The first in a multi-part series devoted to a dead format
Alright. This is a very personal article on a subject I am pretty touchy about. I’ll just get this part of things out of the way now so you can stop reading here, laugh, or just ask yourself, ‘What?” I LOVE VHS.
I concede that almost every reason I have for this love is nostalgia-based, but nonetheless, that is how I feel, I can’t help it. Maybe it is because in a way VHS parallels my early life. I was born in the late ‘60s, developed in the ‘70s, and came of age in the ‘80s. BUT mostly, it is my memories of how the coming of VHS impacted my life and the way the movies it allowed me to see changed me forever.
The days of VHS were a time of discovery. The format heralded in fundamental changes in the way we viewed movies and TV. It brought the films off the metroplex screens and into our homes in a way TV and even cable never could. So much of this is taken for granted now, in a time when it is possible to literally watch anything, anywhere. Despite The Terminator and Aliens director James Cameron’s assertion that releasing a movie on home video is like killing it and sending it to hell, for me it was heaven.
The first VHS (Video Home System for those who were wondering) machines (also known as VCRs, Video Cassette Recorders) were huge and expensive. They cost over $1,000 in the early ‘80s, the equivalent of about $3,500 today. Blank tapes even cost over $20 each. The systems’ remotes were attached to these behemoths by a cable. The home electronics revolution had not yet happened. It was still an analogue world out there, and the impact of VHS was really less about technology and more about movies.
The first video store I ever went in required a fee for membership and a deposit for each tape rented. They limited rentals to two-at-a-time for 24 hours only and charged the economical price of $10 each for the night at a time when a movie ticket cost $2.50. But the very thought of watching Superman or The Blues Brothers, Escape from New York or Conan the Barbarian, Creepshow or Blade Runner in your own home was so mind blowing that the cost simply did not matter.
Eating your snack of choice instead of just popcorn (or even a full dinner) while watching Carrie was a brand-new experience. You were a movie magician who could do the unthinkable—pause a scene in The Exorcist for a bathroom break (or when you simply got too scared) or finish watching The Omen, rewind it, watch it again, rewind it, and watch it again.
Another measure of the impact of VHS’s arrival is no longer did you have to wait many years to see a movie on TV after it left the theaters. Even if a movie took over a year to come out on video, it always felt worth the wait. For that 24-hour rental period in which the movie was yours, you could watch it over and over and of course, eventually, rent it again.
“You know the kind, where a Mexican mummy fights a robot built by a mad scientist bent on stealing Aztec gold.”
As thrilling as this was, it was quickly matched by the insane idea that you could preserve something off television by taping it. Saturday Monster Movie Matinees and late-night black-and-white ‘50s horror flicks could be captured and viewed repeatedly. With the advent of programmable recording, you didn’t even have to stay up all night or set your alarm to start recording to see the kind of movies that got shown on UHF stations at 2:00 a.m. You know the kind, where a Mexican mummy fights a robot built by a mad scientist bent on stealing Aztec gold. Stuff not to be missed.
In time the VCRs got cheaper, smaller and smarter; the one-time “for rental only” tapes became “priced to own”, and movie buffs could literally, for the first time in history, purchase their favorite films, take them home, and build a library. VCR Plus (repeated time-specific recording, achieved by simply inputting a code) gave the nation its first true taste of time shifting. Three major corporate stores drove the mom-and-pops out of business. And then some shiny discs appeared, signaling the beginning of the end—or at least the end of this way of watching movies.
It is these memories of the early days of VHS that keep the format in my heart. Yes, I recognize DVDs’ and Blu-Rays’ vast technical superiority, but the arrival of these things will always be linked to the end of so much I hold dear—video stores, box art, promo posters, tape trading, yes, even rewinding. I love the new formats also and am excited by the coming technologies as well but in the end I think I love my memories more.
If you happened to actually like this article, check back in the coming weeks for installments on memories of a video store, VHS cover art, and I’ll conclude the series by taking you on a field trip to a VHS-only rental store that is still in operation today. Until then, be kind – rewind.