I’m much more of a fan of DVD as a format than I was of VHS. VHS never really looked as clean, it’d degrade over time, and there’s the whole pan-and-scan thing with letterboxed tapes being much more rare. One thing, however, that VHS had — being an early technology that was rapidly embraced by consumers — it provided a medium for many small movie houses to get their product out there.
Sure, most of those weren’t exactly what you’d call quality cinema, but that’s all the better. There’s always been a place for the B-Picture (and below!), and sometimes they’re quite fun, and sometimes they transcend their genres to be legitimately good films. While DVD has its share of B-pictures and direct-to-landfill movies, they don’t have the same reach and influence. When VHS started, A-list films were slower and major studios were more reluctant to release in fears that (like TV before) the new technology would kill theaters and cripple the industry. So, with the new hunger for watching films at home, and a lack of bigger, mainstream films available, cheap films often of the exploitation kind (called “Video Nasties” in England — a great name) became prevalent. Studios like Troma built their fame and fortunes on this trend.
Of course, Troma didn’t start with VHS — and there always was a market for these kind of films; cheap theaters called grindhouses were usually their home. (Hence the recent Tarantino/Rodriguez films packaged together as Grindhouse.) Jacques Boyreau’s new book looking at these potentially lost films (as most will never find their way to DVD) is aptly titled Portable Grindhouse; it’s the grindhouse in your own house.
The book opens with a brief essay about the rise of VHS (and Boyreau’s argument that the analog format looks visually more alive than the flat digital of DVD; I don’t necessarily agree with the argument about VHS looking more alive, but I do agree with his extrapolation of this argument bemoaning the downfall of analog projectors versus digital — 35mm is still my favorite way to see a film. For example: The David Lynch approved Eraserhead DVD is beautiful — but to watch it in a restored 35mm print is gorgeous.), but the meat of the book is a collection of photographs of the front and back covers of VHS tapes.
Most of the films are weird, forgotten movies. Some of them sound really pretty entertaining. Some look like the ones that most other video nasties would look down upon. Reading the back covers is fun — the typical overblown hard-sell is by nature amusing, more so on a film you are almost certain has no redeeming values. The front covers shouldn’t be discounted either — some are clearly slapdash, but a lot of them have actually really pretty good design and artwork — again, with the hard sell and funny taglines like “Finally, Nature Releases It’s [sic] Revenge!” (Slithis) or “When It Leaves You, You’re Dead” (The Asphyx).
The book, sadly, isn’t perfect. Boyreaux’s introduction plays a little to the pretentious, but the biggest problem is the production of the book. The dimensions of the book do not match the dimensions of a VHS tape — which wouldn’t normally be a problem, except that the back cover images are printed in full-bleed — so text is frequently cut off. Usually, it’s by just a letter or two along the edge, but there are a few that are rendered unreadable by this, missing a full word on the edge. The Best of Burlesque back cover in particular is very oddly cropped; the image misses half of the only line of text, and the art is just a detail of the cover art; it’s unclear why Boyreau wouldn’t choose to let us see the entire back cover. Another odd choice is the occasional inclusion of mainstream films — for example, the brilliant Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky film Network appears, and the back cover text isn’t terribly far removed from the type of text that appears on back covers today. The front cover of this edition looks a little quaint, but nothing too far removed — something more apt for an obsessive Network website about the different editions, rather than a book of old VHS design. Likewise, too, for Death Wish (in fact, for this title, both VHS and DVD use the same image — and the DVD is the one that looks hokier) and Robocop 2 (again, the VHS’ cover is better), both films also in this collection.
Still — it’s a fun book, and the Amazon page lists it as “Vol. 1” — so hopefully, there’ll be more volumes, with this issues fixed. And, I have to say, the VHS-style slipcover is a nice touch on the design. While there’re changes I’d like to have seen to this one, it’s a nice book to have on the shelf, particularly for folks who love movies and are interested in how design has changed over the years. If you still spend time wandering around video stores looking for the weird and wonderful, check this book out.