As we speak, the last remaining manufacturer of VCRs (Funai Electric) is finally ceasing all production of the obsolete videocassette players. I bet you assumed this happened years ago. For those of us who grew up during the home video boom of the 1980s, the death of VHS may be bittersweet news. Let’s reminisce about some of the good times (or bad) we had with the format.
Viewed from modern standards, VHS was an abysmal way to watch a movie. Fuzzy, low-resolution, poor colors, pan & scan… honestly, what was there to like about it? However, the perspective was very different at the time. Videocassettes truly revolutionized the way movies were consumed by allowing anyone to watch (and rewatch) movies from the comfort of their own homes, on their own schedules, without needing to go to a movie theater or pay theater prices. Through the convenience of video rental stores, kids of my generation had easy access to hundreds or even thousands of movies from every era of cinema. This was unheard of in prior decades. I doubt that I or most of our site’s contributors would have grown up to be so movie-obsessed if it weren’t for VHS.
My family got into the VHS game fairly early in the format, buying our first VCR in 1982. The model was so archaic it not only top-loaded the cassettes but had a WIRED remote that only had a single option: “Pause.” (This was primarily so you could cut out the commercials for TV shows you recorded without having to stand in front of the player.)
My neighborhood didn’t get its first video store until around 1984 or ’85. While I can’t remember the first movie that I really became a fan of on VHS, I do remember (thanks to a lenient video store clerk who was just happy to get my business) that it was a chance to rent R-rated films that I wasn’t old enough to see yet in the theater. (This was back in the days where movie ushers actually enforced the under-17 policy, kiddies.) Some of my earliest VHS memories are sneaking videos (my parents were still trying to keep me away from R-rated titles) like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Escape from New York’ into the house to see what I had missed in the theater.
I also was going to relay how I discovered the wonderful world of adult film on VHS, but I figure that’s a topic for a different Roundtable – and probably a different web site.
I have what feels like two decades of good to great VHS memories, but I also have a few bad ones. Once when I was little, the family VCR acted up. In spite of my older siblings’ warnings, I decided to test the VCR using my favorite tape, which was filled with EP-speed recordings of cartoons (mainly ‘Transformers’ episodes that I wouldn’t see again for 10+ plus years). That was a hard lesson well learned.
In the summers, we were sent off to visit our grandparents in the country. One thing we got to do was occasionally rent a tape from the only rental place in town. After deciding to screw up our courage and watch ‘The Omen’, we returned to town the next day to bring the tape back, only to find that the rental store had burned to the ground. That was the last tape we got to rent for a while.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up in a household without a VCR. When we wanted to have a movie night, my dad would go to the rental shop and take out a loaner unit, which was often just a big VCR strapped into a suitcase and padded with egg crate foam. (I’m not making this up.) When I saw the big suitcase and a stack of tape cases, I knew it would be a fun weekend.
The top two VHS rental memories for me will always be the first time I saw ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ (I laughed myself silly when Pooh bouncef off tree branches in pursuit of honey), and the time my mother rented ‘Masters of the Universe’ and let me watch it twice in one sitting (both times accompanied by a plate of clam strips; it’s the little things…).
M. Enois Duarte
My favorite memory with VHS is the first day I discovered George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in the early ’80s. I was already a horror-hound starving for more gory scares to consume. While walking down the aisle of my local video store, I saw the cover art featuring people munching on what looked like the flesh of others. I rented the movie on a whim largely based on that cover, a very common approach for deciding what to watch. Popping the tape into the VCR, I was surprised to discover that the movie was in black-and-white. At first, I felt a bit disappointed because I didn’t think the movie would show the sort of blood and guts I was hungering for at the time. To my surprise, the seminal zombie classic was violent and shocking enough to keep me glued to the screen, and instantly made me a Romero fan.
When ‘The Fugitive’ hit theaters, I was one obsessed 13-year-old. I saw the movie at least seven times in theaters and countless more times when it hit VHS the next year. Because Suncoast Video had ridiculously high prices (except for the occasional random sales on specific titles), I typically purchased my tapes from Blockbuster. The chain’s monthly in-store fliers listed sale prices, so I went in and pre-ordered my copy to ensure I’d have it on street date. The folks behind the counter didn’t even know how to execute a pre-sale, so they simply taped a copy of my carbon-paper receipt to the front desk that said, “Paid – Ready for Pickup.”
When street date finally rolled around, I went in to pick it up and the cashier had no idea what I was talking about. I pointed to the receipt and explained, and the puzzled employee pulled a copy from under the counter and handed it over to me with a confused look. I remember peeling it out of the plastic and smelling the new VHS smell. Remember that? It smelled awful, like melted plastic, but because that smell signified the ability to watch a beloved film endlessly at home, it was fantastic to me.
I watched that movie so many times that, within a few years, the tape itself to pretty worn-out. It ended up getting so hideous that I ultimately purchased another copy. The only tape in my collection to ever get used enough to warrant a re-buy was ‘The Fugitive’.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
I think I was all of 11 when I sat down with my mom and a legal pad to watch the first two ‘Halloween’ movies on VHS. Even at that tender age, I’d seen them both before. This time was special because my mother wanted to see how many more people were murdered in the sequel. We watched those movies back-to-back, keeping track of Michael Myers’ body count all the while. I believe it was nine kills in the sequel vs. six in the original, by the way. So, yeah, I had a weird childhood.
I spent many a lazy afternoon in my youth trawling the aisles of Blockbuster Video looking for movies to rent, drawn to them mostly based on their titles or weird cover art. I imagine that’s an experience my children will never have. As I became more and more of a movie buff, I sought out the classics – stuff my mom would never choose to rent or watch. I have a very clear memory of watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ at about 15-years-old and being so mesmerized by it that I rewound the tape and watched it in full again immediately afterwards. That’s a nearly five-hour viewing session for one movie.
The thought of watching a motion picture as magnificent as ‘2001’ in pan & scan on a 20″ television with mono sound, via a fuzzy tape that was probably filled with tracking errors from being played too many times previously, seems utterly ghastly to me now. At the time, I was hooked.
In addition to cropping the movie to 4:3, the studio that released the tape had also taken the liberty of editing out the intermission. The movie played through without interruption, and I didn’t even realize until years afterward that it was supposed to have a break in the middle. To this day, I still find the intermission jarring and do my best to chapter-skip past it on Blu-ray as soon as I realize it’s coming up.
Many years later, after I moved to Boston, I used to frequent a mom & pop video shop called, simply enough, “The Video Movie Store.” The owner was an eccentric movie buff who encouraged browsing and random discovery. He kept all the tapes themselves behind the counter, organized in some rational fashion, but the shelves of the store were overflowing with empty slipcovers arranged in no particular order. If you came in knowing what you wanted, you could ask for it and he’d get it for you. Otherwise, you’d just wander through the place until you stumbled upon something that looked interesting. Sadly, the store went under not long after the introduction of DVD. The owner couldn’t afford to upgrade, and renting VHS went out of fashion quickly. I still miss that place.
Did you have any fond (or perhaps not so fond) experiences with the VHS format? Tell us about them in the Comments.