Sunday, August 15, 2010

The (Extended) Death of VHS: An overly sentimental tribute to mom-and-pop video stores

It might come as a surprise to everyone that even though I'm a rabid film fan, I don't own a high-definition television or a BluRay player.  Even more shocking is that I probably own about the same amount of DVDs as I do VHS tapes and I still buy VHS quite often.

It's not that I have a problem with watching movies in HD or that I'm some kind of weird VHS purist, I'm just poor and prefer my movies in quantity not quality.  When DVD was putting the final nails into VHS's coffin, I was still buying videos more than I was buying DVDs.  I was buying DVDs, too, but it's hard to pass up a movie you want to see for $2 or less.  I remember being exposed to some of my favorite indie films (including "Stevie" and "Happiness") by picking them up on a whim when the local Video Warehouse (R.I.P.) were liquidating their VHS.

I also became very happy when I moved to Morgantown for college and discovered Vintage Video and Games had an awesome deal for VHS trades: they would trade a tape-for-a-tape.  Meaning, you could bring a VHS movie in and trade it for a different movie.  It was almost like renting, but you wouldn't get penalized for keeping the tape.

My VHS buying-and-trading at Vintage really hit it's peak when a friend of mine was throwing out an entire box of VHS tapes and his VCR by putting them on his porch in a box with "free" written on it.  He told me that if no one had taken them by trash day, they were all going in the garbage.  In fact, he prefaced the decision with the blunt statement, "VHS is garbage."  I actually felt somewhat offended by that sentiment.

I couldn't let him do it, though.  Like a manic PETA enthusiast at the dog pound, I scooped up the whole box and kept a select few titles for myself, then took the rest to Vintage for a trade-in.  From that one box of tapes, I was able to snag countless out-of-print movies, including Mark Romanek's "Static," John Waters' "Multiple Maniacs," and I even found the exact rental copy of John G. Avildsen's "Joe" that I used to rent from Grand Slam Video in high school.  Hell, I even still have a pretty decent sized box of unwatched tapes that have accumulated.  While I would also buy a few movies and then started to trade other stuff I had bought and didn't want anymore, the Vintage Video and Games VHS trade system was the best thing that happened to cheap VHS since the liquidation of rental stores.

The copy of "Joe" that I used to rent from Grand Slam Video.  Take note that the spine label is for a totally different video store.  That's because Grand Slam most likely bought their stock from video stores that had closed down after the death of the home video boom in the 1980s.
But, I'm pretty sure the real official end of VHS might finally be coming.  In other words, I'm finally starting to come to terms with the fact that it's been dead for years.
Vintage has finally decided to get rid of their VHS stock, now offering five tapes for $1.  It's a great deal, but it also means that my days of ludicrously inexpensive lo-fi video entertainment has finally come to an end.  As I made a splurge to pick up five movies, I realized this may be the last time I get to buy a huge stack of VHS tapes from a mom-and-pop video store and I started to get even more sentimental about the video format.
Maybe it's time to change the vanity phone number as well.
Unfortunately, the title selection was pretty slim, but I did get to grab a copy of "The Squeeze" starring Michael Keaton.  I never saw the movie and don't have much of a desire to, but it brought back memories of the shock laughter my friends and I shared after finding it on the rental shelf shortly after 9/11.

Something tells me that they'll be designing a new cover if this ever comes out on DVD and BluRay.

Considering the fact that we're now two home video formats past VHS (three if you count video-on-demand), I guess it's way past time for me to start declaring the death of the format.  But watching movies on VHS was an important part of my development as a film fan and while I now have a ton of movies I could watch instantly on Netflix, it's never going to match the charm of grabbing a stack of VHS tapes for a couple of dollars from a mom-and-pop video store.

Back when I was renting from Grand Slam Video in high school, they had a deal on old VHS releases: three movies for $2 or seven movies for $5.  Single old releases were only 69 cents, so the real savings were actually marginal. The store was full of the back catalogs of video stores that had closed after the '80s home video boom, so it was common to rent a movie and find the tape covered in stickers of a completely different video store (some were local, some were from other states).  Even weirder was that the store really didn't have much organization.

Walls were covered with tapes that were haphazardly organized by genre, but it was really pretty much "Horror" in one spot and "Everything Else" scattered on the remaining shelves.  But the lack of organization made for interesting movie choices, as I'd usually find myself just grabbing something at random just to get the right amount of rentals for the discount.  I really attribute a lot of my eclectic taste to renting videos at Grand Slam, because I was renting classics alongside horror movies, schlocky b-movies and mainstream movies.  A typical triple feature from Grand Slam could be something like this: "Class of Nuke 'Em High," "Network," and "Forbidden Zone."

Of course, they didn't care too much about quality.  I can remember not watching a copy of "Better Off Dead" I rented there because the back of the VHS appeared to be held together by part of an old adhesive bandage.  I kid you not.  But when you're paying less than 75 cents for a movie rental, it was hard to complain.

Several years ago, they liquidated their entire VHS stock and now only rent DVDs.  I haven't been back since, so I have no clue whether they've embraced BluRay or not.  It's amazing they're even still around, but hopefully they can keep fighting the good fight, since they are literally the last indie video rental store in my hometown.

Regardless, I'm saddened that my retail experience with VHS movies has officially come to an end.  It's up to yard sales, flea markets, and thrift stores to fill the void now.