No one expects videotapes — meaning primarily VHS videotapes — to make a cultural resurgence in the same way that vinyl long-playing records has, even though the two media delivery systems share generational adherents. One major stumbling block is the omnipresence of smartphones and streaming media. Another, as reported in 2016, is that the last of the new VHS playback machine manufacturers has called it quits. But any technology that can last more than a decade in the consumer culture is bound to have some longevity. Videotape, it seems, will not quietly just disappear.
There are some reasons for this: availability, functionality, scarcity, and aesthetics. These four are intermingled in unique ways. There is a videotape subculture around the world that sees these items not as artifacts that identify hipster contrarianism, but as some of the last ways to see programming that otherwise was ignored by the DVD revolution or was never known by an indifferent video streaming model. The box art fueled the fantasies of graphic designers. The ability to record standard broadcasts off the air led to an inadvertent army of archivists, many who now share that same material through platforms like YouTube. If you can recall a commercial from your youth, you can probably find it online, but only because someone didn’t pause recording the ABC Sunday Night Movie.
Artist and film fan Kate Davis recalled, “I remember being at the video store with my older brothers, wandering into the horror aisle and getting lost in all the covers. I wasn’t allowed to watch Hellraiser until I was older, but I had stared at that cover for so long that I could’ve probably drawn it from memory by the time I was ten.” Hardly a Luddite, Davis professed a love for the film Heathers that will likely continue to transcend formats, but, “I do love the aesthetic. I’m not necessarily a glutton for it, but you can’t beat trailers like those New Line Cinema merchandise ads before and after movies. It’s just good old-fashioned built-in nostalgia.”
For people of a certain age, having the ability to watch and rewatch movies at will was one of the best film schools they could have, and for others as close to film school as they would ever get. And being able to wander the aisles of either the small Mom & Pop Shops that dotted America in the ’80s or their eventual destroyer, the much larger Blockbuster Video in the ’90s, meant that someone could be exposed to the most-fun, least-respected B-Movie or the most-revered art house film equally. Never mind the illicit back room barely blocked by the red bed sheet tacked to the door frame — there was plenty to see right out in plain view.
“The (videotape) community is bigger than you would believe and seems to be growing every day,” said Matthew Desiderio, who runs the website Horror Boobs. “Social media has been a big influence. With Facebook groups and Instagram pages dedicated to the subject, collecting has spread like wildfire. There were also two documentaries, Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking (which I produced) that came out a few years ago that were pretty well received by fans of film in general. I think that helped put the concept in the public eye.”
Home video enthusiast Mike Markowski said, “Getting films on Beta or VHS is really nostalgic for me. It brings me back to the days of the neighborhood video store. It was always such an exciting adventure roaming up and down the isles finding some new treasure to watch. I grew up with a VHS machine but collect mostly Beta now, mainly because I didn’t have one growing up and the machines are so much cooler than VHS! (Just my opinion. )”
Availability and Functionality – While many will recognize Mike Hunchback as the guitarist for the band Screeching Weasel, they might not know of his love for otherwise forgotten cinema: exploitation flicks, b-movies, and even highly-respected Giallo that, because of it’s Italian background, either never made it to the big-time in America or did so as — you might assume — prized traded VHS videotapes.
Hunchback is adamant that videotapes aren’t about being willfully antiquated. “Of course, like anything else, I’m sure there are some people who are purposefully being ironic, but really I haven’t met one. It’s hard to imagine someone consciously living a lifestyle just to be contrarian, and to point that finger usually says a lot more about the pointer than the target. There’s this kind of tired, on-Facebook-but-not-outside mindset out there that quickly translates dumb news headlines like DVDs are the hot new technology = Everyone literally switched to DVD. It’s never how things actually work, though.”
According to an article from The Atlantic, most of the homes in the United States still have a VCR. “If you think about it only for a moment, it makes sense,” Hunchback asserted. “Sure, among our friends and age group, it seems rare. We have these friend groups where most people are using fairly recent streaming technology, and a couple oddballs are buying expensive Blu-rays. Well, what about our aunts and uncles? Our grandparents? And what about the (literally) tens of millions of people in this country that make less than $20K a year? Are they all part of our mental equation of what this country really looks like? They should be.”
To this point, one need only be reminded of the great Disney Clamshell mania that took hold a few years ago. A rumor appeared online that some of the VHS tapes Disney released in the 1980s were now fetching insane prices on Ebay because they did not have edits, time-shifting, or digital manipulation that were now standard on the ensuing DVDs. It turns out that the sudden gold rush was a hoax, but consider this: for the hoax to actually work, there had to be a kernel of truth involved. Disney has, in fact, digitally altered some of its features to remove content the company now deems unsuitable for young viewers, such as Pecos Bill rolling and smoking a cigarette.
During this period, there wasn’t just a spike of people trying to cash in, there was also a spike of people buying the videotapes…but specific videotapes. The fault was in the construction of the hoax. If you are going to promote a situation of scarcity, do not use video titles that rank as some of the best selling in the medium. Chances are, everyone already owns The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Fantasia on tape. Nonetheless, even if it proved to be a seller’s market, some did buy. That’s an indicator that there’s still plenty of market share for videotape; even videotape as ubiquitous as Disney product.
“If you go to the flea markets and used goods stores across the country, if you travel and explore genuinely rural areas and/or low-income areas, it’s quickly obvious how many people buy used VHS tapes simply because it’s a way to watch a movie for a dollar,” Hunchback added. “That matters more than ever to so many Americans – people shop at salvation army because they only have so much money, and most of America doesn’t have that much money.”
Ron Bonk of SRS Cinema also sees the term of “hipster” as a lazy misrepresentation of VHS collectors. “The hardcore collectors never stop unless they have to, where the hipsters seem to make it a thing they do for awhile and then leave it. They come and go, moving on to next cool thing to do. The true collectors hang on because they truly love it. It’s like loving your favorite movies. You never stop loving them. You keep revisiting them (and continue) sharing them with others to discover.”
Desiderio said, “What is a hipster? I feel like that label is used for everyone from the steampunks with the waxed mustaches to the kids in their 20s who are obsessed with the pastel 1990s. I know a lot of people collect tapes for nostalgia reasons. People who love Gremlins are gonna want Gremlins on VHS to add to their Gremlins collection. It has nothing to do with rarity or collectability. It has to do with the fact that most people remember seeing their favorite movies on this format.”
Scarcity – There is an aspect of VHS culture that relies on the principles of scarcity, but not in the way you’d expect. It has little to do with a lack of product, but much more to do with the lack of means with which to attain product. Some may be able to plunk down $20 every week for a DVD. Others may be able to afford high-speed wi-fi necessary for accommodating streaming…but that’s not a universal trait.
“There are these large chain stores starting up in the Midwest, they really blew my mind – big as a Best Buy,” Hunchback said. “They’re basically like multi-media stores, they have VHS, DVD, records, comic books, video games, toys – and it’s maybe 80% used goods. Is this Midwestern chain just playing into ‘hipster stubbornness?'”
For Davis, even in light of a few favorites that will likely always be deserving of an upgrade, “…I grew up with tapes and I’m not one to just toss something out for a new format.”
“As soon as I could buy tapes, I was the kind of person who needed to own a movie – I guess mostly because I knew I would want to rewatch it and show other people,” Hunchback said. “I cultivated a small collection while in high school (I remember when I was counting my collection and totaling 30-ish titles…felt like a lot then). But for my age I was lucky – as my high school years ended, DVD was becoming the industry standard. So for a broke kid, it was paradise – all these stores (were) slashing prices on tapes, video stores selling off VHS – I could actually afford that stuff.
“As the next few years went on, I stuck to tapes because it seemed impossible that I would ever have the money to replace my collection with DVDs. Eventually, I got a DVD player. At first, I was careful to only sell tapes that I had gotten a DVD of (I was getting like $1 or less from resale stores then). But I quickly realized that not only was the return not worth it but also that titles were only trickling out on DVD – lots of these Jean Rollin and Lucio Fulci titles I had to get online or at conventions, for instance, weren’t coming out – rare cuts of films like Last House on the Left and Cannibal Holocaust weren’t coming out. Lots of interesting non-genre stuff too wasn’t seeing release, I remember trying to get Square Dance with Winona Ryder forever.
“So I started to hold on to my tapes, and eventually I was just voraciously trying to get all sorts of full catalogs, like I wanted all of a director’s films, all films with a certain actor. For instance, if you wanted MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre to watch in your home, VHS (and laserdisc) were your only choice for years. Now, if someone wants to have a rational conversation with you about ’30s horror films, what value are they bringing if they’re ignoring such a glaring entry because of format? And what is their reason? They don’t want to have seen MAD LOVE, directed by the legendary German Expressionist cameraman Karl Freund because they might feel like a hipster? If you want to have discussions with a variety of serious film fans, you’ll find that straddling medias is essential, period.”
Documentary maker Thomas Edward Seymour is the force behind the film VHS Massacre, about the rise and fall of physical media. Scarcity, in his estimation, plays a major role in the passion of VHS collectors, and that passion is paralleled by the knowledge that the clock is ticking.”Believe it or not, a significant amount of exercise videotapes will never make the digital leap. Things are changing a bit because people are now realizing that VHS has a shelf life. They could last beyond 25-30 years, but at some point, they will fail. Yale University started digitizing thousands of VHS tapes in an effort to preserve the content.”
Admittedly, some of this scarcity is merely the perception thereof. “For a long time, The Boogens was a rare title,” Seymour said. “That was caught up in litigation for decades. TV personality Joe Bob Briggs would talk about how people would write him and ask him about why The Boogens wasn’t available on VHS home video. The thing is, you can get it now…they released a DVD of it. I Dismember Mama was another on that you couldn’t get, but now you can.
“As far as rare VHS now? I’d love to have the alternative cut to the Godfather saga they put out on VHS in 1990! Also, Dr. Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (an Italian Horror flick for 1986) can be worth close to $800-1000 in the right condition. It has some pretty cool cover art as well.”
There’s yet another layer to the subject of scarcity, being the archival aspects that appeared hand-in-hand with video home recording. YouTube is the beneficiary of single-season sitcoms, odd commercials, and breaking news events that were captured for no more reason than someone left their tape recorder rolling. Many educational TV broadcasts from the 1970s and 1980s — once the go-to for public television stations across the country — disappeared from existence excepting the few examples that were caught on tape.
Mike Markowski’s weapon of choice is Beta, the tape version that failed to catch hold when the consumer format wars raged. It was one of those strange situations where form beat out function, because even though VHS was selling at higher numbers, Beta had better visual quality, the tapes were significantly smaller in shelf-space size, and perhaps most important to those who rented and copied from rental stores, Beta busted the Macrovision copy-blocking technology that became standard for pre-recorded tapes in the mid-’80s.
“Some of my most treasured Beta tapes are stuff taped from TV in the ’70s and ’80s,” Markowski said. “It’s an honest window into what the world was like back then. The shows, the commercials, old news broadcasts, it’s priceless. I even have some U-Matic master tapes of old news and television shows…Again, priceless stuff.”
Desiderio was intrigued by the “mystery box” aspect of finding unmarked, home-recorded tapes. “It all depends on what you are into. I know a lot of people who love collecting tapes with random stuff recorded on them for just that reason. Plus, when you go to a flea market or a thrift store and see a tape with something illegible or intriguing scribbled on the label, it becomes your own personal mystery to solve. You can’t help yourself but bring it home and see what’s on it.”
Aesthetics, Community, and Subculture – There’s also something about videotapes themselves that are appealing, as an object, as a signifier of something other than a storage device. The same can be said of DVDs, but by the time DVDs truly got under way, certain aesthetic aspects started being ignored.
Movie posters, once the primary source for home video packaging, were replaced by photo collages and, later, Photoshopped collages artificially lit with all-too-familiar hazy blue and orange-colored filters. This tonal and visual shift is so pervasive, movie posters themselves have bent toward the form, rather than the reverse.
The artist Kate Davis sees this visual shift as a major reason why people still are so fond of the old VHS packaging, and why modern imaging fails to capture the imagination. “How many Photoshopped posters do you see on people’s walls? When you do see (a movie poster), it’s always something iconic and it’s usually something done by hand. A Photoshopped DVD cover usually lacks heart which is the most important thing in a movie for me. Whether it’s the poster or the content of the film. Why would Troll 2 be such a cult hit if it weren’t for the excess of heart (and agony) poured into it? Of course, it’s hilarious, but it’s also something people return to because it’s endearing. The cover, the story, the behind-the-scenes stories. You just can’t manufacture that purposefully.”
Similarly, Seymour added, “The ease of Photoshop these days has empowered us and also made us very lazy. Some of the best VHS covers and posters were actually oil paintings. I always think of Death Stalker 1-3. It was a great equalizer for independent filmmakers like Roger Corman. They spent good money on artwork and that gave them an edge. I think it’s great that people are recognized the genius of some of that artwork. I think in this country we have this horrible worship of Hollywood celebrities and it is probably the worst choice for a role model. I think some of those older independent posters relied less on a giant image of an actor’s face on the artwork, but I think we have to remember, in this country, the film industry is purely commercial. We have very little in the way of networks being required to take independent content, movie theaters required to play independent films, and streaming networks required to pay good money for indie films. The independent video stores were the last great time for independent filmmakers to make money, without having to sell your film to a vassal of the major studios. Roger Corman (New World Pictures), Lloyd Kaufman (Troma Entertainment), and Charles Band (Empire Pictures/Full Moon Pictures) did very well back then.”
Some individuals have taken to visualizing an alternate universe where videotapes never died. An artist going by the moniker of “Offtrack Outlet” has been creating packaging and dubbed videos of modern films. (You can see examples of his work throughout this article and on his Instagram feed at: https://www.instagram.com/offtrackoutlet) Another artist, creating under the name “Steelberg” also makes retro boxes for new movies.
Stronger than the actual pull of the medium is the sense of community that surrounds home video. To this point, Matthew Desiderio said, “Nothing beats walking into a place and being surrounded by like-minded individuals. No matter what genre you like, if you are in a video store, you must be a film fan to some degree. If you are looking at a rack of tapes and the guy next to you pulls out The Evil Dead, well, of course, you’re gonna start talking about it… You tell ’em, ‘If you like Evil Dead, well you gotta check out Re-Animator,’ and then they tell you they love Re-Animator and up the ante by suggesting something obscure like Winter Beast.”
Ron Bonk said that the mere physicality of VHS and even DVD has value to movie fans. “I think the idea of being able to physically hold it makes a big difference. Admiring the art in your hand, (being) able to look over all sides of the sleeve, take in the pics. It’s like the difference between owning a great work of art, and displaying and looking at a pic of it on your computer, and using it as a screen saver or something.”
Thomas Edward Seymour quoted Troma Films President Lloyd Kaufman, a subject in his documentary: “Collecting vinyl records can make sense because there can be a quality difference. VHS is provably worse quality than newer video formats, so collecting VHS, I think, would be more about the love of the cover art, nostalgia, or if you can’t find the film in another format. Is it a fair charge about (a collector) being a hipster? I collect retro video games and VHS, (so) maybe I’m a hipster…I don’t think I am.”
Hunchback added, bringing the subject back to what’s on the tape rather than the tape itself, “…While I like my sense of community shared with VHS people, it’s NEVER once been about something other than films and being a film fan – if we like old tape releases, it’s because of our sort of ‘larger conversation’ about where our film fandom comes from. You can call it nostalgic, but there’s also a definite element of understanding a cultural history, too. For instance, I can look at a 45-rpm record label and know lots about it just because of its few clues – that appreciation exists for tapes in a way, too. Also, look at the sign on your average deli. Look at the ads in the newspaper. Design in this country largely suffers, and it’s easy to see why people like things from the past aesthetically. All this said: point blank, my appreciation for VHS tapes is solely rooted in the fact that I need to see rare films – there’s just too much out there and I’m not going to be willfully ignorant.”
Hunchback concluded, “Now don’t get me started on the lifespan of digital media!”