SEX, GUTS, AND VIDEOTAPE
I was a VHS addict. In the ’80s and ’90s, I practically lived at the video store, renting every movie I could get my hands on (except for romantic comedies). As my obsession with movies grew, renting was not enough; they needed to be mine. I amassed a few hundred videocassettes, and I was proud to own each one of them.
But as soon as DVDs hit the market, I abandoned my tapes. These days, if I want to watch The Thing, I pop in my DVD, while my VHS copy gathers dust on the shelf. If ever a format deserved to be abandoned, VHS – fuzzy, with bad audio and no letterboxing – was it. Or so I thought.
So when I spied a heavily tattooed, middle-age woman at a horror convention a few years ago selling VHS tapes for up to $50 a pop, I was shocked. “Wow, fifty bucks?” I asked her. “Last year, I saw some of these tapes for on sale for a dollar.” “Oh no,” she replied, “you can’t find them that cheap any more. They’re very collectible.” My jaw dropped. VHS? The crappy format of my youth? Really?
But it’s true. Videotapes are trading briskly on eBay, HorrorHound magazine has a popular section devoted to VHS collecting, and House of the Devil – an ’80s-throwback horror flick made in 2010 — just came out with an acclaimed special-edition VHS copy made to look like it’s 30 years old.
On the surface, this trend seems to fly in the face of everything we know about media formats. For years, the push has been to deliver an ever-sharper, more perfect movie experience, while film fiends clamored for the bells and whistles that only digital can provide: a high-quality picture, remixed audio tracks, and buttloads of behind-the-scenes features. Why go back to the caveman format of VHS now?
It makes for the best crate-digging, for starters. “There are tens of thousands of movies that are currently not, never have been, and possibly never will be available on DVD or digital download, but if you’re lucky, you can dig up a copy of it on VHS,” says hardcore videocassette fanatic Michael Monterastelli, who runs Collecting VHS – a Facebook page where he and other VHS enthusiasts can share their collections and drool over each other’s copies of The Night God Screamed and Hard Rock Zombies. Monterastelli’s own vast collection includes the highly sought-after Blood Rage, an ultra-violent, cheesy Thanksgiving slasher that he bought for $2 at a Korean video store and can fetch up to $75 on eBay. And it’s not just horror that’s in demand these days: gonzo ’80s action movies, vintage T&A sex comedies, and even rare versions of Hollywood hits (like The Godfather Complete Epic, which re-cut Godfather 1 and 2 into chronological order) are worth big bucks.
In the past few years, Monterastelli has witnessed an increasing number of film fans turn to videotapes to unearth their favorite movies – and VHS sellers have taken notice, drastically raising their prices. A quick search on eBay or Amazon can turn up collectible titles, but you’ll pay out the nose. “Night of the Demon is a rare killer Bigfoot movie from the ’70s that I can’t find a copy of for less than 50 bucks, used,” says Monterastelli. “I’ve seen a new copy on Amazon Marketplace going for $2495.99.” To find a bargain, you have to dig deeper, he says: “Any of these films can also be stumbled upon in a used-video store or flea market, if you’re lucky. There, they go for pennies.”
The search for these hidden gems are part of the allure of collecting videocassettes, Monterastelli says: “We’re still hanging on to the format of our youth, and we’re looking for shit that nobody else has. We go from flea markets to used-video-store bins, sorting through beat-up, dusty copies of former rentals, searching for the really rare, hard-to-find stuff, like nerd archaeologists trying to uncover some buried treasure of ancient exploitation cinema.”
But the abundance of deep cuts alone is not why horror fans are flocking to VHS – they’re also in love with the battered beauty of this analog medium. Many collectors would rather experience a film on a de-rezzed, blip-filled VHS tape than a pristine 30th-anniversary edition Blu-Ray DVD.
“Not everything looks or sounds better with a technological upgrade,” says Ken “Sleazegrinder” McIntyre, writer for Total Film magazine and the exploitation-film Web site Movies About Girls. “Try listening to Foghat on an eight-track player sometime, it’s fuckin’ awesome. Same thing with a beat-up VHS of Satan’s Sadists. Amazing.” Joe Lemieux, director of the indie horror flick Veil of Blood, still watches many movies on videocassette – and he sees no reason to change. He prefers his VHS tape of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even though it’s not nearly as crisp as a DVD, and the image is cropped so much that almost half of it is gone. “There’s certain stuff that I’m so used to seeing on VHS that I couldn’t really watch it the other way,” Lemieux says.
This appetite for the obscure and cheesy is, in part, a side-effect of the changing horror genre. Horror fans are all feeling a little nostalgic these days.
HorrorHound writer Jessica Dwyer thinks that most modern horror films fall into one of two extremes: “It’s either PG-13 and really, really, really lame, or it’s gone to this whole torture-porn level . . . lost in that is the middle ground.” It all adds up to a hollow, horror-less experience, a far cry from the Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets of yore: “There seems to be a tendency to approach the genre these days with absolute seriousness,” says Eric Stoner, who examines horror films on The Dark Hours podcast and The Fear Inside Web site. “In the ’80s, films didn’t take themselves so seriously.”
For many ’80s-era horror fans, it’s not just the films they miss, it’s the experience of watching them in their living rooms — on VHS. As movies.com critic Grae Drake put it: “It’s comforting and fun to go back to what you knew.” It’s like the hominess of a grilled-cheese sandwich that your mom made in 1985, and you’ve kept in the freezer this whole time. Along with your mom’s head.
So is nostalgia for the bygone days of horror the most potent catalyst for this resurgent interest in VHS? The answer seems to lie in the videotapes that are arguably the most valuable of all: those that once lined the walls of local, independently owned video stores. Monterastelli says that “they are my favorites because although they are worn, they capture a part of the pop culture that is gone, like the drive-in theater and vinyl records.” Greg Morgan, VHS collector and host of The Creepture Feature HorrorShow podcast, thinks that people are buying more videotapes precisely because the format is almost gone. “With the video stores closing and the outlets closing, it’s hard to find them now, so I think fans are realizing if we don’t gather up our collection now, then they may soon be obsolete, and you’ll never find them again.”
As I browse my fathers 12 thousand titles, I am filled with many happy memories of my youth, listing and storing them may seem daunting at times but knowing that there is still a demand for them and the trip through memory lane makes this project much more enjoyable.