By Nathaniel Hendricks
As countless streaming services compete for our consumption, the ease and quality of on demand video should have effectively stamped out any of those old clunky in-between technologies that assisted us along the way from having to go to the cinema to watching what we want, when we want, wherever we want. But some things never die, leading us to the curious history of VHS, the late ‘70’s revolutionary Video Home System, that allowed anyone to not only to watch movies at home, but also record their own home movies, without having to send anything off to a lab.
It was all about ease; a system that everyone could enjoy, and that also forced you to participate in a kind of group effort. The phrase “Be Kind, Rewind” described the endless back and forth between the viewer and the next viewer, the chain reaction of the original sharing economy. The look was unforgettable; faded colors and fuzzy lines, perfect for the aesthetics of the late 20th century and all of its electromagnetic dreams.
But as technology moved on and VHS tapes began to disappear off of department store shelves, a small but prescient group of individuals held on. Some kept their VHS for sentimental purposes, others just like their tapes, plain and simple. But the majority of the public moved on to DVDs, and then to streaming.
But stunningly, this only brought true tape loyalists closer together and VHS culture blossomed. It inspired several documentaries, a fanzine called Lunchmeat, countless websites, blogs, subreddits, and social media accounts dedicated to selling and trading. Between collectors, filmmakers and fans, the love for this visually noisy format has never died. The consensus that VHS was dead gave real tape heads a purpose: to keep it alive.
In the corner of Vulcan Video, one of the two rental stores still operating in Austin, Texas, a tall bookshelf holds 60 three-ring binders, organized by genre, that hold flattened VHS boxes for the tapes kept in the stacks behind the counter. Of Vulcan Video’s inventory of 30,000 titles, 5,000 are VHS tapes. Their collection includes a bootleg of the never officially released Hellzapoppin’ from 1940, and a miserably fuzzy two-tape set of Francis Coppola’s work print of Apocalypse Now. Their customers range from Baby Boomers looking for an old movie-of-the-week they remember fondly from teenage years to Spanish speaking families looking for Mexican films that have yet to receive an official DVD release.
But the good people at Vulcan Video never had to restock VHS, because it never completely left the shelves in the first place, much to the delight of collectors like 28 year old Sprinkles, whose apartment in Austin was, at last count, lined with 2,300 tapes, floor to ceiling. He estimates the collection grows at a rate of 50 tapes per month, an expense that costs him less than $25 on average. “Some used bookstores and record shops that carry tapes will hike up prices to two, three, sometimes six or seven dollars for a tape of something like Evil Dead. That’s not really what collecting VHS is about.”
Sprinkles is a serious collector, and he’s struck big a couple of times. He nabbed the hard to find middle finger cover of Peter Jackson’s first film, Bad Taste, at a yard sale for a dollar. At VHS conventions that tape could sell for as high as $60. But despite Sprinkles’ dislike of hiked up prices, he admits he paid $30 for a Windows 95 Instructional Video hosted by Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry in character as Rachel and Chandler. It’s a 90's artifact that you can find on YouTube, but only truly appreciate if you pop it into a VCR.
That’s the stuff Sprinkles gets excited about. The weirdo, “What the hell is this?” tapes that arose from VHS’ democratization of commercial video. It was cheap to shoot and release, which explains the over abundance of horror titles, and of course, the explosion of the DIY porn industry. His collection includes such things as a recorded tape of CNN’s 9/11 coverage, Contagion, The Clown Murders, Troma’s Killer Condom, and an 80’s horror film called Uninvited, “about a cat that vomits these demons. And the demons kill everyone. And it all takes place on a cruise ship. It’s insane!”
Sprinkles is loyal to the medium. 9 times out of 10, he chooses to watch a movie on VHS over DVD or Blu-ray. He points to a massive box set of Kubrick films. “Some people think this is crazy, but I have no problem watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on tape. It’s just a different way to experience that movie.” Because of his love for that visceral tape feel, he does not exclusively go after the esoteric. “I was so excited when I found Heavy Weights. I couldn’t believe it. I had been looking for it forever.” He now proudly owns two copies of the fat-camp comedy. “It’s about what you love. I used to collect retro video games, but that community was surprisingly competitive. Not a lot of interest in sharing the cool stuff you might find. That’s not the case with VHS collectors.” With VHS, it’s all about the community.
A group of like-minded collectors in south Texas organize the monthly Houston VHS swap. There, tape heads talk, sell and, more often than not, trade movies. “There’s no judgment about the tape you’re looking for,” said Sprinkles. “A lot of people are super pumped to get a copy of Space Jam, and that excitement is all that matters. It doesn’t have to be some deep cut horror flick. It’s about watching movies. That’s it.”
Sprinkles runs an Instagram called collection_therapy where he shares cool finds, connects with other collectors, and sells original VHS artwork where the tape itself is the canvas. Instagram has become a VHS marketplace. Hundreds of accounts, all following each other, post tapes for sale and trade. “If I find a great tape, I’m excited to share it with someone who hasn’t seen it. Who I know will love it. And in exchange, I’ll get a movie I’ve never seen. That’s awesome.”
Ben Ruffet doesn’t own a cell phone and has little interest in keeping up. He’s too busy trying to save what’s been left behind. For the past three years, Ben has run the VHS screening series he calls Hamilton Trash Cinema at a bar in Hamilton, Ontario. The bar is an old house, the Mayor’s Manor at the turn of the century, and Ben brings in old chairs and a couch for every screening. He hooks up a VCR to an old digital projector and plays schlocky horror films on a white sheet hanging on the wall. Sometimes the audience plays drinking games designed for each film.
The first screening, of Blood Massacre, attracted three people, including Ben’s dad. Since then, word of mouth and Ben’s Facebook posts have brought about thirty regulars to his screenings every month. “I’m generally trying to show something obscure, shot on video, on an original VHS tape. It motivates me to collect bizarre stuff.”
Ben does not collect so much as hunts. The tapes Ben wants to screen will not show up in a bin at Goodwill. “I feel like I should have been a detective or something,” he says. “I love hunting things down, especially if it seems impossible to find. It feels like solving a mystery. Hearing about some movie… maybe there’s no IMDB page, but there’s one grainy photo of it online. So I’ll blow up the photo and try to read the names at the bottom of the tape, and then try to contact those people.”
Ben reaches out to directors, crew members, and sometimes their family. He’ll contact them over Facebook, work emails, or by writing letters. This dogged determination led him to the film he’s showing at this October’s screening: Zombies Invade Pittsburg. “Pittsburg, California,” he quickly clarifies. “It was made by this little production company, a woman and her husband, I believe. They sell it on DVD now, but three years ago I emailed them and explained I was looking for it on VHS. They said they’d contact me if they found it.”
After following up every six months or so over the course of the past three years, they finally found a tape and sent it his way. “It’s just a terrible, poorly made, boring, awful movie.” According to Ben, the bulk of it is cops sitting in a station phoning people. Once in a while there’s a zombie attack in a parking lot. “But I feel like it needs to be shown. It’s never been shown.” He emphasizes how important this is. “It was made, and people need to be aware it exists.” The screenings take on a sense of urgency when the stakes are set that high, but Ben mostly does it for fun. “It brings me joy. I really like introducing people to something that is on the cusp of being lost. It’s a nostalgia trip, too.”
And experiences like Ben’s aren’t the only aspect of VHS facing extinction. Videotape is a living medium, and like anything living, it ages. No two viewings of a tape are the same. Every play decays the image further and the physical nature of the medium demands involvement on behalf of the spectator. Ben describes it best:
“Movies felt much more interactive to me when I was a kid. It felt like you kind of mattered to the experience. VHS kind of heightens that. There will be times when the tape goes a bit wonky in the player, and I have to run up and eject it, then put it back in so the picture’s clearer. It matters that you’re there watching it.”
He reminisces about the earliest days of rental stores, when most families had to rent a VCR in addition to the tapes. “I just imagine a family’s whole process of renting a VCR, putting down a deposit and bringing a tape home that looked spooky. They spent 20 minutes hooking it up, only getting sound at first, and then looked through the handbook to get the cords right. And finally, when they put the movie in, it was the shittiest movie that had ever been made.”
And how about shooting in the VHS format? In 2013, Micah Vassau and Fritz Strum peddled $5 VHS tapes on their college campus with an original short film, Bachelorette Party, which they recorded onto the first 15 minutes of each tape. It’s a VHS nightmare about two brothers who throw their sister a bachelorette party complete with an Eggo Waffle cake, Four Lokos, and a male stripper. From there, the film accelerates into dark carnage. One of the brothers destroys a TV in the woods before being attacked by flying penises. It plays out like a hung over recollection of a rager thrown by David Lynch.
Bachelorette Party, co-directed with fellow filmmakers Aaron Greenbaum and Justin Dean, is the first film in what Micah and Fritz call the “VHS Trilogy.” The second installment is the short film Panty Symphonic, followed by their feature film Fingerilla. “I think it began when I found this VHS camera at Goodwill,” Fritz remembers as he describes their their fuzzy, lo‐fi vision. “I fixed it up. The bands had broken inside, so I replaced them with rubber bands. It became an obsession. I started shooting everything on it.”
There was something attractive about the look of VHS. As Micah explains, “Aaron, Justin and I all shot Bachelorette Party. It was really a backlash to how bad a lot of student films were. Everyone would say they looked so good. Who cares if they looked good? They sucked. So we wanted to have really good sound, be really well edited, but all shot on VHS.” As he points out, by the time they were making the second film in the trilogy, they leaned into the format and found a kind of beauty in its fatal flaws. “In many ways, Panty Symphonic was more pure, because the VHS wasn’t a gimmick. We shot it the same way you’d shoot a non-VHS film.” Fritz mentions an advantage to the VHS look, “We kind of made it for festival programmers who would be watching movie after movie. Then they’d see one they wouldn’t be able to forget.”
But it’s not easy to shoot on a VHS camera. “The batteries last for 30 minutes, and a lot of them have an auto‐iris. You can’t even shoot at certain angles because the screen just goes black. We lost shots because of the camera! But at the festivals, every time we told people we shot on VHS, they thought it was really cool. We’ve seen a lot of VHS spring up in the last few years. There’s definitely an underground VHS movement.”
And like any underground scene, VHS culture has already been adopted and infiltrated by the mainstream. The 2012 horror film V/H/S predictably received a limited edition release on tape. Netflix gave their nostalgia-driven hit Stranger Things a pseudo VHS treatment with DVD cases that looked like a tape sleeve, complete with already worked in spine wear from imagined years of pulling it off the shelf. But as the pop-culture machine moves past 80’s and 90's nostalgia, the aesthetic as a marketing strategy will probably disappear.
Will this put an end to VHS as a niche, underground commodity? No. And funny enough, it’s because of its awkward tech ‘tween peculiarities; it’s the one viewing experience no other medium can replicate. The community of analog collectors, exhibitors and filmmakers will remain devoted out of love and obligation to keeping the medium’s esoteric and nostalgic nature alive. It’s not a hobby, it’s a crusade of preservation. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a formalistic decision that serves and informs a tone and narrative. But maybe most importantly, the covers are badass and watching them is fun.
Sprinkles has his own electromagnetic dream: to open a coffee shop that will double as a VHS rental store. But not in one of Austin’s cool neighborhoods. “Out in the suburbs. I love that strip mall feel. That’s where I want to be,” which makes perfect sense for a VHS fanatic.