R.I.P. VHS

It’s hard to imagine anyone fetishizing DVDs, though I’m sure some must. Someone out there knows each and every day he or she bought a different release of Army of Darkness. Someone out there sleeps with their Necronomicon case from The Evil Dead–didn’t it smell too? The initial Anchor Bay release (remember when Anchor Bay meant something? That was 1999, right?), not the second one. Actually, maybe someone could fetishize the early days of DVD, hunting the Internet for the best coupon–or when you could sign up for Netflix for free, over and over again, before they started the whole queue thing. I can’t even remember the names of all the places I used to buy DVDs. Now it’s Amazon, nowhere else for in print, R1 titles. Who else misses Xploited Cinema?

But this post isn’t about DVDs, it’s supposed to be about VHS. VHS is–for anyone paying attention–dead. It’s not a violent death or even an audible one. The measure for VHS’s death is something silly, like the last supplier ceasing to carry them. And I don’t think it was a first run supplier, I think it was a remainder supplier. I could be wrong. I read the article, but I didn’t pay much attention. Well, I did, actually; I did not, however, pay much attention to why VHS was all of a sudden declared dead in 2008. Declaring VHS dead–it’s been on life support since the last major release… A History of Violence, I think–is like those guys who announce, after a year of research, a recession started a year ago. I wish I could remember the name of the organization–NPR talked about them a while ago. Maybe right after gas prices fell so much.

VHS is easy to fetishize. How many different kinds of boxes did VHS tapes come in? Every video store had a slightly different box–except the cheap clear cases, which Phar-Mor started in Evanston (with the squeeze bottoms). Lots of places eventually got the cheap clear cases. A friend of mine’s supermarket had a VHS rental section–this was in Michigan, I don’t think any of the supermarkets in Evanston ever got a rental section while I was there–they had clear cases. They might have been a little different, but it’s the same principal. With the clear case, the customer also takes the cover art. It saves both shelf space and money–the cover art takes up room–even Blockbusters eventually pulled cover boxes of old titles to make room. Remember when Blockbusters first opened? It was a sea of movies you’d never seen in a regular, mainstream video store. Not just the T&A–and did the DTV T&A in the 1990s get big because Blockbuster wouldn’t carry X-rated–but the crappy horror movies, the ancient SP release of that last original Godzilla movie, the one with him and the other monster on the World Trade Center for the box art. The closest I ever came to repeating that experience of the first Blockbuster (it wasn’t until looking around one realizes there’s no point in renting most of those movies) was at DJ’s Video in Ashland, OR. That place was and might still be–but I don’t think so, because they now have a crappy website and don’t appear to rent The Legend of the Lone Ranger anymore–an amazing place.

So there were the side opening boxes, for your recordable VHS, there were the clear plastic, take the box art with you boxes, there were the black clamshell boxes, looked like a library would have them, there were the regular VHS boxes, there were the Disney-esque clamshell, which other kids’ releases later picked up, or the modified clamshell studios used for special releases (I think Anchor Bay’s VHS arm used them too). There were even the big boxes, for the older, early VHS releases.

No one fetishizes about Warner’s stupid snapper DVD cases or that weird one Fargo came in the first time it was on DVD. Or maybe someone does. Just not someone who would understand what I’m talking about here.

DVD offers anyone the opportunity to appreciate good cinema. Only a small number of significant films aren’t available widescreen–Warner and Star 80, I’m talking about you. Anyone can pop a DVD into his or her player or laptop or whatever and get a full experience of, say, Once Upon a Time in the West. That film was pan and scan on tape. I think I had the laserdisc–how did Paramount go from being a top laserdisc company to a crappy DVD company? Laserdisc also offered anyone the opportunity to appreciate good cinema. VHS offered it–except, what, Manhattan, Innerspace and The Insider–for titles shot in Academy Ratio… though, as Leonard Maltin points out, films shot 1.66:1 didn’t suffer too much. And then there was open matte to think about, so it’s hard to say how much one missed when watching 1.85:1 films on VHS. It was a case to case–I know Back to the Future was open matte 4:3, but were Super 35 films too? The non-Cameron ones?

The point.

Sorry, forgot about the point for a second.

VHS is the reason I love movies. It’s not the reason I appreciate good cinema. It’s the reason I know what The Thin Man is and Die Hard and Star Trek II (remember when you realize Khan is really a great film, not just a good Star Trek movie). I watched American Graffiti on tape, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Manhunter, Thief (the non-director’s cut). I watched Monster Squad on VHS and Iron Eagle and Highlander and Predator 2. I used to buy used VHS tapes at my video store, used to get on a list for a used copy.

“Be Kind Rewind.” “One dollar rewind charge.”

VHS rewinding. The tape coming out of the machine when something went really, really wrong. The security stickers. The worn out labels. Cracked cases–the glass part where you saw through to the tape. Dusty VHS tapes, not kept in their proper boxes. The little tab you broke out to make sure it was write-protected. The difference between SP, LP, EP, SLP. Super-VHS. I loved my Super-VHS player (and still do today). DVHS. I remember when I heard about DVHS. I wanted one of the recorders. How did Tivo beat DVHS? Doesn’t anyone want to save something they record off of TCM. I still have tapes from AMC, back before they sucked, of things no one else has shown. I saw Wild River on tape (from AMC). But this post isn’t an AMC eulogy.

I don’t think growing up on DVD someone can really love movies. I think they can like them, maybe be an enthusiast, but not really love them. There’s no exploring anymore–Netflix fixed that problem. You can’t search for an old VHS tape at a video store ten miles away–I didn’t see the 1976 King Kong for years because our video store didn’t carry it. When we did find it, the store had a two tape set. Two tape sets… I loved two tape sets.

Loving movies means participating. It means pouring over movie guides–do they even publish Maltin anymore… probably. But they don’t put out the Blockbuster guide, I’m sure. IMDb fixes that one. (No, I won’t insert an absurdist Amazon owns IMDb conspiracy against movie guides here).

Swamp Thing came in a big clamshell! So did Supergirl.

Obviously, there are exceptions–I am ranting, after all. I’m sure there are a hundred kids out there who love movies because of DVD, though I don’t know how it’s possible, given how comparatively crappy DVD selection is to what VHS was–I mean, where’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Warner?

Maybe ninety-eight.

But much like declaring VHS dead in 2008, I’m a little late here. The last teenager who would have grown up in a VHS, video store, movie guide culture would have done so in 2001. I think I knew that kid–I was working at a video store in 2001. And I’m sure there are some stragglers, but by now, as we approach Odyssey Two (or is it going to be The Year We Make Contact next year?), it’s got to be over.

I mean, is it possible to really love movies if you haven’t sat through a pan-and-scan Jaws or a stretched up Die Hard? I’d hazard a guess most people–movie-watching folk–don’t know the week’s DVD releases. There are usually a couple hundred. The Blockbuster I go to only lists like seven things for each week. Back in the VHS days, people couldn’t wait for movies to come out. Reservation lists. Wait lists. Late fees. Tracking.

2 thoughts on “R.I.P. VHS”

  1. Excellente article, brought back so many memories…. Like
    when I was a kid my dream was to have those rental stores shelves
    full of horror movies at my place. Gremlins, Pet Sematary, A
    Nightmare on Elm Street, Galaxy of Terror…. Today I’ve surpassed
    1000 DVDs dreadfully arranged and piled up in my closet, but no
    stylish shelf!

  2. I’m completely agree with you how growing up discovering movies via TV and VHS tapes (both prerecorded and recordable) enabled a quite different relation to cinema. For me, growing up in the 80s, the lack of accessibility and difficulty of finding classic and non-English language cinema was the reality I had to grapple with. What this meant was that one had to put in effort to find information on films and filmmakers in very user unfriendly forms (Libraries, film fanzines, magazines, interviews with musicians) and then scour the pre-satellite TV schedules for upcoming treasures and local video libraries for unloved MGM or Artificial Eye releases. There’s no arguing that this involved lots of time and was in many senses very inefficient. But this situation can allow is many things one being the space & time to extend your idiosyncratic taste avenues and accidental detours not just the “more like this” recommendations of the digital sources. Maybe it’s the curmudgeon in me, but I can’t see how the immediate access available via digital sources won’t encourage a cavalier and throwaway relation to cinema.

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