As a tape-headed toddler of the ‘80s, growing into a movie-addicted teen of the ‘90s, VHS has been spooling through my life for as long as I’ve had memories (or Memorex!)
As a result, when I rewind my mind, everyone in my family has a nostalgic association with the format. Whether it was my dad buying bootleg Indiana Jones tapes before it’d left cinemas, my big sister getting a job at Titles Video Store when it finally came to town (which meant free rentals!), my mum buying me a pallet of blank cassettes from Woolworths for Christmas (so I could record every episode of The X-Files off the telly), or gifting my collection of horror tapes to my little brother when I went off to art school (when I returned for Christmas, he and his mates were quoting Evil Dead II verbatim), my connection to VHS is more than passive enjoyment, it’s an active passion, full of resonant emotion. It might be a throwaway format to some, but, for me, those tapes are the building blocks of my life’s work.
That vivid emotion is resurrected every time I hear a video player whirr on. That’s partly because the act of actually sitting down to watch a tape has a repeated physicality – so, like all the best nostalgic moments, it’s as much a muscle memory as a mental recollection. For some, a special song will remind them of a lost love. For me, it’s Simon Bates saying ‘Whenever you rent or buy a video…’
Unlike hitting a button to watch something straight-to-streaming on Netmax or whatever, VHS had a solid presence in the real world, it was a ritual – taking the tape out of the box, feeding it into the machine, and hearing that chunky clunk as it starts to fulfill its destiny.
Choice is a fine thing, and there’s something special about today’s media landscape, where you can watch almost anything and everything at the push of a password, but I wouldn’t trade it for my UK childhood – where TV was limited to a few channels, and everything exciting was a walk down the road, to a magical shop containing shelves and shelves of mind-bending experiences. In those video shops, most people were drawn to the new releases, which you’d have to return after the weekend, but I was always drawn to the older stuff – the stuff I could keep for seven days, and watch as many times as possible in that glorious window.
Today, I make my living analysing movies, and the seeds of that career was sown when I watched Terminator 2 for the 10th time in a week – eyes wide, tiny mind formulating a theory that it’s actually a remake of ET, a theory I outlined to my friends at school the next day.
Of course, my regular trips to the pictures were special too. My mind exploded when my stepdad took me to see Batman (1989) on the big screen opening weekend, when I was too young to see it. But being gifted the VHS for my next birthday was better – knowing that I could watch it whenever I wanted, that it would never be returned to anywhere but my shelf… I still get goosebumps thinking about the giddy joy I had holding that tape. Years later, I’d meet my wife Shea, and bond over the fact she had the same experience with Batman – we would go on to watch it together (on VHS, of course) and exclaim every line aloud, a new (special) memory forming around an old tape (which, despite its age, still looks as good as it did on release).
And, if everyone in the family I grew up with has a connection with video, so does my new family. Shea released my movies A Little More Flesh and A Little More Flesh II on limited edition big box video in 2021. They’ve since sold out, but they pop up on ebay on occasion (selling for $120 recently!), which makes me happy to see, because being able to provide new (hopefully mind-bending) experiences on tape for fellow film fans is the reason I got into making movies – to pass on that passion. It’s what led to the Arrow Video podcast for Dan Martin and I (a fellow tapehead), the desire to make recommendations like we were lending friends films from our own shelves.
I’ve since moved to the US, to Portland, where video shops are still a thing – our local store, Movie Madness, put my films in a commercial they shot recently, which I saw for the first time on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater; another dream fulfilled.
Shea and I also host a Patreon podcast together, VHS Quest, where we make our way through her huge collection of rare and obscure titles. That’s because Shea didn’t just visit the video store, she bought the contents of a shop that was going out of business, that was about to toss its entire stock in the garbage. Like I said, a throwaway format to some – a life’s mission for others.
Shea has so many incredible movies in her collection I’ve never seen, or even heard of – despite my obsession, despite my lifelong passion. So, as much as VHS is a format full of nostalgia for me, I’m most excited about the memories I’m yet to make.
Enjoy your own trip down memory lane with Empire of Screams | Enter the Video Store, a collection of 5 films from the golden age of the video store.