Continuing the VHS Conversation with Joe Dante

Continuing the VHS Conversation with Joe Dante

May 11, 2011

Recently, we brought you news about Mondo Video – a new video label courtesy of Austin’s Mondo and Intervision Picture Corporation – and their inaugural VHS re-release, the homemade horror flick, Sledgehammer. While we pondered the potential that the horror genre could possibly keep videotapes out of the graveyard for good – and dove into the minds of a few VHS junkies to get their take on the matter – we wondered what a horror filmmaker might have to say about the viability of this oft forgotten film format.

Director Joe Dante was making movies during a period in cinematic history that makes VHS enthusiasts drool. The co-creator/producer/host/commentator of the horror and exploitation haven – otherwise known as Trailers from Hell – blessed the late ‘70s and 1980s with film favorites like Piranha, The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Gremlins – but how does he feel about the mooted return of video – the medium on which many of his fans first glimpsed his uncanny canon?

“I know a lot of people look back fondly on their first experience of watching Cannibal Holocaust on a rolling, speck-filled, dupey VHS tape – but I don't,” he divulges. “I didn't especially enjoy watching distant broadcast stations' snowy, shaky images, either, but sometimes I had to just to see movies I couldn't see anywhere else.” As more popular releases make the evolutionary jump to DVD, former enthusiasts are upgrading, and incrementally dispatching their former collections to the thrift store afterlife – a muted departure Dante is unlikely to mourn.

Despite the proliferation of obscure movies that VHS augured, Dante is still haunted by the often shoddy mastering that diminishes the quality of the viewing experience. “VHS is an inferior way to watch movies. Even the laserdisc – great advance in quality that it was – looks pretty shabby today,” he pronounces. Having spent years honing his personal vision behind the scenes, the prospect of seeing his cinematography chopped, cropped and veiled by analog fog is an unappealing prospect for the director. “When you know how much effort goes into making even the cheapest movie look as good as possible,” he unsentimentally reflects, “It's hard to get excited about going backwards visually.”

“It's a clever retro gimmick, especially for movies whose masters aren't good enough for Blu-ray,” the director says of the new micro-wave of limited VHS releases. “That includes virtually every TV movie from the ‘80s thru the early 2000s, many of which exist only on video masters that can never make the quality jump to Blu-ray.” VHS’s limitations – which one could either consider charming quirks, or a vexing visual handicap – preserve these lo-fi recordings in grungy stasis, conveniently masking their deficiencies.

Another nail in the clamshell coffin is the folding of several boutique labels. In part their demise can be attributed to the exhaustion of B-movie obscurities to mine, but viewer preferences are inevitably pushing the medium itself to the margins. Mainstream horror audiences are likely to eschew these re-releases, and Dante is understandably wary about vouching for the format’s longevity. Can the video format provide an arena for the reintroduction of lost or obscure films (like Sledgehammer) that many companies would otherwise snub for a DVD/Blu release? “Maybe,” Joe reasons, “But talk about a niche market! And once they've seen Blu-ray, how are you going to entice them with VHS?”

Mondo Video plans on demonstrating how, with a few elusive goodies they have in store, but do you press eject with Joe on this one? Or is Mondo’s plan enough to send you spooling back to the future?

Categories: Features
Tags: Sledgehammer
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