Reminiscence of VHS

Throughout the mid-to-late 1980s, before the video rental market was saturated by Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, I remember at least two places where my family rented VHS cassettes.

One was a Curtis Mathes store. Curtis Mathes had been bankrupt for a while but the stores were kept open throughout that decade. Our store apparently had a section in the back where you could rent movies. You entered a giant showroom -last updated in 1982 or 1983 with brown carpet and taupe walls- and walked past dozens of enormous television sets that were the size of a refrigerator turned on its side. Only the cassette cases were on display, and when you rented them the clerk switched out the case with a plastic snapcase that contained the cassette. This store also rented laserdiscs -the ancestor of the DVD- which were originally housed inside large plastic cartridges like a floppy disc.

The other store was the basement of a rowhouse that had been turned into a video rental. I remember always being excited to visit this store. It felt ‘hidden’ from the world being located in a basement. The only windows were small hoppers in the brick foundation at the front and back of the store. It was narrow and cramped, with low ceilings, black wire mesh shelves, harsh fluorescent lighting, and gorgeous video box art.

American one-sheet for A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984.
Media Home Entertainment VHS jacket for A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1985.

Throughout the 1980s, when a film was released in theaters, the only way one learned about it (aside from word of mouth) was from a trailer: A 150-second preview in the cinema itself or a 30-second television spot. The only information you had was either verbal or a moving image on a screen. Gathering information about films released on video was different in that you relied on still frames and promotional art.

Box art distinguished the video rental experience from that of going to the cinema.  Studios often used enlarged still frames or publicity photos for box art –The Shining used the former and The Breakfast Club used the latter, for instance. Other companies such as Thorn/EMI HBO Video, Media Home Entertainment, Embassy, Vestron, Catalina, and Lightning Video often reworked the original poster art in some way. Some jackets that I distinctly remember are The Psychic (a woman lying supine between the eye sockets of a skull), Scanners (a man in a suit who seemed to disintegrate and melt), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (a crudely-drawn woman stabbing a skeleton that emerges from a lake) Future Kill (a bizarre charcoal drawing of a suit of futuristic armor), and Deep Red (a doll’s face broken in half). The art on a VHS jacket was synonymous with colored pencil, paint, collage, airbrush, or an enlarged 16-millimeter image, and made my experience of browsing a video rental a tactile one -in some ways removed from watching a film altogether.

the howling ii
Thorn/EMI HBO Video VHS cover for Howling II, 1986.

I also remember we rented Cronenberg’s version of The Fly from this place (at my mother’s insistence; she worked at night and rarely had a chance to join us at the video store) and ‘wowed’ at the hundreds of people credited with doing the makeup. As an aside, the more people I meet, the more I realize just how liberal my parents were, sense we watched The Fly and Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a family, and my father took me to see Verhoeven’s RoboCop in the cinema when I was 8.

At the time, you could also purchase VHS cassettes for $59.99 to $119.99. To get around this, my father owned two VCRs and a type of ‘blackbox’ device that could record rented films onto blank cassettes. Each cassette had enough magnetic tape to hold about six hours of footage (about three films per cassette), and over time he had bootlegged a collection of about 600 feature-length films that required shelving and banker boxes in our basement.


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