Cult of VHS, 2022.
Directed by Rob Preciado.
A feature-length documentary featuring interviews with collectors, film directors, and VHS enthusiasts as they take a trip down memory lane and take us through their first experiences with the medium and what it means to them.
If this documentary about the continued, even resurging popularity of VHS movies is very much preaching to the converted, as comfort food for the medium’s acolytes it’s certainly an entertainingly chummy offering – a broad, snappy travelogue through the era’s history and where the VHS has wound up today.
From the opening title reveal alone – an homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing – the clear love of both genre and medium is evident, as director Rob Preciado traces the birth of the VHS, the avenues it opened up for low-budget filmmakers, the “video nasty” moral panic of the 1980s, and the collector culture that still thrives now.
While many similarly-themed docs have proven relatively blinkered about their own rose-tinted nostalgia for a medium that’s objectively visually inferior to what’s come since, Cult of VHS earns respect for eschewing dew-eyed evangelism in favour of something more self-aware and pragmatic. Yes, several subjects decry both the death of rental stores and the constrictions of our algorithm-driven present, yet there’s also a prevailing honesty about the scuzziness of VHS, and how so much modern fandom is couched in nostalgia. As one subject hilariously puts it, “It’s like vinyl… if vinyl sucked.”
And yet, even as we’ve moved onto more convenient and “superior” formats, it’s easy to appreciate why VHS endures; the gorgeous hand-painted covers, the tactile quality, and the “personality” of a second-hand tape that’s rife with fuzzy tracking markers over the most rewatched parts – typically nudity and violence – is something we’ll never experience in a digital media format. There’s a transportive, time capsule quality to watching a VHS that will conjure up early childhood memories for just about anyone over the age of 30, and given that the youth of today likely won’t retain the same primal fondness for Blu-rays and certainly not streaming, there is a uniqueness to VHS nostalgia.
If Preciado’s film lacks mega-star interviewees, the genre enthusiasts and indie filmmakers throughout make for a compelling, amusingly eccentric bunch. From the proprietor of one of the few remaining VHS stores today – it’s practically a shrine at this point – to those who have VHS tattoos on their body and even one strangely horny interviewee (you’ll see), the subjects live up to the promises of the film’s title.
While the interviews are powered more by passion than new perspectives, there are some fun and memorable stories on offer, such as how one participant was almost killed by a VHS copy of the 1990 It miniseries, and another’s unexpected fondness for the legendary Jane Fonda workout videos. This is all bolstered by quality B-roll and a cracking synth score from the Ancient Order of the Droids and Infra Violet. The sound recording is a little muddy in some of the interviews, but it’s relatively easy to forgive considering the evidently modest scale of the production.
There are times where this documentary may feel like it’s pining for a bygone era, but there’s an affectionate conviction throughout that quickly becomes infectious, even if you’re happy to leave VHS tapes behind and embrace the crystal clarity of 4K HDR. Familiar yet fittingly low-fi and made with clear enthusiasm for its subject, Cult of VHS is a passionate window into the enduring fandom of the medium.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.