VHS is the new vinyl

By MICHAEL NEEL  |  January 26, 2011

The search for these hidden gems are part of the allure of collecting videocassettes, Monterastelli says: "We're still hanging on to the format of our youth, and we're looking for shit that nobody else has. We go from flea markets to used-video-store bins, sorting through beat-up, dusty copies of former rentals, searching for the really rare, hard-to-find stuff, like nerd archaeologists trying to uncover some buried treasure of ancient exploitation cinema."

But the abundance of deep cuts alone is not why horror fans are flocking to VHS - they're also in love with the battered beauty of this analog medium. Many collectors would rather experience a film on a de-rezzed, blip-filled VHS tape than a pristine 30th-anniversary edition Blu-Ray DVD.

"Not everything looks or sounds better with a technological upgrade," says Ken "Sleazegrinder" McIntyre, writer for Total Film magazine and the exploitation-film Web site Movies About Girls. "Try listening to Foghat on an eight-track player sometime, it's fuckin' awesome. Same thing with a beat-up VHS of Satan's Sadists. Amazing." Joe Lemieux, director of the indie horror flick Veil of Blood, still watches many movies on videocassette - and he sees no reason to change. He prefers his VHS tape of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even though it's not nearly as crisp as a DVD, and the image is cropped so much that almost half of it is gone. "There's certain stuff that I'm so used to seeing on VHS that I couldn't really watch it the other way," Lemieux says.

This appetite for the obscure and cheesy is, in part, a side-effect of the changing horror genre. Horror fans are all feeling a little nostalgic these days.

HorrorHound writer Jessica Dwyer thinks that most modern horror films fall into one of two extremes: "It's either PG-13 and really, really, really lame, or it's gone to this whole torture-porn level . . . lost in that is the middle ground." It all adds up to a hollow, horror-less experience, a far cry from the Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets of yore: "There seems to be a tendency to approach the genre these days with absolute seriousness," says Eric Stoner, who examines horror films on The Dark Hours podcast and The Fear Inside Web site. "In the '80s, films didn't take themselves so seriously."

For many '80s-era horror fans, it's not just the films they miss, it's the experience of watching them in their living rooms — on VHS. As movies.com critic Grae Drake put it: "It's comforting and fun to go back to what you knew." It's like the hominess of a grilled-cheese sandwich that your mom made in 1985, and you've kept in the freezer this whole time. Along with your mom's head.

So is nostalgia for the bygone days of horror the most potent catalyst for this resurgent interest in VHS? The answer seems to lie in the videotapes that are arguably the most valuable of all: those that once lined the walls of local, independently owned video stores. Monterastelli says that "they are my favorites because although they are worn, they capture a part of the pop culture that is gone, like the drive-in theater and vinyl records." Greg Morgan, VHS collector and host of The Creepture Feature HorrorShow podcast, thinks that people are buying more videotapes precisely because the format is almost gone. "With the video stores closing and the outlets closing, it's hard to find them now, so I think fans are realizing if we don't gather up our collection now, then they may soon be obsolete, and you'll never find them again."

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