What is the terrible secret? No train, no tracks, yet death rides the rails. The zaniest sting operation on four wheels. You can feel them in your blood. Some men turn bad… others are born that way. They have a never ending hunger for human flesh. Wanna date? Thank god you’ve graduated. You’ll sweat blood!
These are just some of the amazing and bizarre taglines on some random VHS tapes from yesteryear (you get an invisible cookie and a no prize for guessing which movies each one pertains to in the comments below). They came from labels such as Gorgon Video, Continental Video, Embassy Home Entertainment and many more, at a time when any film, even ones shot on video could get to a wider audience via your neighborhood video store.
VHS was born in 1975 and died in 2008 when A History of Violence was the last film put out in that format. Or so you were told. Thanks to smaller genre labels such as Bleeding Skull (who just put out the out of this world insanity known as Cards of Death on tape), Horror Boobs, Vultra Video, Massacre Video and even some bigger companies like Troma re-releasing The Toxic Avenger and Drafthouse Films/Mondo releasing the cult smash Miami Connection on VHS, it seems to have been re-awakened. Reborn, if you will. But according to its fans, it never died. It was still the format of choice.
Growing up, I was an avid VHS aficionado. Even at the age of 5, I’d go to the video store across the street from me (Video Reflections, how I miss you so), and would just peruse the aisles, which seemed to be miles long, staring at those vibrant covers that beckoned me, saying, “Look at the promise in this artwork. You know you want to watch this film.” The red light district is an apt description (no, not the part of the video store behind the curtain), whispering to you to take them home. Then sometimes one would scream at you, and you had to take notice. Films such as Chopping Mall, Faces of Death, Street Trash, Trancers and thousands more came home with me, where I’d put them on my 13 inch TV and just fiddle with the tracking, just to make the picture as perfect as possible.
And that’s the joy I get out of watching Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic’s Adjust Your Tracking, one of two great VHS documentaries I have seen this year (the other being Rewind This!) and seeing the love and fanaticism for VHS is one that I have for films themselves. I personally don’t collect much in the way of VHS anymore, due to decreased funds, but every now and then when I’m at a second hand shop or a random flea market (NYC isn’t home to as many flea markets as we once were), I’ll try to pick one up. Recently, I found a film that is sadly not on DVD, The Fifth Floor, a really great thriller that should be seen by more people.
One of the things that’s touched upon in the documentary, especially by Zack Carlson, is that roughly 40% or so of films that are on VHS have not been released on DVD and probably never will, so in a way, the collecting of these tapes is archiving for future generations. Luckily, once in awhile, a theater such as the Alamo Drafthouse, CineFamily or here in Brooklyn, Spectacle, will play a rare VHS gem (I was privy to see a film starring a young Judd Nelson called Rock N Roll Hotel, which should be on DVD already. You hear that, genre labels? Pick that shit up!) and you get to see that film. But sadly, that isn’t the case for a lot of people.
I don’t want a lot of hate mail for this next statement, but it’s not a black and white statement. When DVD came out, I jumped out of my clothes and ran around naked in happiness. I was a fan of laserdisc, but they were way too expensive. But with DVD, I was able to get films, especially in their original formatting (some of them took awhile, because people were afraid of widescreen and labels were putting out the dreaded full screen). And of course, Criterion was one of the first labels I fell in love with putting out DVDs. But the other side of the coin (that is touched upon greatly in the documentary) is that without VHS and without the joy of the hunt, some of those films wouldn’t have been loved as much. The gore-fests of yesteryear that I was intent on seeing, films like Black Devil Doll From Hell, The Monster Squad, Robot Jox, X-Tro and so many more, I wouldn’t have those memories on the small screen, feeling as if I was doing something wrong, as if my parents didn’t know what I was watching. Perhaps they didn’t, and just turned a blind eye because I was a good kid and all I wanted to do was watch a movie.
Kinem and Peretic have assembled a great group of VHS fans, historians, filmmakers and collectors that round out the festivities and the 84 minutes is a breeze. Too breezy, if you ask me, because I could watch a Never Sleep Again style documentary on this subject. Give me 840 minutes, and I’d be a happy camper. You could tell this was a passion project, one of many to be helped by the masses via Kickstarter, and just gives you a taste of why VHS was, is and will always be remembered and never forgotten. It’s now awakened something within me, a new obsession of sorts. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go check out a dusty basement somewhere and see if a copy of Tales From the Quadead Zone is there.
You can order Adjust Your Tracking now over at their website, on DVD or VHS. Or both!