Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ode to VHS

When I was a young teen, I ran into some serious problems with the law. Let's just say numerous non-violent criminal charges started to stack up against me and I became property of the State of Georgia. After doing some long stints in a youth detention center, regional mental hospital, infamous treatment center and a halfway house, I decided to pull a Antoine Doinel and become an ocean bound runaway. My female companion on this adventure eventually learned of my real age and ended our relationship in fear of also becoming property of the state on charges of statutory rape. I hope she has since forgiven me and sought therapy in favor of the cocaine she so loved. So there I was alone on an island in the Atlantic Ocean with a pretty sweet job as the groundskeeper for one of those ripoff time share condominium complexes. Saving my bucks, at 16 I couldn't blow it on beer, I took a bus into Savannah and purchased my very first VCR from a Mom & Pop electronic / appliance store. It was a cheap (around $300 at the time) Emerson top loader that weighed as much as a 50" Plasma TV does these days.  It was one hell of an ordeal getting that thing back to the beach shack and hooking it up to my 13" black and white TV. 

There was only one video store on the island and within a week they knew me by name. Tybee Island Video didn't require a credit card number, bank account or even a phone number. You just had to have an address. If you didn't return the videos they were going to track you down like Cool Hand Luke. They were pretty confident about their bounty hunting skills and I believed them. It took 2 days before I could get my laminated rental card and I cherished it like a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. My first rental? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! I had read volumes about this film and was jumping out of my skin in anticipation. As I sat down with a six pack of bottled coca cola and some pecan twirls for my first of many viewings, the crappy bootleg VHS copy offered up an unforgettable snuff horror experience long before DVD remastering could water it down into the quality film it actually is. 

I rented everything in the store after TCM. First the lurid big boxes from distributors Chiller Video, Continental Video, Magnum Entertainment, U.S.A. Home Video, Video Gems, the giant clamshell boxes by Unicorn Video and my favorite Wizard Video. Next it was everything by Lightning Video, Media Home Entertainment, Key Video, Charter Video, Gorgon Video, New World Video, Paragon, Prism and the greatest video company ever Vestron Video. I had become a VHS addict. I was renting 5 videos a day during the work week and 10 a day on the weekends. I rarely slept. I exhausted the shelves of Tybee Island Video watching everything from Andy Warhol's Frankenstein to Zardoz. A couple of years passed and I graduated to taking road trips to rent videos from family run stores 90 miles away. Every store held hidden gems that others had failed to purchase at distributor conventions or through monthly catalogs. I had a want list of titles in my pocket and the hunt was often more exciting than the films themselves. 

I rented from a truck stop / BBQ joint outside of Waynesboro, Georgia (bird dog capital of the world). I frequented a rural shop near Claxton (fruitcake capital of the world!) that required renters of R and X rated films to purchase a key for $1 to gain access to the videos church going folks might find offensive. I'll never forget the redneck at a bait and video store near Sylvania telling me when I rented Fellini's 8 1/2, "Nobody rents that movie but you best bring it back."  No shop was to far if there was the slightest possibility of tracking down Sweet Sugar or Return of the Evil Dead. Videos were pretty expensive back then, sometimes as much as $70, but luckily the ones that ended up in bargain bins to make room for new stock were the treasures I sought. It didn't take long before this junkie was mail ordering bootlegs from Chas. Balun  and eventually Something Weird Video, but these didn't quite fill the void like lurid art from a Wizard Video big box.  Eventually, I transfered all my VHS to DVD and now I collect copies of old VHS prints from all over the world in .avi files. 

The hunt is still there but I miss the size, smell, sound and feel of those tapes. Yeah, anamorphic widescreen uncut from a restored original negative watched on a high definition screen is pretty sweet but nothing puts a smile on my face like watching the Vestron Video logo from a tape with tracking problems. Now I can identify with vinyl record collectors who once seemed hopelessly stuck in the nostalgia of a dead medium. It makes sense. Through this archaic technology a fleeting second of my glorious life was once again within my grasp. All the good, bad and ugly can be reflected upon and relived in a daydream. I miss my tapes. I fucked up. There are still many devoted VHS fans out there. The Critical Condition Website has an excellent history of the distributors and showcases many box examples. The Critic Snob has some hilarious VHS reviews on his Big Box video segments and I can watch hours of the Basement of Ghoulish Decadence show off his VHS collection even if he can't pronounce Bruno Mattei's name. How I miss being kind and not forgetting to rewind. Someone once said, maybe William Blake, that nostalgia will kill you so let me stop this downward spiral and turn on my satellite dish.

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  1. Just learned about this zine. I need to order me a copy.

    Reviews the OOP VHS time forgot. Looks to be good stuff.

  2. Thanks for the info, looks very promising. I'm going to order one. Do you still have your VHS?