Rise of the VHS Tapeheads

General | Oct 14, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

I was scrolling through tweets the other day and something caught my eye: “Mute,” a short horror film was being released on VHS.

Say what?

I clicked the link and discovered lunchmeatvhs.com, a website dedicated to VHS enthusiasts, especially ones devoted to the horror genre. At the crux of the operation is Lunchmeat, an actual magazine made up of paper and ink, that covers VHS movies, including reviews on obscure VHS titles and articles on the people who made these flicks.

This find warmed my heart. I, too, am both a lover of the printed page and VHS enthusiast. The guys running this show, Josh Schafer and Ted Gilbert, met while working for a heavy-metal record label, Relapse Records. During shifts together, the two would banter about horror movies and realized that some of their favorites weren’t available on DVD (this was the mid-2000s). They decided to join forces and share their passion for film relics that remained in the technological limbo of being on a dying format, VHS. Lunchmeat was born.

Once upon a time, if you didn’t see a movie at the movie theater, your chances of ever seeing that movie again were slim. Then, in the 1980s, VHS came along and gave new life to old titles. The format also allowed distributors and filmmakers of low-budget flicks to build an audience exclusively through videotape. Oftentimes these videos were sold through ads in B-movie magazines such as Psychotronic Video.

“There’s a whole new breed of VHS collectors now that are really attracted to the aesthetic of VHS, like the killer cover art,” said Schafer, who lives in Philadelphia, Penn., “just the whole culture of that. And just people who don’t want to get with the times, like 50- or 60-year-old people who go to flea markets and pick up war movies or old comedies. Mainly it’s people who have nostalgia for it.”

Schafer, 31, counts himself among the folks who were weaned on videos and feel the pull of nostalgia. “A lot of people watch horror movies on VHS. Horror movies look cool all dinged up. ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ on videotape—that’s how I saw it. A good example of a film that benefits from a kind of grimy print or a grimy presentation.”

The assumption by many people is that most films, including the so-called classics, are still intact and simply morphed into the latest-greatest distribution format. Not necessarily. Many films are only available on VHS because of rights issues or other legal wrangling.

For example, I have what is considered the true director’s cut of “The Wicker Man” (the original, not the Nicholas Cage remake). The negative has been missing for decades and is rumored to have been unintentionally destroyed. My VHS version was struck from an internegative (a negative struck from a film print) that too has since been lost. I picked up the tape for 99 cents from a thrift store several months ago.

“It’s film preservation by way of film enjoyment,” said Schafer, who works as a dorm manager at Drexel University as his day job. “I really enjoy having a library. If you’re a real film buff or culture buff, it’s good to have a library for reference.”

Having a physical manifestation of a film or book at hand is comforting to Schafer. “I think it’s important that people stay in touch with their world like that. We live in a world where everything is virtual, where everything you do to interact with other humans nowadays is virtual except for your face-to-face and that’s limited now because people are buried in their phones all the time or on the Internet.”

Schafer believes that online interactions are somewhat ephemeral. “I was talking to my friends, I was like ‘Do you remember anything you Liked on the Internet today?’ Nine times out of 10 times it’s ‘No, I can’t remember anything.’ It just doesn’t stick.”

However, despite Schafer’s fondness for videotapes and physical books, he’s no technophobe. He sends text messages, engages in social media, conducts e-commerce through Lunchmeatvhs.com and streams content. Ironically one of his favorite streamed shows is “Stranger Things,” which derives part of its appeal from the nostalgia Schafer’s generation has for the 1980s.

Still, Schafer sees the algorithmic approach behind today’s technology as unsettling. “It’s scary. I try to interact with things that don’t read my mind or log my actions, especially when I’m just trying to watch a movie. Future technology freaks me out.”

Part of the allure of a VHS tape for Schafer is the mystery of what’s inside, something that hasn’t been posted and tweeted to death. “It’s pure discovery. You never know what you’re going to find. There’s no hype involved.”

I related my experiences at Loveable Rogue where customers would stare blankly at my selection of VHS movies, considering the format to be passé. Most had dumped their VCR and tapes for the latest and greatest.

Schafer knows the type. “It’s like mass hysteria. “Society tells you ‘These are obsolete. There’s a better version out there. Get the new DVD. It looks so much better,’ ” said Schafer. “I have tapes from 1980 that still work.”

The current video-on-demand distribution model is obviously a way for studios to guarantee recurring revenue on their film libraries. When a guy like Schafer has a film that he’s still watching from the 1980s on videotape, Paramount, Warner Bros. and all the others are out of the money loop. That’s why you’re seeing so many remakes (“Westworld” anyone?). It’s marketed as a new-and-improved version of the classic film.

The video-on-demand behemoths such as Amazon and Netflix are like undertakers at a rest home, waiting until most of the VHS tapes are in the landfill and DVD players fade out (as of this summer, VCRs are no longer mass-produced). Then look for increases in your streaming bill. All this is Monopoly-Oligopoly 101.

Schafer admits that Lunchmeat takes up a lot of his free time and the merchandise sold through his website defrays the costs associated with his hobby. After our chat, I purchased an “I’d Rather Be Watching VHS” t-shirt with Lunchmeat’s imprimatur.

If you like what this guy is doing, support the effort by BUYING SOMETHING, even if it’s only a few bucks. Instead of spending your Christmas dollars on mass-produced crap on Amazon, put some coin in the pockets of real creative people with a cause.

“I’m very passionate about it and it makes me happy,” Schafer said. “I’m going to keep doing it till the rewind wheels fall off, as they say.”

Keywords: algorithms, algos, VHS, videos

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