My first video game was Pong. I was not a fan, even though it was ground breaking at the time … boring. I can remember riding my bike three miles to the local Wal-Mart to play Asteroids. Atari, Commodore 64, I had them all. But video games weren’t my only love. There were also comic books and movies. I wish I’d kept all of the old comics by the way – and the GI Joes – and the Evel Knievels. But alas, I was in a rush to grow up. As for movies, they existed in the theater and what you saw on TV or free HBO weekends. But as a founding member of Generation X, I saw the birth of the VCR. And later I attended its funeral.
The VCR changed everything … because we could record. We were no longer at the mercy of theaters or TV schedules. Record and re-watch. It was brilliant. But what if the movie you wanted to see wasn’t on TV to record? That too would change. Although this was ten years before the first Blockbuster, mom and pop video rental shops spread like a small town virus. Rent, watch and take it back! The VCR was to movies what the internet became to information.
The VCR revolutionized the “sleepover.” Friends and pizza and a VHS of family friendly movies like 9 TO 5 or XANADU … until that was … mom and dad when to bed. Then we’d quietly pull out THE SHINING, CHEECH & CHONG, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE FOG, CADDYSHACK,THE OCTAGON, USED CARS, MAD MAX … it was a cultural awakening. And by the way, those are just movies released in 1980. Every year presented us with a treasure trove of movie magic … all in the comfort of your own home.
And shall we embarrassingly speak of the sexual awakening? This was before Skinamax. Before the Internet, before our parents were ready to talk the birds and the bees. Does anyone actually use that term these days? Doubt it. Point is, we learned about sex from the VCR. ANIMAL HOUSE, PORKY’S, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, PRIVATE SCHOOL, MY TUTOR, SPRING BREAK, REVENGE OF THE NERDS, SIXTEEN CANDLES, BACHELOR PARTY, POLICE ACADEMY, and every slasher that came out in the 70s and 80s.
We could record movies from TV, rent, buy and then there was the boom in home videos. With a camcorder the size of a small refrigerator, we could make our own spy movies and play them back for friends on the VCR. Or record our high school band slaughtering the vocals on Boston’s More Than a Feeling. I have an old VHS of my smashing performance as Frederick in the Pirates of Penzance. I also have one of my stretching to catch an end zone pass while dragging my toes. 6 points. And for those fearless few who felt confident no one would ever find and watch their hidden VHS tapes, there was homemade porn. Eh… I may have been guilty once or twice.
OH! And let us not forget those rare, oft-forgotten VHS surprises you simply didn’t see coming. I remember crashing at a buddy’s house; he was snoring and I couldn’t sleep so started scanning his VHS shelf. He had FRIGHT NIGHT! I popped it in the VCR and sat back to enjoy some Roddy and team… um. It was porn. Although official studio released movie tapes were “protected”, we’re not talking about breaking into the CIA here. There was simply a tiny little plastic chad that when “popped” out, meant any tape could be recorded over with anything you wanted. We all did it. Instead of buying blank tapes, just grab a purchased movie that you either hated or no longer watched, pop the chad and bingo, you were recording JAWS from HBO! That said, why anyone would tape over FRIGHT NIGHT… blasphemy!
Also let us not forget the impeccable durability of the VHS tape. We’re talking plastic cases made by the lowest bidder to protect roughly 570 feet of remarkably flimsy and utterly unrecyclable Mylar. With each play the tape would degrade slightly. If you were recording over said tape, then the degradation was even higher. You were lucky if they lasted 10 years, and it wasn’t uncommon to eventually end up with VHS tracking lines: those thin, white horizontal lines at the top or bottom of the screen – sometimes both. You could pop the VHS out and try to spool tighter. Sometimes that worked. More often it did not. The fancier VCRs had a tracking adjustment but once those lines started… the end was near. So, no – not really durable, but … at the time it was all we had. And we were blessed to have it.
Laser disks gave the VHS a scare but the high price kept them out of the everyman and woman’s homes. But once DVDs appeared on the scene, the offer of better quality, more storage and longer shelf life meant the looming end of the VCR and VHS. Although you can oddly enough still find the DVD/VHS combo on the market if you desire.
The last VHS I bought was actually a three pack. It was 1997 and I purchased the Star Wars Special Edition Trilogy. And strangely enough they are the only studio VHSs remaining in my possession. In fact, I can see the set from here, on a shelf next to my Stephen King books. I loved the VHS era. It was a big part of my growing up. The movies that inspired me to seek out the business of Hollywood were movies I viewed over and over on VHS tapes. If I had a time machine, would I go back, would I live through that era again? Nope. Let’s not live in the past.