Long Live the New Flesh: Tape Heads, Romancing VHS with Vultra Video
It’s Friday night, 1988 and you are at the video store with your family. You browse the aisles and you can’t help but be drawn to the lurid images on the VHS box covers in the section your parents won’t let you rent from. As they wander the New Releases, you pretend to be going to the Family section but when the coast is clear, you cut into a dash to Horror. Blood. Skulls. Mutated toxic maniacs. Chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. Monsters and mayhem. You thrill to the covers and wonder what exactly is lurking in these strange films – films so shocking your parents would probably throw a fit if they saw you looking at them, which only makes the experience more thrilling. Since you can’t see the movies, you spend the whole car ride home making them up in your imagination.
It’s possible nothing you ever see will live up to those films you made in your mind.
It’s Friday night, 1995 and you are in the video store with a girl you’re desperately trying to impress. You’ve been at this for an hour now, up and down the racks. Nothing is jumping out at you. For just a moment you linger near the Horror section and see those covers again. Those amazing, repulsive, cheesy, terrifying covers—the ones that gave you nightmares. You’ve seen a bunch of those movies now and while perhaps they never were as insane and lurid as you imagined them as a child, they still have this mystique. You focus in on a demented looking slasher. Machetes, scantily clad ladies and a remote summer camp full of raging hormones; your choice becomes obvious.
It’s Friday night, 2009 and you’ve been trying to remember all those amazing VHS covers you used to marvel at as a kid. Google helps you find the images. You wonder what the hell happened to movie cover art, when it became dull photoshops of actors’ heads. A link leads you to an eBay auction where someone is selling a sealed VHS of CHOPPING MALL. Before you know it you are the high bid and wondering what shipping is going to come to.
VHS is the new vinyl. The collectors’ market is small but heating up and more and more people are discovering, or in most cases re-discovering, the joy of the VHS cassette.
For many, it’s about the art. VHS box art in the genre world tended to be much more visually interesting than what we commonly see today. Think of the covers of your favorite horror classics. I bet it’s the original VHS or poster art you are thinking of.
For others it seems to be about the object itself. DVD’s and Blu-rays may be incredible pieces of technology capable of delivering unparalleled image quality but as objects they lack…weight. Except it’s not really a physical weight that is missing, it’s the weight of mystery and of sensory experience. There is more going on with a VHS tape. There is a mechanism in there. We’ve all had to try and pull eaten tapes out of our machines. We’ve all succumbed to curiosity and busted a cassette open to see its guts. A tape has more presence as an object. It delivers more sensation in its use.
It isn’t just the classic VHS releases enjoying a renaissance either. A whole market is springing up for previously unreleased or newer indie films to get limited VHS runs.
Vultra Video is one strong example. Started in 2012, the small production company started putting out limited edition VHS runs of obscure films. They went all out with clamshell cases, new cover art, each one autographed by the director, posters, stickers, even a mask with one release. They were designed to be love letters, true collectors’ items for the kind of people who would treasure these films and the pleasure of owning them in the VHS format. This is not about delivering content; it’s about making objects of art.
“It just looks awesome on a shelf…being able to display something with awesome cover art and then there’s the nostalgia factor. Everything is all about the nostalgia factor these days.” says Jason West, part of the duo behind Vultra Video.
Partner in crime David Royal agrees but adds “You wouldn’t go out and buy JERRY MCGUIRE and display it. A lot of this stuff is movies kids may have grown up renting from video stores or covers they saw when they were kids. Now they see it on eBay or someone selling it on Facebook and it’s like ‘oh my god I have to have that’. You can find VHS copies of TITANIC everywhere. VHS is making a huge comeback but it’s only with certain titles.”
“A lot goes into the thought process and the product we are making. We don’t just throw something on a tape and sell it.”
So what’s missing from movie culture today that we need to go back to VHS for? Royal explains, “A lot of our titles haven’t been put out on DVD or not put out on DVD properly, so I think a lot of the time people are looking for something that hasn’t been released on DVD just so they can have it and watch it. Some are just after really rare tapes or certain artwork. Nostalgia is a big factor too. I think a combination of these things drive the VHS collector.”
Judging by their online catalog over at VultraVideo.com, a nerve has been struck. Every title they have released to date has sold out. Their latest release, Ryan Nicholson’s gleefully insane piece of punk rock splatter FAMINE, sold out in a day. Collectors are picking up their earlier releases for hundreds on eBay. There are customers who have subscribed to their releases by pre-paying for a year’s worth in advance.
And there are many more quality releases coming down the pipeline. West and Royal also have some filmmaking aspirations of their own. “We were shooting around ideas for funny titles we wanted to see made and came up with THE FUMIGATOR (a short faux-trailer the team ended up shooting)…that’s how Vultra Video came about,” says West. We decided that instead of using IndieGoGo or Kickstarter to fund our future projects, we’d launch the VHS side of the company to raise money to shoot our own features. I wasn’t aware of anyone else doing stuff like that. Everybody is using Kickstarter to fund their films now. We are taking the money we are making and using it to buy equipment.”
There is a passion for films and filmmaking that is obvious when you talk to these guys. It’s a romance that is often misunderstood. While the DVD or Blu-ray is this beautiful reproduction of an image it can leave one cold–the zeros and ones, the all or nothing state of digital media is often missing the warmth and charm of the analog. It’s the imperfections, the states in-between, the anachronisms that bring you right back to a moment where a film changed your life or was the backdrop to something in your life.
This is the love of VHS and we are so glad we have people like Vultra Video working to keep it alive.