Tales Of The Tape

Friday, January 11 2013
Tales Of The Tape

As Momentum prepares for the launch of horror anthology V/H/S, on all formats, including VHS, The Raygun looks at its limited edition tape release, look at other VHS memorabilia, its launch for the film and, talking to collectors, the irresistible lure of the VHS…

The advent of DVD should, by all rights, have signalled the end of the VHS cassette.

But, like rental stores and other remnants from what seems like a bygone era, it stubbornly refuses to die. So, in the same way there are still independent rental stores out, there’s still a market for VHS.

This writer remembers full well those early days of DVD and what should have been the death throes of VHS. “I’ll never remain loyal to VHS,” I’d say, “it’s not the same as vinyl.”

And yet, and yet… I’ve still got tons of cassettes, old VHS titles. Last year, I actually bought a brace of brand new titles on cassette. Both were in rental-sized boxes (de rigueur for collectors, it transpires), big, chunky packages, with big,  chunky cassettes inside them. And both were ace.

Now, in January 2013, 15 years or so since the introduction of DVD, one UK-based distributor, Momentum, has just duplicated 300 or so copies of a brand new film on to shiny black tape.

The VHS is dead, it would appear. Long live the VHS.

The Momentum move came about to mark the January 18 theatrical platform and January 28 DVD bow for the aptly named V/H/S, a smart, anthology horror from some of horror’s hottest names which is based around VHS cassettes, mostly containing camcordered incidents. It simultaneously breathes life back into both the anthology and found footage genres and also celebrates the format that kickstarted our whole industry.

A limited run VHS cassette was a logical step.

“The creation of V/H/S on VHS was not an easy one but it has quickly become one of the hottest bits of merchandise we have ever produced,” says Momentum’s Adam Eldrett.

“The first thing we had to was find someone who could produce what is effectively a New Release in a defunct format. I have to give The Raygun a nod here to helping us out here at Momentum in finding the right people to do it.”

That secured, it was time to work on other aspects of the production. As Eldrett explains: “We put a-lot of love into the tape, it was never going to follow quite the same artwork as our DVD/BR and so inspired by some cassettes of old we came up with some unique branding. I think the logos, the fake stickers, the old dealer price has all helped capture several decades of nostalgia in one product. 

“It was amazing how many people had an opinion on when Dolby started appearing on these tapes? What the right technical wording is for a Stereo but mono compatible tape?

The more we worked on it the more we realised that VHS is not really a million miles away from Vinyl in terms of nostalgia, this is what we are trading on with this product. People who love the format, love what we have done and it in turn has helped put the actual film back at the forefront of our campaign.”

It’s not the first time a promotional cassette has been put together for a recent release. Metrodome had done the same for its 2010 release The House Of The Devil, coincidentally directed by Ti West, who also helms a segment of V/H/S. The company’s Giles Edwards, then in marketing, now acquisitions, but always a VHS junkie, explains: “Having spent the majority of my delinquent youth staring at the walls of video stores of mid-Surrey, every element of The House Of The Devil sleeve was lovingly crafted on my own PC here in the office with my nascent Photoshop skillz. From a hyperbolic synopsis which over-eggs the contents of the (still great) film inside the box and the strangely montaged and often spoilery selection of stills on the back cover to the lazily positioned self-adhesive BBFC stickers and the little colour-coded stickers on the spine denoting an impenetrable cataloguing system of your particular video store, I tried to get it as authentic as possible. And mostly succeeded, even down to the body and spine labels on the cassettes themselves. We managed to locate a supply of genuine, and very dusty, big box Amarays from storage facility that Stanleys in Wardour St knew of (my heart would have soared if we could have gotten “puffy” ones but, alas…) In fact, the only mistake I made when doing it was to have the tapes replicated in 1.85:1 widescreen – an authentic VHS from the 80s would have been full screen, of course. My head remains appropriately hung in shame, nerd license revoked…”

Momentum’s sleeve for V/H/S has similar flourishes (I still have a copy sat proudly on my shelf, next to my V/H/S…). .Like Momentum, Metrodome used its copies for PR purposes.

“We picked up an enormous amount of press for what was then a fairly niche genre movie – it was only after the fact, in 2011 and 12, with The Innkeepers and his segment in V/H/S that Ti West really became a known quantity beyond a large handful of genre fans,” explains Edwards. “But even with our very limited promotional run, Jonathan Ross and Jason Solomons wrote about the release and the VHS tapes in their respective film columns in the national press giving us a massive boost in profile. I’m still asked about them today (sorry, the last of them has sadly been snapped up – I think by Ti himself and by Josh at Cigarette Burns who did a lot of promo for The Innkeepers for us in April.)”

It was one of the first things we featured on this website, more than two years ago, and no, it’s not for sale.
As Edwards adds: “It was certainly the most fun I had during my time as a product manager – there’s something to be said for a proper guerrilla, self-generated stunt like this. Keeps you on your toes and makes you realise why this industry was and is so much fun to be a part of.

“It should be noted that we actually trumped the US with our HOTD VHS, coming up with the idea well before they announced there’s. Sadly, we couldn’t actually get it on sale as they did in North America. You think selling in DVD titles is tough these days, imagine trying with a defunct format. Ironically, we missed the boom in VHS nostalgia by about 2 years. Who knows, we might have even been able to sell tape copies in 2013.”

Momentum had previously investigated releasing a VHS commercially, for The King’s Speech – it’s a different proposition, but the company figured that a lot of the potential audience for that would still have a VCR. But it is using its V/H/S cassettes for competitions and as a giveaway for a special screening that is recreating a rental store for one evening only.

As Almar Haflidason from agency Fetch explains: “”V/H/S already has a great deal of anticipation surrounding it but we wanted to infuse the nostalgia many horror fans have for the VHS format into the build-up to release which is why we thought why not take people back in time for one night only to a rental store as they used to be to experience the film. As we’re finding out what we suspected was just the tip of the iceberg because the amount of tweets and stories about the event has been amazing. Fans do seem to love when the industry brings back some of the energy and gung-ho nature of the analogue days and carefully channelled it can earn your title a powerful emotional response and enthusiasm that really makes it stand out.”

So what is it that makes VHS as a format so appealing?

We spoke to Dale Lloyd, who we met via Twitter under his alternative name of Viva VHS, about his love for it. Before that though, let him give you an idea of his collection, and how the VHS bug has bitten him.

 “I have been collecting tapes since I was about 13 years old, so 14 years or so now,” he says. “I recently downsized my collection, removing the standard sell through tapes that you could purchase in shops and focusing on ex-rentals only, the magical cassettes that you would pick up in your local video store. By my last count I was up to the 4,000 mark in terms of tapes owned, but after my recent cull I’d say I own close to 2,500 VHS tapes as of now.

“Labels such as Cinema Club and 4Front offered a fantastic passage into cult cinema, releasing many titles and making them available cheaply to the masses. I would spend hundreds of pounds each month on those things, but now I focus all of my attentions on locating the original first release in its big box status, and therefore I recently discarded of more than 1,000 tapes that were situated in my attic space.”

So what’s in that 2,500? It’s not willy-nilly. Like vinyl collections (something I know a bit about), it’s not just particular artists, nor is it random. Lloyd continues: “Most collectors that I know tend to stick to label collecting, and I’m certainly no different with my love for Medusa Home Video. Once a collector has it in their head that they must collect every movie, good or bad ever released on a label like; Vampix, Fletcher, VTC or GO, then it’s pretty damn hard to shake them of it until they’ve either gone broke or lost interest and eventually sell up. I’ve seen it happen so many times.

“Then (and again this is something I once tried) there are the collectors that want to own all of the so-called Video Nasties, and do quite well until they hit the brick wall of something like The Devil Hunter on Cinehollywood, a film that is not so much difficult to find if you know where to ask, rather more expensive than you first imagined when embarking on this quest. Even if you do complete it, do you then go for all of the cover variants? The other sections of Nasties? I know I certainly stopped quite early on.”

So what is it about VHS? From personal experience, it’s similar in some respects to that for vinyl.

“I guess the biggest lure of VHS for me is nostalgia, and I would imagine that’s the same for almost everyone,” he says. “Sure, if a film hasn’t been released on DVD then you own a piece of history that not many can touch, until it eventually gets released in some form. Again, a lot of collectors I know keep a hold of the tape because it’s unreleased, and then as soon as the DVD or Blu hits the market the tape comes up for auction or is simply tossed. I’m miles away from any of that. I’ll buy films that are available everywhere, films that have not only been released on discs but ones that are showing on Sky or streaming on Netflix or LOVEFiLM.

“Some of my happiest memories are walking into a video store on a Friday night and selecting a really trashy looking cover, not knowing what was about to happen to your mind once viewed. I’d stay at a friend’s and get his mum to rent two or three titles, then stay up the whole weekend watching them. I guess it all comes back to that. The trailers to other potential classics. The amazingly awful looking cover art. The grain on the screen and the poor sound quality that make the most inoffensive horror movies seem genuinely creepy. There’s not a lot not to love…”

These people aren’t necessarily Luddites though. As Lloyd notes: “I’m certainly not a DVD hater and own tons myself, but I only go Blu for my classics. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to buy a disc with extras to your favourite movies? it’s not even up for discussion really, although many think I’m anti-disc. Not at all, I’m just a lover of good and bad movies.”

The lure of the big box is just as big though: “Rental-sized boxes are the ones we remember from our local store, and will contain a tape inside its plastic walls that has been manufactured to outlast any other. A tape that has been built to play and play and play. Of course not all titles back then were released in big boxes, as quite a few companies like EMI, Replay, CIC and Embassy chose to go small. As long as I own the original tape in which it was first released, then I’m not fussed either way.”

Vinyl has been mentioned throughout this admittedly lengthy feature, but Dale Lloyd believes the collectors’ market won’t go the same way. “I genuinely do not believe for one second that VHS will go the same way as vinyl. Not for one second. I own a lot of records myself and know that they sound better and crisper than any other format. The same cannot be said about VHS, I mean even Betamax was better quality, it just cost a lot more to produce and therefore died by the waist-side.

“I do however believe that there will always be tape collectors out there, and despite the wave of ‘newbies’ that come and go monthly, there will be those that remember it fondly and hopefully resurgences like the ones we are currently experiencing will help keep it lasting in the memory.”

It can be lucrative too: “I couldn’t list 10 titles with a degree of accuracy as to their current market value, but I will say that tapes like The Devil Hunter (Cinehollywood), Expose (full carton on intervision), The Beast in Heat (JVI) and Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (JVI) go for absolute silly money these days. Some well into the few thousands.”

Thousands? That’s right. Back to the vinyl analogy, it’s all about the rarity. As Lloyd explains: “Because of many small labels around at the time releasing movies in very small numbers, it’s easy to think how many of those actual cassettes have survived all these years. How many have been destroyed? Thrown away in house clearances? Damaged and then tossed? It’s collectors like us that preserve such history.

“A while back I found an odd looking tape on the British Trytel label called Gallery of Horror. I paid £10 for it thinking it looked quite interesting. Little did I know that it was an incredibly rare, possible one-off undiscovered gem. I was made aware of its rarity on a private forum and as I had no real connection to the tape, sold it for almost £600. That gave me serious funding to go out and purchase more suitable material for my own collection.”

And what then, does of the recent resurgence, the V/H/S VHS and the film itself: “I think horror is definitely the winner here, and you can see that with all of these ‘new releases’ on VHS. It’s by far my favourite genre and the reason I became obsessed with the format, so yeah.

“V/H/S is a great anthology film and one that will truly benefit from its mini-release on videotape. I couldn’t think of a better way to see it again in all honesty. I also don’t mind admitting that it affected me in a way, and left me feeling quite insecure in my surroundings. I’ve seen a lot of weird movies, and home video footage for that matter, and that genuinely affected me.”

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