Videos Ain't Nasty: A Journey Back Into The Celluloid Brilliance Of VHS

A mate of mine was chucking away a load of films on VHS so I decided to watch them and remembered how certain films will always be much better on celluloid...
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Some films just make more sense on VHS. As we continue to sail into the glory of the digital age many critics still lament the use of 3D and digital projection in favour of 35mm film or IMAX. Christopher Nolan, now one of the biggest directors in the world, still champions celluloid as his preference. To Nolan and his cinematographer digital just doesn’t look the same.


But who laments the switch from VHS to DVD and now to Blu Ray and digital downloads. No one really. In fact I particularly love digital home entertainment? The picture and sound is infinitely better. For certain films, though, something has been lost in translation. Part of the feeling has been lost in the upgrade.

All this kicked off when I was at my friend John’s house a couple of weekends back. I was sat chatting with his housemate and all round gent Al. There was a lot of clattering from the ceiling and eventually John appeared at the foot of his stairs with several boxes of videos. Being who I am I couldn’t resist a nosey around in his video collection. This box was basically shit he taped from the telly. But upstairs he told me ‘there’s some proper ones if you want to have a look through, they’re all going in the bin’.

Earlier that week I had been walking past a charity shop that was still flogging videos and had clocked that they had Hellraiser and Black Rain on the rack and realised that I hadn’t seen either film in any other format. Not on DVD and not even on TV.

This in mind I was looking through one of several boxes of John’s videos. Worth mentioning is that John has excellent taste in films. And by that I mean I already had most of what I was looking at on DVD. Part of me was saddened by the wealth of great art that was about to be thrown away, many of which I had first seen on video such as In the Mood for Love. But deep down I knew that in this case Chris Doyle’s sumptuous cinematography would be better enjoyed in widescreen and the infinitely superior quality of DVD or Blu Ray.

Christopher Nolan, now one of the biggest directors in the world, still champions celluloid as his preference.

Then I saw it. How could I allow this shining 90s gem be cast aside? Urban legend speaks that it was Blockbuster Video’s all-time most rented videotape. Friday.

“‘cause it’s Friday, you ain’t got no job... and you ain’t got shit to do.”

Like I said; some films just make more sense on VHS.

Having rescued the copy of Friday from inevitable destruction I hatched a plan to watch it. First major hurdle in this plan was that I don’t own a VCR. So in a classic manly solution to my issue I texted my mam and asked if she still had one in the loft and can she bring it over next time I see her. She looked, she found it and she brought it round. Result.

After some fannying around with cables I eventually got a picture on the screen (had to use a SCART cable, remember those? They’re utter shit.). Still unsure whether the VCR actually worked (no one had used it in a decade) I got out the video cassette. My heart sank. The all-too-familiar image of a tape that hadn’t been rewinded. For fuck’s sake. No wonder this format died out. Poor video etiquette on behalf of the previous viewer. Never mind. I popped the video in the player. Immediately memories came flooding back, first was the sound that the player makes. I had forgotten just how loud and violent VCRs sound when starting and stopping a tape.

Initially the tape wouldn’t rewind and for a moment I thought the grand plan to relive my youth had failed. But after some fiddling I got it rewinding and waited. And waited. And went and made some toast.

AWOL simply looked like the best film ever. My brother and I always felt slightly cheated if there were no trailers at the start of a tape 

No trailers at the start of the tape. Shame. I have extremely fond recollections of me and my brother getting excited about Jean-Claude Van Damme’s AWOL because of the trailer at the start of our Terminator video. AWOL simply looked like the best film ever. My brother and I always felt slightly cheated if there were no trailers at the start of a tape.

Tangentially my all-time favourite trailer at the start of a video is the Manga Home Video compilation. It used to precede every Manga Home Video release. A minute long montage of all the great anime of my child-hood. Slicing together shots of sheer bad-assery from Fist of the North Star with scenes of utter lunacy from the likes of Project AKO. A cross section of anime how it used to be before it became uniform and dull.

On with the show. As the film started the picture and sound dipped in and out. Twisting and distorting a much younger Ice Cube’s face. Instantly it felt right. It felt good. I knew I was going to enjoy the experience. I remembered the frailty of tape and specifically remembered the two copies of Aliens that my brother ruined with too many repeat screenings. The red room sequence (his favourite) came off worst and was left in a state that was utterly unwatchable.

After a few minutes the sound and the picture cleared up. Every now and then there was a pop in the sound or a distorted line of colour slowly traveling from the top to the bottom of the screen just to remind us that we were watching a VHS.

Whilst watching my mind drifted to other films that work on VHS. Videodrome.

Cronenberg’s body-horror masterpiece. Is there any other way to watch it? I recently watched a lovely looking digitally remastered HD version of the film. It looked great. But it just didn’t feel the same.

Any old-school John Woo, Jackie Chan or Van Damme film makes absolute sense on video. Any Shaw Bros. film (preferably badly dubbed) feels great on VHS.

All the video nasties work best on VHS.  Driller Killer, The Evil Dead, Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust (the prototype Blair Witch Project which also somehow works better on video). Something about VHS makes these films feel more naughty. And isn’t that what we want from exploitation. Cardboard boxes and poor quality transfers. Like buying weed wrapped in tin-foil instead of in a plastic bag, it just feels more dangerous.

All the vide0-nasties work best on VHS.  Driller Killer, The Evil Dead, Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust (the prototype Blair Witch Project which also somehow works better on video)

Ring. It was actually only today that a friend of mine text this to me. How I didn’t think of it sooner is frankly embarrassing. A film in which the plot revolves around a videotape. Could that scene (you know which one I mean) be as frightening on DVD. There’s no association to watching the tape if you’re watching it on a disc. Part of the terror is subconsciously left behind.

By the end of the film I knew the internal experiment I had been running was a success. ‘Can VHS still be Relevant?’. There’s something in the texture and the quality that still works for certain films but so much of the reaction to video is personal. Certain films on video illicit memories of being a wide-eyed little boy in our local video shop ‘V-Jays’ with my Dad. Looking at what seemed like a library of film. Looking at all the crazy video sleeves and trying to make a choice. What was new? What was exciting? Critters 4? Bloodsport?

I’ll end on a similar story to this one of VHS. At John’s house when we were talking about the freshly rescued Friday tape Al noted that he still listens to Swordfishtrombone by Tom Waits on cassette. A recording of it on cassette was given to him by another boy when on holiday. Even though he has the vinyl LP of Swordfishtrombone he still prefers it on tape. Specifically he still listens to that very same tape the other boy gave him.

Whether a film works better or not on video is largely personal. So whilst reading if you thought of videos that you love leave a comment of your own experience. I’d really like to read them.

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