As a Format, VHS Kinda Sucked

last night i caught bits of a twitter debate about the relative merits of vhs tapes versus dvd. back in the day i had a gigantic vhs collection, and i look back on it with fond nostalgia. however, around 1999, i welcomed the arrival of our new digital overlords with open arms and have never looked back. while i don’t own a vcr, i think i still own 2 or 3 vhs tapes from the hundreds (maybe thousands) i once had (including TOM SAVINI’S SCREAM GREATS) — but apart from a few nostalgic hold-outs, i gave up on vhs years ago.

i do miss the days of the mom-and-pop video stores with their huge, over-sized vhs boxes and titillating cover art. far be it from me to condemn someone who continues to collect vhs tapes and even prefers (gasp!) to watch them over more modern formats. everyone’s got their thing, and if that’s yours — more power to you. however, while i may be nostalgic for my teen years spent browsing the aisles of videovision and carbonated video, nostalgia is where my affection for vhs ends because truth-be-told, i love dvd and blu-ray with a warm, gooey love that i can barely keep appropriate in public. with that in mind, i present to you a list of reason why, when properly divorced from nostalgia, it’s clear that vhs sorta blew.

rewinding

while there is actually such a thing as a dvd rewinder, they’re not strictly necessary. after years of rewinding and fast forwarding vhs tapes and, in some cases, even paying a $1 fee for failing to remember to “be kind and rewind” at your favorite video store — the concept of not needing to rewind a movie might come as a bit of a shock to you. for those of us that were big fans of the slp/ep speed setting (giving us six, and in some cases, EIGHT hours of recording time on a single tape), countless hours spent shuffling spools of black shiny tape from one little plastic ring to another have been wasted… hours we will never get back. thank the gods for digital media and it’s ability to jump from one section of a film to another almost instantaneously. how we ever lived another way, i will never understand.

special features

while vhs tapes did occasionally have ‘making-of’ docs and the like, it was nothing compared to what we have now. with documentaries, subtitles, multiple soundtracks, commentary tracks, etc. being almost standard for any film release — it’s hard to argue that vhs wasn’t a hobbled format. some of these (like subtitles) are so insanely useful and standard that they’re not really even ‘special’ anymore — they’re expected. personally i’m a huge fan of commentaries, so when a disc features one (or, in some cases, as many as FIVE), the amount of value i get out of owning a disc increases phenomenally. the only vhs i recall having a commentary was an edition of EVIL DEAD II which, of course, had to come on two tapes — one for the film with the original soundtrack, and one for the commentary.

video/audio

if the goal of watching a film at home is to attempt to replicate the theatrical experience, then it’s obvious why dvd has replaced vhs as a format. with 5.1 (or more) digital surround sound and crisp, clean video — vhs didn’t really stand a chance. while i would be the first to admit that there are horror films that might genuinely be more effective on a grainy vhs tape (HALLOWEEN leaps to mind), in general the increases in video and audio quality of modern formats is a blessing for film buffs. if you really want to replicate the vhs experience but don’t want to dig out your vcr, simply put cotton in your ears and try not to look directly at the television while squinting really hard. that should come pretty close to watching the same film on vhs (and may even give you a headache of the same variety).

moving parts

i don’t know if that long plastic piece on the back of a vhs that protected the magnetic tape has a name, but i’m sure you remember numerous occasions where that little fucker broke off and you were left with a semi-functional movie, a long, useless piece of plastic and a small, silver spring. weren’t those the days? you also likely remember when the tape would get all tangled in the heads of your vcr, and the particularly horrible “sckrunch!” sound your vcr would make as it ground to a halt while shredding the film you were about to watch. if you were really lucky, that tape was a rental so then you (or, more likely, your parents) had to pay the video store for damages ($99.99 for a copy of GATOR BAIT II, my ass!).

yeah… dammit, i sure miss that.

deterioration

there’s nothing quite like a format where you know that every time you watch a particular movie, the quality will degrade. admittedly, it took quite a few viewings… but every time you watched that bootleg of PHANTASM II you taped off hbo, it got just a little bit grainier. i remember trying to watch a vhs copy of SUSPIRIA a few years ago that basically looked like static vomited on by a preschooler who had just eaten a box of red and blue crayons. which is exactly how argento intended it to look, i’m sure.

taping over the tab

for many of us, our first experience with engineering and problem solving came from figuring out how to use our sister’s store-bought exercise video as a blank tape to record HALLOWEEN III. the vhs format came with a bit of particularly devious copy protection known as “the plastic tab.” if the tab was missing or broken off, there was absolutely no possible way to record anything on that bastard. unless, of course, you had a piece of tape, a crumbled up piece of paper, some lint, or really anything at all.

they were HUGE

i was never really sure why in the early 80s the over-sized vhs boxes were popular because vhs tapes are, in and of themselves, already obnoxiously large. i suppose vhs worked ok for a single movie, but can you imagine trying to have the entire six-season run of LOST on vhs? you’d have to rent an apartment just for it. i remember having a large portion of the first few seasons of THE X-FILES on vhs. it took up, like, half the damn bedroom.

tracking

without a doubt, the thing i will miss least about vhs tapes is that obviously-satan-engineered dial/button on the front of the vcr simply labeled “tracking.” like television rabbit ears but so much worse, messing with the tracking could become a constant irritation throughout an entire film if you were dealing with anything but a brand new tape. watching that thick line of distortion crawl across the screen as you moved the dial and then, just as you thought it had vanished and you’d gotten everything perfect, watching it pop up at the other side of the screen… yeah, that was an eff’ing blast.

 

so, yeah. that was vhs. it was great while it lasted but, ya know… it’s probably best that we’ve moved on. like an old girlfriend, we can think back on her with fond remembrance… but let’s not forget that if she were still around, she’d be quite the bitch to deal with and we’re probably better off without her.

12 Responses to As a Format, VHS Kinda Sucked

  1. AbbyNormal says:

    Great article! I still miss VHS though. DVD is great, but it has its little (very little in comparison to VHS or beta-max.) flaws too. I think the biggest is not being able to fast forward until you get to the actual movie. I hate having to sit through a million stupid little menus, which 9 times out of 10 they will not allow you to skip through, not to mention the various FBI warnings, previews and commercials before I can even get to the main menu and select play movie.

    Now granted I love DVD too, nothing can beat having your favorite movie with hours of special features to enjoy, but sometimes I get nostalgic for the old times when I used to spend hours at the video store my best friend worked at.

  2. SikeChick says:

    You’re right about all the drawbacks of VHS, but I still love mine (I still have an embarrassingly extensive collection). For me, there is one major perk. You see, I like to hit the rack with a movie playing in the background (usually a Universal Monster film or something from one of my Mill Creek box sets). Often times, I fall asleep about 10 seconds after the opening credits roll. My old DVD/VCR will automatically rewind the VHS tape and then turn itself off if I fall asleep before it ends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up at 3 am to some awful soundtrack because my DVD player just goes back to the main menu.

    But being a special features junkie, I have to agree with you. I won’t even entertain purchasing a disc without at least one commentary track, making-of featurette or a theatrical trailer. Sidestory: a couple months ago I decided to watch my 25th anniversary VHS of Jaws (still don’t have that one on DVD) and was pleasantly surprised to have the video start with a 20 minute making-of documentary and then the theatrical trailer.

    Also agree with AbbyNormal, especially the freakin’ 20 minutes worth of trailers for every other movie that studio has made in the last six months. Grrrrrrrrr!

    • Corey says:

      i do the exact same thing at night… we put on a dvd (usually a commentary track) when we go to bed, and usually make it about 2 minutes in before we’re sound asleep. our tv has a ‘sleep’ function on it that turns off the dvd player/tv after 90 minutes… you might want to see if yours has one as well, although it sounds like your vcr is accomplishing basically the same thing.

  3. SikeChick says:

    Oh, and then there’s that time my VCR totally tried to eat my copy of Terror in the Aisles which would have killed me since that one is out of print in all formats and I love that little movie so, so much. My Boogeymen DVD is just not the same when it comes to movies with a bunch of clips from horror films.

  4. Scary Larry says:

    I used to have my VHS’s and DVD’s mixed together in my video library. Just a few weeks ago I finally made the painful transition to boxing up my VHS tapes for deep storage and leaving only my DVD’s out on the shelves.

    It wasn’t easy. Most of my favorite movies I own are on VHS. All the classics. Their boxes have creases and stickers and quirks that I have grown to appreciate over the years, unlike my DVD’s which pretty much have pristine and unblemished uniform-sized clamshells encasing them.

    I found myself having to focus on the negatives of VHS in order to make the task easier. So it was fun to see you mention the very same things I had to remind myself of, right here on your blog.

    I came across my VHS copy of Full Eclipse, which upon only my second viewing I discovered had suffered from extremely accelerated deterioration, and was no longer watchable. Still I haven’t gotten rid of it.

    I came across the VHS copy of Evil Dead that for reasons unknown came unspooled in my VCR, becoming completely ruined, and almost taking my VCR with it. I won’t ever play it again, for fear it might do the same thing all over again, but I haven’t gotten rid of it yet.

    I also had to fight the collector bug, which screamed in my ear to go out and buy DVD versions of each of my favorite VHS tapes so I could have them out on my shelves again, even though I can’t afford to do that.

    So thanks for reminding me of all the bad things about VHS, it really is helping me recover from that traumatic experience!

    • Corey says:

      you’re very welcome, larry. this topic seems to have touched many people deeply. i too have held on to outdated media, despite knowing full well i’ll never actually play them again…

      perhaps we should form a vhs recovery support group? i’ll bring the coffee if you can pick up some donuts.

  5. Nick says:

    I feel that VHS and DVD are both crucial! I have stuff on each format that doesn’t exist on the other. I absolutely miss the old mom-and-pop video stores, I’d have a field day going in to a store like that when I was younger and I certainly would in this day and age as well. Seriously though, where can I buy that coffee mug that says, “I still watch my movies on VHS”?

    • Marc says:

      I like that.. A VHS recovery group.
      I understand the nostalgia factor. I also remember when DVD was about to be introduced & thinking it’s about time for an upgrade. VHS quality was never good, even in its heyday. What I can’t stand is reading articles people post about DVD sucking and VHS being superior. I’ve seen VHS nuts call DVD words like”charmless”, “cynical”, “clinical”. One article claiming “we” have been “brainwashed” into liking DVD or Blu~Ray.

      That is simply nostalgia taken too far when you see a new & by every account superior format and feel it threatening

  6. Marc says:

    It’s not even that I mind someone loving their VHS collection. Just don’t preach Repeatedly (as this is the trend with VHS zealots) in your rant about how newer formats are lacking some kind of charm, etc. They make up for whatever you think they lack with far superior quality in every department.

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