Can Horror Help Save VHS?

Can Horror Help Save VHS?

May 10, 2011

VHS has been undergoing a minor resurgence with the retro crowd, but is it really worth exhuming a medium famed for its fallibility? The most frightening thing about the format isn’t its potential to spread like a contagion of terror, but its alarming tendency to self-destruct, or disintegrate into a white-noise blizzard at climatic moments. VHS can be a tricky format. Movies are often butchered in 4:3 with horrible grain, lousy sound, and terrible picture. After years of being restricted to truncated, severed slashers, the lavish remastering of cult titles on DVD and Blu-ray has allowed fans to appreciate the fullest versions of their faves.

What is it about the chunkily outmoded cassettes, which evokes a passionate nostalgia in certain fans? Many genre junkies worshiping at the altar of VHS reminisce about trips to the local video store, where they were drawn to the elaborate, unique designs of gory box art – imagery that feels heads and shoulders above the banal photomontage crap we often see today. While the contents of a clamshell are curses for some, the aesthetic appeal of a grainy flick’s distinctive texture is gold to others. There’s also the sincere pride most enthusiasts take in the act of preserving a moviegoing experience on the brink of being lost. A similar save-the-tapes movement is happening in the analog audio cassette arena, reinforcing the idea that some movie/music lovers stand firm on the sheer principle of defying the online streaming masses, in lieu of tangible goodies.

A gift from the genre Gods has been bestowed upon horror geeks and VHS enthusiasts in the form of a new partnership between Austin’s Mondo (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s outlet for collectible art) and Intervision Picture Corporation – who were recently swept up by cult cinema label Severin Films. The resulting love child, Mondo Video, will be releasing rare genre films in a collectible VHS format, and they’re kicking things off with the beautifully bizarre Sledgehammer. Fans of this David Prior homemade horror gem will be drooling over the Mondo treatment: the package includes the original box art and copy from the 1983 VHS release, which you can purchase on the website on Wednesday, May 11. Intervision has also released a DVD (gasp!) version that you can snag today.

But how can Mondo’s new label be regarded as anything more than an indulgent anachronism? Many would contend that, by using the old medium to experience movies for the first time, this isn’t just a tender time trip. Josh Schafer, editor-in-chief of Lunchmeat Magazine – a fanzine dedicated to VHS and preserving the memory of its obscure and esoteric gems – believes that VHS can play a positive role in giving audiences a “full scope on [their] favorite genre” by sustaining the life of titles that won’t make the jump to Blu-ray, or even DVD. He sees the format as a place to “fill in” and cohabitate peacefully side by side with its modern counterparts.

It seems unlikely that VHS will ever make a full-fledged comeback, given that the average consumer isn't in the market for a product offering poorer visual and audio quality and fewer supplemental materials from the current standard. Yet horror could very well keep this medium alive for a cult audience – in the same way that hip hop and audiophiles have helped keep vinyl relevant. After all, one of the titles that has helped kick-start the whole VHS revival was the limited edition of Ti West's House of the Devil – a tape originally conceived as a little bonus for reviewers that garnered so much attention they released it to the masses.

While VHS may be dead to many, Mondo’s release of lost genre gems allows the medium to deliver thrills to their customers – and there’s nothing dated about that. As such, the horror fanbase offers vital life-support to the medium. As Josh reiterates:

“[VHS] stands as a monument for those kinds of flicks that most distributors would turn their nose at, but nonetheless exist and are as much a part of horror as any other genre film … When you're tired of the stuff that's coming out on DVD, you can always fire up that VCR and pop in something that you've never, ever seen. Something that doesn't riff on some other flick you've seen a thousand times over. You can use VHS to time travel and take you back to time you never knew existed. Times that were great for the horror flick. Times that should always be remembered and loved!”

What do VHS/horror junkies want to see get the re-release treatment on video? I’ll go first, and it’s three sleazy words: New York Ripper. Leave your picks in the comments below.

Evan Husney (Intervision Picture Corporation)

Sledgehammer is from a universe all its own, true found-art that could be on display in an art gallery near you, and art should be preserved in its original form.”

Justin Ishmael (Mondo Video)

“If I found a magic lamp and a genie popped out and gave me three wishes, I would burn them all on one thing … getting the late J.P. Simon's The Rift aka Endless Descent released on VHS. Horror aficionados most likely know Spanish gore auteur J.P. Simon for Slugs and Pieces, but The Rift goes wild with a foul mouthed R. Lee Ermey blowing away sea creatures and slug monsters 20,000 leagues under the sea. Find me that lamp!”

Josh Schafer (Lunchmeat Magazine)

“I would love to see re-issues of all of the Midnight Video releases, but particularly Microwave Massacre. For Midnight Video, the re-issues would have to be in full big box artwork – the only way it would fly with me. None of that clamshell stuff for these bad boys.”

Josh Johnson (IPF Productions, Rewind This!)

“I would like to see a re-release of Marley’s Revenge. It was made for a micro-budget in North Carolina and never saw heavy distribution outside the state. Despite meager resources the filmmakers managed to create a truly memorable movie monster comprised of a faux-skeleton framework and what appears to be an alligator skull. Seeing it presented on VHS masks some of the flaws in the creature design that would be more apparent in a new HD master. More people need a videotape of Marley’s Revenge to violate their eyeballs.”

Dale Lloyd (Viva VHS)

The Pit (1981). It's such an odd and obscure film, and one that seriously benefited from a fuzzy VHS picture quality. The world needs more Sammy Snyders (child star of the film) in their hearts – such a likable, but ultimately strange kid with a few problems going on in his head, both in the film and personally you feel. I doubt the movie was originally intended to mix both horror and comedy together so perfectly, but it succeeds. Miles away from being The Evil Dead II – for me the best example of a horror comedy alongside Peter Jackson's Braindead – this little unknown gem is genuinely creepy and unintentionally hilarious in parts. There is a deep perverted tone that sticks in your head throughout too, if you can get past that or even embrace it, there is fun to be had … ”

Micah (Reel Distraction)

“I'd love to see Whodunit? (aka Island of Blood, 1982) get re-released. It's a weird slasher flick about a group of film students and musicians who go to an island to shoot some sort of inspirational rock opera. Of course, the actors and musicians soon start getting killed off. The killer has an unique MO: he carries around a Walkman and prefaces his kills by playing a song from a cassette tape that describes the way the victim is about to die. So, for example, he plays a song about "burning with desire" before dousing someone with gasoline and setting them on fire. It's a cool concept. In the film's best sequence, the killer manages to super-heat a swimming pool, then throws a teen into it, causing him to boil to death. Pretty wicked.”

Brian Salisbury (Film School Rejects)

“I would love to see a VHS re-release of Alligator. This 1980 monster flick stars Robert Forster, Henry Silva, and a fantastic practical monster gator so massive that it shatters New York City streets in one of the film's seminal moments. The incredibly over-the-top, wildly absurd concept makes this film pitch perfect for the VHS set, and yet it’s surprisingly high quality level would lend some credibility to the resurrection of this long forgotten format.”

Ray Smiling (Behold the Destroyer)

“While many horror movies from the 80s feel appropriate on VHS, none serves the medium like Slumber Party Massacre 2. It's the definitive movie about a low rent Andrew Dice Clay impersonator killing slumber party participants with a drilltar (drill/guitar). On DVD you'd be tempted to skip the scene where the killer breaks the fourth wall and performs a song and dance routine. You'd be right to, but, on VHS at least you'll be forced to watch the horribleness proceed in 2x speed. That'll give you just enough time to ponder, was the dance sequence entirely improvised? Or, is there someone out there that has Slumber Party Massacre 2 on their choreography resume.”

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