The Death of VHS (2006)
By John Dodd
On November 14, Variety published an obituary for VHS citing retailers decision to pull the last of the format for reasons of shelf space. I have been thinking about this announcement for some time now. Last winter, just a year ago, my friend Rich and I went on half a dozen road trips to buy cheap VHS tapes from rental outlets like Family Video and Second Cinema Video selling off their VHS stock. Some stores were down to the bottom of VHS. At one all that remained were aerobic work out tapes and Pauley Shore Must Die. Fortunately, other stores had more variety.
For the last year I have been watching the fruits of these expeditions. Some might ask why go to this trouble for VHS. After all, DVD is clearly superior. DVDs have extras. DVDs have remastered sound and high resolution pictures. DVDs have presented obscure films in their most pristine and unedited quality, some for the first time in America. Almost none of the VHS tapes I bought were even letterboxed. All of this is true, but VHS will always hold a place in my heart. It was what I grew up with.
In December 1985 my family bought their first VHS player. A video cassette recorder was heavy machinery back then, one weighed (and cost) a substantial amount. It occupied the entire top of a television set. The first video I watched on my family’s player was Ice Pirates with Robert Ulrich. I have not watched it since!
The idea of a video library appealed to me back when videos were $50-$100. . . except for the cheap ones at the convenience stores. The first VHS tape I bought was The Most Dangerous Game. The EP recorded film cost only $10! Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection and The Mad Bomber with Chuck Connors soon followed. There were others that got away. I did not buy House of Psychotic Women the one time I saw it at Wal-Mart and in later years regretted it. All of the others would over the years come down from $10 to $5 to finally $.99. Back in the mid/late 80s, $10 was pretty much my monthly allowance except for some loose change for odd jobs around the house. I wanted to collect the movies but renting was much more cost effective. Renting movies was done on Saturday. I, as a young lad, was restricted to “PG” or “PG-13,” except for the video boxes that luckily had no rating listed. My family began renting videos when outlets were clubs (an annual membership fee was required). All of this changed over time. Clubs were out. To rent a videotape required only a driver’s license. Tapes slowly came down in price. With time, my video collection grew and grew.
Finally, last year’s buying trips netted me more than 100 movies (at a cost of about $150-200, not counting the considerable gas expense). I did not always buy the films that looked the best. Instead, the loudest callers were those films that I remember watching on beat up VHS tapes with friends and at home when mom and dad were gone or the videos I remembered on the shelves way back in the mid/late 80s that I never got around to renting. Many would argue that for the amount of money spent last winter, I could have instead purchased some of them on high resolution DVDs through one of the many online retailers and saved on gas. True, I could not have bought every film, but the ones that I did buy would be uncut, letterboxed, and with prints not looking like they were edited with a chainsaw. Less could be more. I do not argue, but what I do say is a death is usually marked by a wake. What follows is a sampling of the titles purchased. None of which, I might add, are available on region 1 DVD.
The Applegates (1990) - Michael Lehmann
(a.k.a. Meet the Applegates)
Michael Lehman is known as the director of Heathers. Few remember his follow up film, an equally bizarre, socially relevant comedy. A family of giant cockroaches venture from the Brazilian rain forests to the suburbs of the U.S. of A. Their mission is to assimilate and sabotage the humans. Since humans are destroying the rainforests, the cockroaches are going to return the favor. Unfortunately, suburbia proves too much of a temptation as the cockroaches fall into illicit sex, binge shopping, and drug use. This film is just as acidic as Heathers and almost as good. The only misstep is the decision to have Dabney Coleman in drag.
Housekeeping (1987) - Bill Forsyth
Based on the first novel by Marilynne Robinson, this odd movie is a real sleeper. It tells the story of two young girls who go to live with their eccentric aunt (Christine Lahti) in a small town during the 1950s. One girl falls under the spell of her aunt while the other longs for a normal Rockwell life. Although the aunt’s oddities are charming, director Forsythe never lets the viewer forget the bitter side of the story. Christine Lahti gives a great performance and both of the actresses playing the girls build distinct characters.
The Fast Kill (1972) - Lindsay Shopteff
I was tipped off about this film via an extra on a DVD (how can I dis the format too badly if it led me to The Fast Kill?). Guy Maddin in the documentary to The Saddest Music in the World praised the “can do” quality of this low budget British heist film. A gangster (with the help of his girlfriend) recruits a mercenary, a race car driver, a lesbian sharp shooter, and a bomb expert to pull off a daring jewel robbery. Of course, greed and divided loyalties lead to complications. Director Lindsey Shopteff is often dismissed as a hack, but he keeps this film moving quickly and the action swift, violent, and in limits with the film’s low budget. The videotape (courtesy of The Congress Video Group) features some of the least subtle pan and scanning I have ever seen. Despite this, the film’s story and pacing grabs one and the technical glitches add to the old school charm.
The Little Drummer Girl (1984) - George Roy Hill
For those of us disappointed with the more recent Constant Gardener, this fellow John Le Carre adaptation has all the suspense and intrigue one would expect of a thriller. Diane Keaton, not one of my favorite actresses, may be miscast as the left wing political actress drafted into spy service by Israeli agents. Still, she gives it her all and earned my respect. The film plays the moral ambiguity card well and delivers 130 minutes of interest. Klaus Kinski even appears as the head Israeli agent.
The Slasher (1972) - Roberto Bianchi Montero
(a.k.a. The Slasher Is a Sex Maniac)
From my VHS purchases, I had to pick one film of a sleazier variety and this was the best one. Farley Granger, a long way from Hitchcock’s Rope, plays a police detective out to catch a serial killer who preys on unfaithful wives. This is an Italian giallo (violent murder mystery) with sleaze, nudity, gore, the adorably unclothed Sylvia Koscina, and one nasty of an ending. In other words, it’s an exploitation masterpiece.
Wise Blood (1979) - John Huston
Flannery O’Connor is hard to adapt. She reads like Faulkner with a sense of humor. The theme is the decaying south. The characters are misfits, murderers, and conmen, but O’Connor was a devout Catholic, not a nihilist. Wise Blood shows her traits well. It’s funny in an odd way that many will not care for. Brad Dourif, in his best role, plays Hazel, a bitter young man who starts The Church Without Christ. Hazel’s messages are sincere as his arrogance. Hazel soon becomes bombarded with odd characters: huckster preachers, horny virgins, and a dull witted, monkey obsessed zoo keeper. With a terrific supporting cast including Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, and William Hickey, the film is flawlessly acted. The viewer just has to role with the weirdness. For those who can Wise Blood proves to be on of John Huston’s strangest and most intriguing later films.
There is no question that VHS is dead and buried. What these half dozen VHS tapes show is that the format left us some good memories.