, and they are beautiful for doing it.

But the VHS rebirth is, like I said, also a little sad.

Because, well…

I used to be one of them.

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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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