[FrightFest 2022] Cult of VHS

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CULT OF VHS
Directed by Rob Preciado

What was your local video store? Mine was Alphabet Video in Edinburgh – an absolute haven of B-Movies. In the days before any of us had DVD players, it was through a combo of them and older brothers that my friends and I got our grubby teenage hands upon grainy shlock like Maniac Cop and Sewage Baby. We also had a local Vogue, Blockbuster and Global (get it first time or get it free – that’s the Global guarantee). All of these were troves of weird and wonderful things you’d otherwise only see in the early hours on Channel 4. As one of the guests says, this was film school for many of us. So in this doc, presented with cool 80s graphics and music, feature-debut director Rob Preciado reminds us what we’re missing today.

Don’t expect to see the big genre names – the line-up consists of small indy filmmakers and actors plus various collectors or distributors. For me, this wasn’t a problem – I often like hearing from fans rather than the usual rogue’s gallery, and it’s cool to see their massive collections. One guy, Mike Redman, even has a throne of VHS tapes. We lose out on these eccentricities in documentaries with more guarded academics or movie legends. At its best Cult of VHS is a warm, nostalgic saunter down memory lane, reminding viewers of when they spent “45 minutes” browsing shelves – a feeling many Netflix viewers will relate to.

However, with the focus mostly on personal anecdotes vs. analysis, then, at its worst, it can be a repetitive trudge through other people’s collections. Whether this will put you off much will likely vary with the size of your own. However, aside from the segment about video stores, which has a clear thematic link, the least enjoyable bits were those which doubled up as promotions for some of the talking heads’ own work. These are thankfully short-lived, though, and from what we’re shown, they also have an entertaining scrappy charm. It’s not that it doesn’t have anything else to say: there’s a lot about fandom, art, escapism, and the video nasty era. Though for the most part, it’s descriptive rather than reflective and emphasises having fun rather than being thought-provoking. Again, considering the subject, neither is necessarily bad – sometimes you just want to geek out. Still, it may leave some viewers wanting more.

It helps that Cult of VHS doesn’t outstay its welcome – being a lean 80 minutes rather than a self-important three-hour epic (I’ll leave you to figure out what I’m referencing there). There’s some brilliant footage too. We get numerous clips from cult films such as Xtro, Tenebrae, and Toxic Avenger. There are also Jane Fonda workouts (probably too much about these) and commercials from a bygone era. Seeing things like a Panasonic sold as cutting edge made me smile, bringing back numerous memories of early 90s ad breaks immortalised in the family collection. And there are things like BBFC warnings which now look vaguely ridiculous and even a little twee. There’s also lots of cover art porn, with the sorts of fantastic images that’d lure punters in before the days of seeing trailers on YouTube. Legendary designer Graham Humphreys appears to talk about these, including his work on Evil Dead. I also liked being reminded of the abomination of pan scan.

The recurring comparison with vinyl is interesting in light of how much of a comeback that format has made – Michael Keene amusingly says VHS is “like vinyl if vinyl kind of sucked’. However, where records have superior sound quality than competitors (seriously), upgrades to VHS have improved upon it no end. The picture is sharper, the audio is better, and there’s no need to be king and rewind afterward. As such, though the format may represent how anyone over 30 fell in love with films, I can’t see it getting the same revival. Still, it’s great to see the way the internet has helped people build and share their collections in this way. And maybe the main success of this doc was it made me feel emotional about something I didn’t even realise I missed.

Physical media may be less handy and a heck of a lot more costly. But we lose something when we watch online: something abstract and intangible but very much a part of the film-watching experience. As per the ending section, maybe it’s as easy as having something you can pick up and smell. Or maybe it’s about holding something almost impossible to break, that physically connects us with a simpler time. Lindsay Washburn points out that we preserve part of our past through VHS. Hell, maybe it’s just the effort of going to a video store rather than clicking through. Home video can also last longer too. As video store owner Kevin Martin (maybe the most likable talking head on it) reminds us, 48% of films have never gone digital. Hopefully, this one makes the cut, as a lot of people are going to love it.

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About david.s.smith 450 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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