josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | nov. 2017
Two-hundred and forty scan lines by 320 scan lines of resolution was all that was needed to cause a revolution in not just video but in entertainment.
When VHS was introduced in 1977 no one could have predicted that these magnetic tapes would end up changing the world and change the world they did. VHS opened up the medium of film in a way that had not been matched since the invention of television some 35 years prior.
VHS is taken for granted today but without VHS (and its superior-in-quality but inferiorly-marketed cousin) there would be no DVD, no Blu-ray and no Netflix. For more than 20 years VHS was the dominant video format, all the while watching so many competitors try (and fail) to unseat it. A 20-plus year run is an astoundingly long time in the home video world, where five years is the average lifespan before the next innovation renders the previous one obsolete. Sure, these days VHS may not look the best or sound the best, but imagine a time when this was the only feasible way to watch a film. You could hope a movie came on TV at some point and then if you were not at work or it was not scheduled at 3 a.m., maybe you could catch it, but with VHS you could finally watch a movie at your own leisure and not have to be a slave to a programming schedule. VHS also allowed you to finally watch porn in your own home; we cannot understate how important this is.
When the VCR hit the scene, what film do you think moved more machines into homes? “Patton," “The Sound Of Music" “M*A*S*H*"? How about “Debbie Does Dallas," “The Devil in Miss Jones" and “Deep Throat." Yeah, the skin flicks outsold the "mainstream" movies and it is said that more people bought VCRs between 1982 and 1986 for the ability to ingest "adult entertainment" in the privacy of their own home than for any other reason. Even Christian author Luke Gilkerson notes this: "The history of the VCR is directly linked to the history of pornography. In 1978, when fewer than 1% of American homes had VCRs, over 75% of VHS tapes sold were pornographic. It has been suggested that Sony's Betamax lost to VHS, despite technological superiority, because Sony refused to allow the porn industry to use their format."
It is irrefutable that porn was the main reason the VCR took off the way it did in 1982, but how did that change as the culture surrounding it changed?
The video store of the 1980s was something to behold. Movies the like of “I Spit On Your Grave," “Cannibal Holocaust" or “New York Ripper" would never play on cable, not even the pay channels, but they would play just fine at the video store. The video movement made its rise on the fact that it was populated by the movies that even drive-ins would not touch – those castoff films that were too graphic, too shocking or just too poorly made for "general" consumption. The video movement did the smart thing in making new content strictly for the video store. With the back catalog of old movies plus this new generation to play off of, a film such as “Curse of the Cannibal Confederates" had a real market share. Films that would never have gotten any kind of distribution in the 1980s found themselves to be major sellers/renters due to the video store culture of the time. The video revolution happened so fast that the industry was unable to keep up with it ... the hardware manufacturers literally could not make VCRs fast enough. Video stores were being opened at alarming rates and all of these stores needed content ... content that the major film studios were hesitant to provide. These days we take for granted that nearly every movie has had some kind of release where it is available for viewing, everything from studio fare to no-budget garbage, it is all out there but this was not always the case. When these stores were opening to crowds begging for anything on videotape to watch there simply was not enough movies to go around.
Other than porn, some people might be shocked at how few titles there were at the time, and yet people simply could not get enough of them. In some collective purge of cultural memory we have lost sight of what a movie meant and the value it had – the value of being able to watch a movie in your own home and to OWN that movie to watch again and again.
Charles Band's Wizard Video was one of the first "major" labels to release movies for the brand new home video market. Band was so far ahead of the game that many of the titles he acquired were either making their debut on home video or had just left the drive-ins a mere week prior. The market was so bereft of product in 1978, there were only two video labels. Magnetic Video had 20 (old) Fox titles and Meda (later Media) Home Video had this amazing list:
“Halloween," “The Grove Tube," “Slithis," “Night of the Living Dead," “Tunnelvision," “Laserblast," “Flesh Gordon," “Alice in Wonderland" (XXX), “Assault On Precinct 13," “Cocaine Cowboys" and “The Jungle Book" (not Disney) along with some concert films and some old cartoon collections.
Imagine a time when that was it? When that was the entire library of what you had to rent or own. Note how the bulk of that library was almost completely exploitation titles. If not for the video store and the VHS boom we may very well not have the horror or sci-fi market we have today. Let us also not pass over just how well these exploitation films sold. This is what people wanted.
This was all so new and innovative that no one even really knew how to write up the damned contracts for this venture. Charles Band's lawyer (for example) had to invent the now common language used when licensing a film for video. This was all so new that it was like stumbling around in the dark.
Soon enough the major players stepped up and began to dominate the market as they once had in theaters and on television, but again, the video movement could not be stopped.
Direct to video was made up of mostly cheaper movies that bypassed the (dwindling) theaters and made their first impression on home video. These were movies designed and created specifically to be seen on a television and through a VCR. These new DTV movies had their own slate of stars and tropes the same as the drive-ins had, only altered slightly for the changing times. Shannon Tweed, Reb Brown, Brinke Stevens, Sybil Danning and Aldo Ray owe their entire working years to the direct to video market. They were stars here where they were (relative) unknowns in "mainstream" Hollywood. They were able to make a living churning out one film after another in a way unseen since the heyday of the Grindhouse in the early 1970s.
Selection was not the only thing but also progression. Today we have a generation that has never known a time when streaming was not a thing or a time when digital films were not the norm. That said, these new kids who shun VHS for its analog picture and mono sound have no idea what they are missing.
It is estimated that less than half of the movies that have ever been released on VHS have some digital equivalent. Just think about that for a moment, since the inception of VHS as a mainstream format to its "death" in 2006 there are more than a half million estimated titles that were released on VHS ranging from workout videos to movies to "how to" tapes to adult titles, of which at least 50 percent are still unavailable in any other format today. Also of note is that even the ones that are on DVD or Blu-ray tend to have issues with them, missing scenes or missing soundtracks. It is amazing to find how many rock and pop songs did not make the transition to digital but the VHS versions still have the correct soundtrack.
The reason for this loss varies from title to title but what remains consistent is that they never made their way to a digital format. Sometimes a rights issue holds up a tape making its way into the future, other times it is a lack of potential marketing. I know of more than one film lingering in the limbo between this generation and the last simply because the rights holder sees no market for said title. The rights confliction is an understandable one, the sitting on a title for no reason other than you don't see an audience for it is downright insulting to the film and to the fans. A myriad of legal mumbo jumbo and bizarre rights curses keeps us from our appointed films.
Those of us who grew up on VHS see its flaws as badges of honor. To us a film such as “Raiders of Atlantis" or “Jennifer the Snake Goddess" just feels weird when you seen them widescreen, remastered, in hi-fi and in a clean print. Movies like these, even today, give off that low-end VHS label vibe and for that, you need a mono, full frame, scratched, washed out print. I saw most of the classic Hammer films on VHS and seeing them widescreen on flawless prints just doesn't allow them to feel right. The washed out picture and film scratches gave the movies character.
There is a growing movement among film fans today that is VHS oriented. A VHS underground has swelled in recent years from collectors to aficionados. Even the local Green Room Lounge in De Pere has a monthly "VHS Night" where a VHS movie is screened for patrons to enjoy. The turnout to these events is a loyal fanbase who want a good time with a film that is not only nostalgic but also in that warm, full frame way which elicits a viewing experience which digital just can not match.
VHS is not dead and in fact there are still VHS tapes being produced today, albeit in small print runs aimed at collectors mostly. That said, collectors would jump at a chance to get a limited edition clamshell VHS of JR Bookwalter's “Robot Ninja" on VHS.
A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.