Well, now’s an exception.
I’d touched on this earlier in my review of the horror flick V/H/S, but I keep seeing this, and it never stops bugging me. So I’m going full-on killdozer on this crap.
Here’s the deal: more than just about anything else, I’m a movie geek. Grew up with horror movies being broadcast on late-night UHF (this was a thing, kids, look it up), and I’d stay up or set my alarm to watch them regularly. I remember not being allowed to stay up past my bedtime once to see Rock ‘n Roll High School, and convincing my mom to stay up and watch it so she could tell me about it in the morning. As I’ve said long, long ago, my first memory is seeing Frankenstein’s monster lumbering about on a pier on the TV over my mom’s shoulder.
So yeah, I know what it’s like to put movies on a pedestal above most everything else.
And because I grew up at a certain time, the VHS boom of the early 1980s was a key thing in my development as a movie geek. Especially one with a fixation on horror/exploitation movie titles.
The problem is, it was like this for a lot of other people too.
Now, for a bunch of these people, they remember VHS as the delivery system for all that is good in the horror/exploitation world, because not everyone is old enough (or lived close enough to a major metropolitan area) to experience the Grindhouse district and wax nostalgic for the thrill of possibly getting shot while watching a movie. It’s like the embrace of vinyl with none of the advantages of embracing vinyl. It’s more like the black metal acts that only release on cassettes because it’s “kult” and “nekro.”
What was the VHS boom in a few short sentences, you might ask? Well, it was this:
In the early 1980s, when the VCR entered the home video market, people needed stuff to watch beyond what they’d tape off TV. So the “video store” entered the national marketplace. And these places needed inventory, so people shoved whatever movies they had the rights to onto VHS, regardless of source materials or the quality of the masters they had on hand, and marketed these movies to video stores with empty shelves. And because these weren’t marketed as “sell through” items, video companies kept the prices of tapes incredibly high (we’re talking 70-100 dollars per tape here), so people were paying out the ass for copies of Andy Milligan movies that nearly nobody wanted to see. But there were only so many copies of Red Dawn stores could afford to buy, and people would rent just about anything they hadn’t seen if the new releases weren’t in, so these catalog titles would beef up profits. So the tapes would be churned out quick and fast.
And the thing is, these companies did not care one bit about video quality. So cash-strapped movies were being transferred using beat-up, faded and often horribly cut and censored exhibition prints (and in the case of Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery, with film reels in the wrong order) to an analog medium that was destined to degrade with every play. And generations of people were taught that watching a movie at home absolutely necessarily meant that the image had to be cropped to the 4:3 aspect ratio, or that films shot fullscreen and meant to be matted to 1.85:1 or narrower would be given fullscreen transfers, exposing boom mics and cables meant to be matted out. I mean, who cares how the filmmakers want their movies to look, right? What do they know? People want their movies to fill up the whole screen, up and down, left and right.
And every time you loaded up a VHS tape, the quality of the tape would get just a little bit worse. You’d get tracking errors, the audio would drop (and if you had a hi-fi stereo VCR, you’d see a stupid “HI-FI” display thing from your VCR pop up every time the sound would waver back and forth a little bit) and if you were lucky, the VCR wouldn’t eat your tape. You’d have to buy head cleaners in the inevitable instance that your playback heads would get so gunked up from renting lousy tapes that you wouldn’t be able to play anything any more.
And that’s what these people are nostalgic for.
Now, most people are just nostalgic for the fact that so many heretofore unknown and little-seen movies got exposure thanks to the VHS boom. And that’s fine. Admirable, even. Lots of movies that are now regarded as exploitation/horror classics would likely have gone undiscovered if not for their being available on VHS. Would people care about Herschell Gordon Lewis if Midnight Video hadn’t put out his movies on videotape back in the day? Would anyone stateside care about Dario Argento if not for VHS copies of Tenebre showing up here under the title Unsane? Would Mario Bava be as well-known in horror circles as he is without VHS tapes of Hatchet for the Honeymoon or House of Exorcism popping up on shelves?
But too many people take this too far, and don’t just celebrate the fact that these delights were re-discovered, but the horrible medium that delivered them. They actually say stupid crap like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t supposed to look good. It’s supposed to look like that washed-out print they used on the Wizard tape!” Like Tobe Hooper wanted the movie to look like shit. Like any of these filmmakers intentionally wanted to make lousy looking movies, and DVD transfers have only served to make them look better than they were intended to. I’ve actually had arguments with people who claim that Lucio Fulci probably knew that the prints of his films would be quickly and shoddily duped for US theatrical distribution, and so he never intended them to actually look good. That he was actually shooting to accommodate how his films would look in countries he didn’t visit, in theaters he didn’t go to, duplicated to produce a result he never could have seen. In short, that he really had no respect for his work. (And I’m not talking about the latter part of his career, when he clearly didn’t care that much, but prime Lucio Fulci.)
I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, and you can probably say it along with me by now…
THESE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS.
These are people who are essentially saying that they couldn’t give less of a crap about what the director’s or cinematographer’s aims were in composing any given film. Instead, they’re basing their judgment on what they first saw on videotapes churned out by companies that simply didn’t care about what the end product looked like, as long as they churned it out and got it on the store shelves.
They’re not celebrating art.
They’re celebrating commerce.
And their lack of giving a flying rat’s ass about actual image and sound quality in favor of whatever cheapjack transfers they were lucky enough to get from the shelves of Video Hut out on Route 9 makes it harder for those of us who feel otherwise to actually get transfers of movies that don’t manage to suck.
In their own way, they’re just as bad as the people on the other side of the fence: the people who have gone out and bought new HDTVs and Blu-Ray players, who want every instance of grain removed from their movies, despite the fact that grain is what the filmed image is composed of. So studios apply Dolby Noise Reduction to everything like it’s going out of style, and we wind up with Blu-Rays like Patton or Predator, where everyone looks like they’re carved out of wax. Or they spring for HDTVs with 120Hz and up “SmoothMotion” settings that make everything look like it was shot on video no matter what the initial source was. (This is a particular pet peeve of mine: if you’ve seen an HDTV display a movie on Blu-Ray that looks like it was shot on video, chances are that the TV is set to a 120Hz+ refresh rate known as SmoothMotion, TruMotion, Motion Flow, etc. This artificially generates video frames interpolated from the frames immediately before and after, and is supposed to give a more “lifelike” look to movies and TV shows. It makes everything look like a shot-on-video soap opera. This is okay for live TV and sports, generally speaking, but it can be turned off, and SHOULD AT THE EARLIEST POSSIBLE INSTANCE.)
So yeah. They’re just as bad as that. And that’s horrifyingly bad to a video nerd like me.
I mean, as I said above, I grew up watching these movies on over-the-antenna UHF stations. On a tiny black-and-white TV. This doesn’t mean that I long to watch The Blob with its color removed, washed over with a nice veil of static and interrupted every 10 minutes with commercials for Hussey’s Tire Jungle. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t mind seeing a recreation of that once or twice just for nostalgia’s sake, but I’m certainly not going around saying that this is the absolutely ideal way to watch The Blob because that’s how I managed to see it as a kid. I mean, I’m not an idiot.
So, in short, YOUR STUPID VHS FETISH IS WRONG. Celebrate the era, sure. Celebrate it for what it allowed: the rediscovery of films that might otherwise have been lost to the ages, and the thrill of discovering these films for yourself. Not for how it accomplished this, which has wound up being an incredibly shitty way to present movies.