DVDs are filling up bargain bins everywhere, Blu-ray never really took off the way it was supposed to and digital streaming and downloads will soon usurp all physical media for film the way it has for the music industry. And though VHS remained in production as recently as a few years ago, it seems like it could require some kind of archeological dig to uncover these forgotten artifacts, so far removed are we now from them. That dig is part of what fuels the new documentary “Rewind This!,” a love letter to the VHS cassette and the many wonderful and forgotten oddities it brought along with it. Though its subject is sprawling, the doc packs in enough wonderful footage (both interviews and archival clips) to ignite any cinephile’s passion for the all-but-forgotten VHS-renting days of their youth.
Outside of a few specialty titles like the aptly named horror anthology “V/H/S” and the retro-horror film “House Of The Devil,” the last major film to be released on VHS was actually “A History Of Violence” in 2006, which is probably a lot more recent than you might expect. Hard to believe but we’re now three formats removed from VHS, which was
introduced in the late ’70s and remained the predominant home video
format for nearly two decades. The film balances recounting the history of the format – the war with Betamax, rise of the video store and subsequent need to fill those stores with product – with various filmmakers, critics and collectors’ relationships to it. Studios were initially hesitant to release their films on the format but consumers and video stores were eager to fill their shelves, so many B-grade films were early VHS hits.
‘Rewind’ rounds up some of the filmmakers who benefited from this early boon, including Charles Band (producer of “Re-Animator,” “Puppet Master“), Frank Hennenlotter (director of “Basket Case“), Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films, Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark” herself) and somewhat curiously Atom Egoyan among others. They discuss how a $400,000 film like “Puppet Master” could take up shelf space next to the $8 million “The Terminator” and with the help of some appealing box art, do just as well. Because it was immensely profitable, many production houses rose up during this era to produce films specifically for the home video marketplace and produced countless curiosities along the way which have never been released on any other format and are still being snatched up by collectors today.
In addition to the run-of-the-mill schlock, there are bizarre gems like Leslie Nielsen‘s instructional golf video, Corey Haim‘s infamous “Me, Myself & I” or a video for Windows featuring the cast of “Friends,” which are currently being recycled by sites like Everything Is Terrible as “so bad it’s good“ entertainment. The subject actually proves to be more ripe for exploration than it would appear
on first glance, and director Josh Johnson mines it for all its worth.
Though some tangents seem a bit extraneous (an extended interview with
oddball VHS filmmaker David “The Rock“ Nelson would probably work
better cut down or played over the end credits), Johnson does a good
job of keeping things relatively focused despite a wealth of material to
Watching some of the passionate VHS collectors featured in the film mine various yard sales and flea markets for their next obscure treasure is undoubtedly infectious, and part of the joy of watching the film is remembering your own history with the format: the tapes you watched to death, the junk you would watch with friends at sleepovers and the now nearly extinct experience of actually wandering around an actual video store staring at shelves and shelves of options. I held on to my VHS player for far longer than I should have for the ability to play just three tapes (“Blood Diner,” “Monster Squad” and the “Twin Peaks” pilot, if you’re curious) and didn’t get rid of it until around that same time when two out of three were finally released on DVD.
Unlike vinyl, which has had a resurgence in recent years, there will be no such revival of VHS on the horizon because – despite some nostalgic pleas that ’70s/’80s horror movies look better on them – it looks like shit. For some collectors that’s part of the appeal but many admit they’d quickly upgrade some of their Z-grade titles onto DVD if they were available. As a eulogy for a dead format, you couldn’t ask for much more than this. Featuring an ’80s-synthy score by Josh Freda and nice retro title designs, “Rewind This!“ is both a history lesson and love letter to a format which should prove to be a must-see for all cinephiles that came of age during the VHS era. [B+]