The ’80s are dead again, thank God. It’s only fitting that the 2000s saw a parallel in the trends and culture of that consumerist, plastic decade that produced some of the worst pop culture in our history and brought about that decade back to the forefront.
Now, thankfully, there’s a new kid in town.
The biggest stories were when MTV brought back “Beavis and Butt-head” and when TeenNick, a network previously devoted to encouraging the worst trends of our modern world, devoted a late-night block of programming to old school Nickelodeon shows like “Hey Arnold” and “Kenan and Kel.”
But it’s been brewing underground for years and it’s sure to get even bigger.
That’s right, folks. The ’90s kids are all grown up, to name-drop a “Rugrats” spinoff, and hungry for the things that made their childhood great. So don’t throw your Tamagotchi away just yet.
One interesting element of the ’90s nostalgia boom has been the rise of the VHS collecting subculture. For a while now, I’ve been following this trend from afar (tracking it, you might say, pun intended), through Twitter and whatnot. It has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past few years and is big enough to support a plethora of websites, blogs, podcasts, and even a magazine. This is a story that needs to be told and Dan Kimen, VHS collector and creator of the website vhshitfest.com is the right man for the job and with the upcoming documentary Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector, he sets out to do just that.
I recently spoke to Dan about the film, VHS collecting, and whether digital really is better.
AS: I think you and I are a lot alike in some ways. I collect vinyl records, Nintendo and Super Nintendo games, and, although I’m not a collector by any means, I do own several VHS tapes and the means to watch them. We both know that vinyl, Nintendo, and VHS, even if they never die out, will never again be the dominate force in their respective markets. So what do you think it is that attracts guys like you and I to these formats, even as all of the experts want to tell us they’re obsolete?
DK: Well, I think the main attraction for us, and most people, is nostalgia. Anyone from the age of 16 and above had VHS and old game systems in their house as they were growing up. It reminds people of an easy time in their life and a fun time. I have so many memories of watching movies on tape or buying and renting movies back in the day. It’s a great way to remember those things. They also add a different quality to what you’re doing that isn’t so crisp and clean like it is now. I think people can appreciate that and want the feeling of unpolished art.
There’s also the types of people who start collecting because it’s the trendy thing to do and there’s those who do it because, subconsciously or consciously, they think they are funny for doing it. The “I’m collecting something no one cares about” type of attitude. There’s more reasons than that, but those are the main ones I see.
AS: On the same subject, how much of a factor is price? For example, I couldn’t even tell you the price of a new CD anymore, but I can get an album used on vinyl for a dollar or two or download it on iTunes for $10. Easy decision. Do you see VHS in the same way?
DK: Yes, I did. It’s a great and cheap way to see movies you’ve never seen before. Most people think VHS is worthless and are giving them away for nearly free. One of my first huge hauls I had, all tapes were around 10 cents. I got an insane amount of tapes for like $12.
AS: Do you agree that there is a coldness and sterility to digital formats, whether it be audio or visual?
DK: Completely agree. Discs will never do it for me. They are just flimsy and worthless. I think that all started way back in the late ’90s and early 2000s when I would burn hundreds of mix CDs and they’d get lost, scratched, etc. It just put them into perspective. I can always get a new disc and do the same thing over again. A VHS feels warm when you’re watching it. You can hear the movie being played in the machine and feel it. It adds a whole new level to watching a movie that DVD can’t do.
AS: With the rise of Netflix and other streaming services, are DVDs dying?
DK: DVDs are a flimsy, worthless format that were bound to die out. I can make the exact same product as a major company in less than 10 minutes. I just print a cover at a shop for 20 cents and burn the disc. People are realizing that and realizing that owning a DVD isn’t important anymore. If everybody was putting a product out there like The Criterion Collection, then then maybe people would still be buying, but they feel like something being online for free in good quality is a good enough substitute. I even hear my friends ask “is it on Netflix?” before they buy a DVD, because if it’s on there, there’s no reason to buy it in their eyes.
Now, I will always prefer a physical copy as long as companies are including special features and using the DVD format well. But Netflix gets a lot of unnecessary flak. It’s an excellent tool to watch film and a company that I feel actually appreciates film. They work with Criterion, they put up the arthouse section, they look to movies that aren’t out on DVD, etc. They are just excellent, but they will never take the place of a well-done DVD in my eyes. For others, though, Netflix has replaced DVD.
AS: How did you get into collecting VHS?
DK: Well, I used to have a huge VHS collection, but then, stupidly, I got rid of it in the late ’90s for DVDs. I replaced some, but not all of them. I am a huge lover of film as a whole and I started to realize that some movies and TV shows would never be released on DVD. A video store opened in the city I go to college in and I took advantage of it. It was the perfect time to do so. I bought nearly every good thing they had and that sparked it. I can say that it all started with a Simpsonsbox set, for the Tracy Ullman shorts, and The Birds II: Land’s End, as hilarious as that might sound.
AS: What is the most you’ve ever paid for a tape?
AS: Funny you should ask that. I recently sold a DVD set for over $150 and, at that same time, one of my most wanted tapes popped up online, Rock N Roll Mobster Girls. I said to myself that, if I had to, I would go to $101.01 for the tape. That was the max bid I put in at the last second, but luckily it didn’t go that high. It ended at around $73, making it the third most I’ve paid on a tape.
I bough two other tapes for more, The Hackers and Let’s Play Dead, for around the $80 mark. I hate paying a lot for tapes and will only go all out on a few of my most wanted. All the normal “rare” stuff that people love to collect, like Wizard Video and ThrillerVideo, I try to pay less than half what they normally go for. So it all works out in the end.
AS: How did the idea of making a documentary come about?
AS: Well, ever since I first started collecting it seemed like a great idea. We even made a first attempt at doing something like it for a YouTube video we put out, “VHShit-Quest.” It was primitive and had problems but even since then I’ve wanted to do something much bigger. Then I started talking with a friend of mine, Matt Desiderio, the producer on the movie, and we came up with the idea to make a much larger, feature-length documentary capturing the VHS culture and community. I know the content and what to ask people, but I suck on the technical level. That’s where the other director, Dabeedo, came in and truly shined. He is super skilled technically and has been making movies for a long time. It all fell into place after that.
AS: When will the film be released?
DK: We are aiming for an early 2013 release, but nothing is set in stone. There’s a lot of figuring out to do and talking that is being done. I can’t get into too much detail beyond that, though. We will be putting up other videos along the way for people to see the progress.
AS: How big is the community of VHS collectors out there?
DK: It’s enormous. New people join the VHS groups on Facebook every day and at least a few times a week a new person talks to me about VHS. It’s a great thing. I love how many of us are out there and how passionate most of us are. You also get a sense of how many people are out there collecting who don’t post on Facebook just based on eBay auctions and how many bidding wars occur daily. I hope the community continues to grow, which it no doubt will.
AS: One great thing about VHS was the ability to record whatever you wanted. TV shows, movies, sports, whatever. Back in the day we used to fast-forward through the commercials, but watching them today that may actually be the most interesting part. In many ways, these tapes are a cultural history of the ’90s. Do you ever buy unlabeled, home-recorded videos just to see what’s on them?
DK: I always buy unlabeled tapes if I see them because I am always on the lookout for old recorded Nickelodeon shows from the ’90s. I have a few of those tapes and the commercials are always the best part. I also like the idea of being able to watch a block of television exactly as it aired back in the day. It takes me back, because likely I was watching that exact block of TV when I was younger.
I also like to find recorded music videos from when The Box and MTV still existed and played videos. And it’s a great way to find stuff you’ll never see again. My most hated thing ever, though, is when I buy an unlabeled tape is when I get those tapes that just have three common movies recorded on them from the ’90s. Most of the time, sadly, that is what you get.
AS: Conversely, how often when buying home-recorded VHS tapes do you come across amateur porn?
DK: I haven’t come across any amateur porn yet, sadly. I’m sure one day I will. Well, it depends on what you mean by amateur porn. I have seen tapes that were clearly printed on computer paper and put out with real people in them. But I haven’t found any home sex tapes or anything yet.
AS: Approximately how many films that were released on VHS are yet to receive a DVD release?
DK: That’s an uncountable amount. I would say it has to be thousands, especially if you count porn as films. There were so many independent movies released by random companies that no one even knows about. I find out about movies all the time that I didn’t even know existed and that have never and will never come out on DVD.
And that’s not to make it sound like only obscure movies aren’t out on DVD. Some super-popular stuff still hasn’t been released on DVD, like Cameron Crowe’s followup to Fast Times, The Wild Life, The Last Movie, etc.
AS: Do you agree that VHS tapes were of massive importance to the evolution of exploitation films after the closure of drive-ins and grindhouses?
DK: Definitely. It was a way to get movies into people’s homes easily. You could go into a video store and see countless movies you never knew about. If an independent horror director could get his movie into a video store, it was likely that at least a few people would rent it and, depending on the quality, would pass it on, write about it in ‘zines, etc. and it would get a small following. Without VHS so many movies would have never been made or seen.
AS: What is your favorite direct-to-video release?
AS: That is hard to say. There were so many movies that were released direct-to-video that I don’t even recognize as that. It’s easier for me to name my favorite shot-on-video movies, which would be Woodchipper Massacre, Hellroller, Boardinghouse, which played in some theaters, and 555. There’s probably some really truly great cinema that went straight-to-video that I’m forgetting about. Was Troll 2 in theaters?
AS: What would be your advice to anybody who wants to get into collecting VHS?
DK: Call around and talk to people. So many times people live in a city and don’t even know there’s stores around them selling tapes. While they are few and far between, there still are video stores out there with tapes. You just have to dig around, talk to people and make friends. I travel a lot in order to find tapes and whenever I get to a city I will go into a DVD rental place, thrift store, or comic book shop and just ask the employees if they know of anywhere with VHS. I have found some great tapes that way.
Also, early on buy any horror tapes for cheap. If you can get VHS for a quarter, then pick them up. It’s a good way to build up a quick collection of stuff to trade. Also, ask your family and friends if they have VHS. Believe it or not, there are still places who will buy VHS and give store credit. That’s a good way to get some stuff you actually want and get rid of some common stuff people give you for free.
And, of course, have fun. It’s not a competition. Just because you don’t own a Unicorn tape doesn’t mean you have to go right out and get one in order to “be cool.”