Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Heath Holland On...The VHS Vault of Horror

by Heath Holland
Be kind, rewind. OR ELSE.

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.
Video stores played such a huge part in the formation of the kids who are a part of my generation, and I think horror shaped us all, whether we actually got to see the movies or not. Surely those of us who were born between 1975 and 1990 owe horror movies a huge debt of gratitude for keeping us up at night, but also for spurring our imaginations and giving us something to talk about at the lunch table. And the descriptions of the movies that you hadn’t seen from friends who actually had were always way worse and more horrifying than what you’d eventually see in the movies themselves. We had that one kid in our class (I think we all had that kid in our class) whose parents didn’t care what he saw (or more likely, didn’t know), and he would regale us of tales of Chucky and Freddy and people taking their clothes off for no good reason at all. I now know that he was making a lot of it up, but he was right about a lot, too.

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.
Both of those movies (The Shrieking and Gargoyles) are examples of films that either haven’t been on DVD, or were at one point made available by one of those El-Cheapo companies that slaps a VHS transfer onto a DVD without doing any restoration or cleanup and sells them for a dollar out of the back of some guy’s truck in the mall parking lot. I guess the good news is that you can find these movies (and tons of others like them) on YouTube, which is better than them being lost for good, but they’re always from the same VHS sources and they always somehow look way worse than the original video tape. These are just two examples out of hundreds—if not thousands—of horror movies that were born and died at the video store.

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.
In the end, the thing to remember is that VHS wouldn’t have been what it was—and still is, to a lesser degree—without the horror genre. They fed off of each other for years and years, and anyone of a certain age can remember what it felt like to walk into the video store on a Friday night and come out with a stack of horror tapes to watch late into the night. The selection process was almost as important as the movies themselves, and the box art on the tapes was typically awesome and outrageous. It makes perfect sense that there’s now a book showcasing the best VHS box art from days gone by. It’s all just further evidence that video horror—like so many of the monsters that we saw on those tapes—never really died, even though we thought it had. Just like those monsters, video horror just retreated to lull us into a false sense of security so it could attack when we least expect it. It might not be back at full power, but I’d like to think that it’s gathering strength from all the forces of darkness…waiting, planning, growing, and soon it’s coming back for the kill.


  1. Reminds me that I have a vhs copy of Blood Simple with the original music intact. Might have to hit the thrift store for a player.

  2. Your articles always make for an interesting read, Heath. I'm currently trying to upgrade my DVDs to bluray and I keep facing the dilemma of whether or not to upgrade select titles. Like you said, some films really benefit from a softer, more distorted image.

    This video store I used to live by sold vhs covers for a dollar a piece. I never bought any, but now I'm wishing I would have given them another look.

  3. ...and only a handful of new films that go for the Grindhouse or VHS look can pull it off. It always looks digitized and cheap. There's a statement of how natural the aesthetic and experience is, much like vinyl, how it just adds so much to the atmosphere and makes it unique.

  4. Gargoyles was a TV Movie of the Week. Shown at an early enough hour that my tiny kid self was still up to watch it and my 70's parents cared not. Good Times.

  5. Loved it Heath, I am not alone, the Box art is a thing of beauty, the closest I get to being excited about art is on some Bluray Steel boxes, some of my faves are Arrow video Demons 1 and 2 steelbook. It gorgeous, T2 , The night of the living dead, Reanimator, some Steelbook are genuinely stunning and worth the cost, but they dont come close to some of my favourite original 80s Video nasties artworks, Driller killer, Dawn of the dead, Phantasm, The Bogeyman on bigbox Vipco is amazing
    Ps I own Troll 1 and 2 on Vhs ;)