THE VHS & BETAMAX AESTHETIC

Horror film posts on this blog go triple plywood, but it’s Halloween, so something pertaining to scary movies is obligatory. The challenge is to create something obnoxious enough to alienate people I don’t want to communicate with, but to create content that at least five people might appreciate. That’s the mentality behind this site. I was going to talk about Jack Nicholson’s Margaret Howell jacket from ‘The Shining’ but its been covered elsewhere before to the point where it got a re-release in a slimmer cut. Film jackets alone could fuel a blog for years, as the Film Jackets forum proves. I like the blouson, windcheater style with the Harrington-style pockets in that plum coloured cord. Jack himself insisted on wearing the original, but with Stanley Kubrick insisting on eleven more reproductions, I’ve never known if they were made by Howell or by the wardrobe crew. Given Kubrick’s obsessiveness, I imagine the replicas were made to an equal standard and with a couple going up for auction over the years, does anybody own the original one that Jack himself favoured?

Having spent too long in video stores as a kid just before the Video Recordings Act made British tapes have to carry the same certificates as their cinematic brethren, the sight of a terrified Shelley Duvall on an oversized ‘The Shining’ box with a cracking plastic puffiness that indicated it had seen a fair few front rooms was just one of the few covers that’s etched into my consciousness. That, ‘The Incredible Melting Man’ and ‘The Beast Within’ were obsessions, but there was plenty more to pick from and some boxes promised so much carnage that they had a genuine menace about them.

This was when the British home video realm was like the Old West and nobody was policing content. Family friendly comedies, cheap actioners, splatter and porn alike all lacked formal certification, with warnings or ’18’s on tapes applied in an unofficial manner. Going to the home of friends with negligent or irresponsible parents could mean a screening of both ‘Condorman’ and ‘Nightmare In A Damaged Brain.’ Nobody seemed to care too much. Then the byproduct of the “Video Nasties” scare of 1982 kicked in and the fun was over.

I watched some of ‘The Human Centipede 2’ this weekend simply because of the BBFC’s daft decision to ban it. I imagine that I’m not alone and curiously, Google has reinstated that sense of old video store lawlessness again. Despite the film’s clever conceit, playing up to the allegations of moral rot from the first installment and getting all postmodern with it, the sweaty torture scene and scatological gross outs had me giving up after an hour. I don’t feel especially corrupted though. But that ban gave it an illicit feel that had me nervous from the start as to what lay ahead – the same way that those old VHS and Betamax horrors promised hell on earth to the point where just hitting play felt like the point of no return.

Of course, 98% of the time (the other two percent is mostly Lucio Fulci films and anything with Tom Savini on makeup), they delivered cheap, ponderous sights with periodic blasts of gore, yet the weird synthesised soundtracks and doomy film stocks gave them an effortlessness sense of dread that’s lost in the internet age. We get the dull lost tape documentary look or the stationary paranormal investigation video, the self-referential slashers and the CGI vampires. Then there’s the attempts to channel the early 1980s look and feel minus the menace.

Thank god that remakes are flopping this year though. ‘Hellraiser: Revelations’ is a whole new depth plumbed — even the Cenobites wouldn’t go down to those hellish depths and this was such a bad film that even the fictional Alan Smithee wouldn’t have wanted his name on it (though he got it on the not-nearly-as-awful, ‘Hellraiser: Bloodline’) as proof that something’s gone horribly wrong. This witching season I’m appreciating the more accomplished horrors of the last decade — Frank Darabont’s fearless and peerless ‘The Mist,’ Alexandre Aja’s ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ remake and foreign language masterpieces like Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Devil’s Backbone,’ Alexandre Bustillo and Julieno Maury’s nightmarish ‘Inside’ and Muguel Angel Vivas’s ‘Kidnapped.’ Each is a lean, mean machine in the scare (and more often than not, the bloodshed) department with phenomenal technical ability too.

In the pre-cert world, the booming home video market put pound signs in the eyes of a generation of aspiring distributors. Before the film even began, the company identities would indicate that you were a long way from the big studios. Some British companies seemed based as part of grocery store chains, some were based in glamorous places like Dorset and others were European or Stateside operations. Some were set up just to feed the nation’s porn habit and some would focus on sports. Some would go on to be more famous than others- Vestron and the notorious VIPCO were bigger than the likes of Cyclo, Intermovie, Scorpio, Wizard and many more who’d welcome you to the show. But the identities were often non-static, with animation that made Dire Straits’s ‘Money For Nothing’ promo look like a Pixar production by comparison.

Some titles would be written with a Pepysian style disembodied hand while others would throw in a word like “Distinction” to look classy. They were an eclectic bunch that reek of Portakabins and industrial estates, but they really tried with their fonts and graphics, despite obvious limitations. Even if they were pirated, their name still spread. If I ever had a brand, this would make up much of an inaugural moodboard. It’s good to see that the first season of Sk8thing, Toby Feltwell and Hishi’s C.E. line went back to VHS Argento (primarily ‘Suspiria’) for the imagery, before the brand goes off in a completely different direction to shake off any sense of nostalgia.

For those odd enough to care, here’s 67 pre-cert video company identities culled from the excellent ‘Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide’ DVD extras:

0 thoughts on “THE VHS & BETAMAX AESTHETIC

    1. Thanks Skott. I way prefer films to shoes…I suppose it would be odd to prefer the former. VIPCO logo was always the mark of something awesome.

  1. Interesting to see the digital/analogue animation divide taking shape:

    1001 Video with their ZX81 style logo, ATA exploiting the higher resolution graphics of the Spectrum; those in between them using the old fashioned approach; Brent Walker trying making it seem that both approaches are present, and so on.

    These also remind me of the video for New Order’s Blue Monday – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftJZomwDhxQ

    1. Bang on…what was quaint then, seemed quite sophisticated then. Having said that, I remember being wowed by the ‘Money For Nothing’ video a few years later…