by Heath Holland
I wrote earlier this year about how my search to obtain rare and out-of-print movies has led me to make a return to VHS, a format that I abandoned way back before Y2K. There were just too many films that never survived the transition to DVD, let alone Blu-ray or streaming. The reasons for so many movies becoming stranded on an abandoned medium were varied, and included lapsed music licensing agreements, the bankruptcy of smaller companies and distributors, and plain ol’ lack of demand.
Back in the 1980s, EVERYTHING came out on video tape, which meant that you could walk into your local video store and rent anything you could think of, from major theatrical releases to the most obscure, low-budget titles. However, if you had to narrow it down to just ONE GENRE that thrived above all else during those halcyon days of video, it’s horror. Some of my earliest video store memories revolve around horror displays in the stores. I distinctly remember my mom taking me to one of our neighborhood video stores in 1987 to rent a Nintendo game and there was a hanging mobile for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives dangling there from the ceiling, right in the middle of the store. It featured a bloody axe with the film title written on it, and below that was Jason’s bloody hockey mask, attached by a string. The whole thing would slowly rotate in the air conditioning above your head, and I could not take my eyes off the thing for the entire time we were in the store. As far as I know, that was my first exposure to Jason Voorhees, and even though I wouldn’t get to see any of Jason’s hijinks firsthand for years, that store mobile made a huge impression.
Now I’m a grown man with a family of my own, but video still occupies a portion of my mind, part shrine, part forbidden chamber that I enter at my own peril. As crazy as it sounds, video itself -- the actual format and images seen on magnetized tape--still elicits a visceral response from me. When it’s friendly, video tape takes me back to days of watching Star Wars and Batman in the living room. When it’s vindictive, video tape can still scare the crap out of me. There’s something about video tape that movies like The Video Dead are able tap into, and even the general softness of the image itself lends itself to horror. If you didn’t grow up during the video era, these sound like the ramblings of a crazy person, but I swear video was scarier than DVD. All that haziness adds to the suspense instead of detracting from it, and let’s not forget the silent killer: tracking problems. May God have mercy on us all.
Since I’ve jumped back on the VHS horse, I often go to thrift shops and second-hand stores to look for rare movies on video tape, and I almost always run across horror films that I’ve never even heard of before. I found a movie called The Shrieking, which is an alternate title for the 1973 movie Hex, in which Keith Carradine, Gary Busey, and Scott Glenn ride into a town on motorcycles and cause mischief, not realizing that the town is home to powerful witches who will defend themselves supernaturally. I found a TV movie from 1972 called Gargoyles about an anthropologist in Mexico who uncovers real gargoyles. The movie might be unremarkable, but the fact that it was the first movie ever to feature special makeup effects by Stan Winston (for which he won a Prime Time Emmy) is not. I found a tape called Forbidden Lust VIII featuring a lonely housewife at home by herself who orders a pizza with extra Italian sausage and the hope of…wait, that’s something else entirely.
Some extra-passionate video tape devotees preach about the filmmaker’s intent and preservation of the original presentation, only it’s a Bizarro argument because they’re talking about keeping it lo-fi. Cinephiles rejoice when a film that has long been pan-and-scanned or chopped off on the sides is finally restored to its original aspect ratio, or when a long-lost silent film is rediscovered and restored to how it looked upon release. What we don’t hear much about is preserving original video presentation for movies that were made specifically for VHS. Movies like Critters 3 (Leo DiCaprio’s film debut) and Troll 2 were born on video and that’s how everyone saw them for years and years, so when we get better transfers later on, they’re being changed from how they were originally presented. It’s a slippery slope, and not a cause that I’m invested in enough to bother with, but I will say that my VHS collection is growing, and I’d rather watch some of these movies (like the ones mentioned above) on tape than on a disc because it just feels right. I have Troll 2 on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, but I hope to one day upgrade to an original VHS.
I’m clearly not alone, because video distributors that had been shuttered for years have skittered out of the holes in the walls to offer horror on video tape once again. As physical media becomes more and more a collector’s pursuit, it’s going to become increasingly comprised of niche sub-groups of collectors, like VHS horror fans. That’s what companies like Intervision Wizard Video, and MPI’s Gorgon Video label are banking on. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating that Ti West wanted his movie House of the Devil, a film that throws back to the horror movies of the early 1980s, to be released on VHS as well as the other formats, and that’s exactly what happened. Those tapes were a limited run, and now are actually highly collectible and rising in value. To get one at this point, it’s going to set you back at least 50 bucks. If physical media is quickly becoming the pursuit of collectors, then this must be collector heaven.