VHS is, arguably, the worst way to watch a movie. It’s muddy, it’s blurry, it shows colours poorly, it’s easily damaged and VCRs were surprisingly unreliable, often chewing up video tape as you watched them. There is no good quality that can be attributed to VHS. It’s garbage, and when the format was largely discontinued after the introduction of the infinitely superior DVD format, it was great news for anyone watching a film at home. Finally, we could watch things with clarity, on a format that was pretty durable – I once watched Bringing Out the Dead on a DVD that was broken in half and held together only by its own label, and only maybe five minutes of the movie was actually affected. We should have celebrated the death of VHS.
So naturally it’s getting a revival.
When vinyl records started getting a revival I could understand it, whether or not I actually agreed. Whether or not the sound was actually better, vinyl did get you large format album art, so you could use your favorite albums as decor as well as listening to them. In my house, CDs are parked at the tops of door frames to add visual interest to a room, I have considered buying albums I like on vinyl just for the decoration, though I would feel a bit silly since I lack a turntable.
VHS, however, doesn’t have interesting cover art. They are not really that much bigger than DVD cases – which are needlessly large as it is, because they needed to fit into racks previously occupied by VHS tapes – and the packaging was in cheap cardboard that quickly wore down. A VHS copy of something never really looked new, because the cases were so incredibly cheap. And since the tape itself decayed quickly, the film itself didn’t really look new either. It’s a garbage format.
The fact that it’s garbage is kind of the point, however.
The best explanation for this is a short film called Kung Fury, streaming on Netflix right now. It is a bombastic homage to ’80s action, and as a result starts with the flaws of VHS. There are references to tracking, there is static and image distortion, it embraces the colour palette that looked best on a VCR, as well as every questionable fashion choice that existed in the era, because that’s what kids thought were cool. It is trying to replicate the experience of renting an over-used tape of a third-tier Chuck Norris movie on a lazy afternoon in 1990.
VHS is objectively bad, the worst way to watch a movie. But it’s getting embraced not for the quality but the character. It’s a format that’s unique, right down to owning a weird race car model to rewind the tape, and that gives it something that other formats, with their accurate image reproduction and tendency to play correctly each time, don’t have. It’s garbage, which is what makes it unique, and gives it a personality. When you’re reaching back to an imagined 1980s – lets be honest, the majority of people doing this are my age or younger, and we were either toddlers in the ’80s (like me) or not there at all – you’re going to take the things that have a bit of personality to them. VHS is terrible, but it’s terrible in a unique way.
Next time, some nostalgia I can actually get behind.