This week, Neil Calloway remembers the humble VHS tape with fondness…
With VCRs no longer being produced, the death knell of videotapes has finally come. In reality, its heyday only lasted at most twenty years – from the 1980s to the year 2000, overtaken by DVDs, hard disc recorders, Blu-rays and now streaming services.
VHS – and its rival Betamax (the competition was a prelude to the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD wars of the early 21st Century) – were revolutionary in terms of movie watching. Films went from something you had to catch at the cinema, or on TV (one of the three TV channels available if you were in the UK) to something you could watch – repeatedly – in the comfort of your own home. Sure, before, a few people had projectors and 16mm prints of films, but now you could pause, rewind, stop films and even fast forward through the boring bits. Or, for teenage boys, fast forward to the naughty bits. You could watch and rewatch your favourite films or favourite scenes until the tape started getting fuzzy, or your mother taped over the start of your favourite film with a sitcom.
It really was a huge change in how people watched films – without VCRs, there is no way Star Wars would have stayed the iconic series it is, or people would have been up in arms about the new Ghostbusters film; they loved the original because they watched it so many times on video, rather than seeing it once at the cinema then maybe every couple of years when it turned up on TV.
There was something about watching a VHS that isn’t really repeated by watching a streamed film or a Blu-ray; the clunky, mechanical nature of the player, if you taped the film off the TV you’d have adverts, or scenes missing that had been cut to make the film fit the available timeslot; you’d get the end of a weather report from 1989 before the film too. Rewatching the films I’d grown up with on video when I’d bought them on DVD, I was always surprised when they didn’t cut to a commercial break at the same moment, or there was a little extra bit that I’d never seen before; I was always amazed that the sound didn’t dip up and down and the picture didn’t go snowy at key points that had been rewound and rewatched dozens of times. I might have gazed longingly at the Laser Discs in Tower Records, but it wasn’t until DVD came along that VHS lost its grip.
The rise of video also saw the rise of the video shop – from small independent stores, to little local chains, to finally Blockbuster stores, these were a goldmine for film fans; my local video shop even allowed you to rent Sega MegaDrives for the weekend. WWF Super WrestleMania and an almost endless of supply straight to video action movies? What more could a kid want?
The video shop really did democratise film viewing – for a small amount of money you could spend the weekend watching whatever films you wanted, and your choice may have been limited by the owner’s tastes, but you weren’t subjected to some Silicon Valley algorithm that recommended movies to you; you watched the film the the most lurid cover in the hope of violence and maybe some brief nudity (the pause button came in useful here). These are the movies that Kung Fury and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films paid tribute to.
Like all good things, it had to come to an end, though cinemas like the Alamo Drafthouses in the US and the Prince Charles in London occasionally have nights that screen VHS tapes – complete with trailers beforehand, there is unlikely to be a major tape revival, unless my parents make good on their threat to get rid of all the videos I’ve left in their attic and I have to find something to do with Best of the Best 2 and a copy of Commando I taped off ITV.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.