The Video Store Days #15: Was VHS Really That Bad?

For those who didn't grow up during THE VIDEO STORE DAYS, VHS has taken on a sigma of "looking bad", but for those who did grow up during that time, VHS always looked good. So, was VHS really that bad?

For the past decade or so, VHS has become a collectible among home media collectors. VHS collecting was always there, but it has seen a rise over the past decade. I mean, scammers are creating companies that grade VHS like they are comic books and then selling them at inflated prices to drive up prices. One of these grading companies actually graded a VHS copy of SEED OF CHUCKY with cover art that was taken from the Unrated DVD. The artwork lists out special features that were never on the VHS. There is a video over on Youtube that is so interesting and calls out these scammers for what they are. Here is the link: 

Now, let's get to the topic at hand: Was VHS really as bad as people think?

Not the ones from the studios.

Let me explain.

VHS had multiple speeds it could record SP (Standard Play), LP (Long Play), and SLP (Super Long Play). SP was what most retail VHS was recorded at. It meant that less time could be recorded on the tape (2 hours) but the quality of the picture was the best it could be. This is why longer films were split over two tapes. The bigger studios would use this recording speed when transferring a movie to VHS. Tape cost in weight. The more tape you have, the heavier the tape, and the higher the cost to ship it. Charles Band of Full Moon Features tells the story of how he wanted to include a making-of featurette at the end of each of his films through Full Moon Features (then just Full Moon), but the big studio that was bankrolling the films, Paramount, didn’t want the cost to go up because the added featurette would mean more tape was being used. Full Moon films were usually an hour and a half or shorter, and the added cost didn’t make any sense to Paramount. Band stood his ground and Paramount allowed the extra tape to be used.

Now, smaller companies, in an order to save money, would record their movies at a faster speed, which meant far less tape was being used. You can tell which tapes these are as there will be a smaller amount of tape on the spindle than what is normally used and it is very noticeable. This would mean that they could ship a bigger amount of tapes at the same price it would cost a bigger studio to ship less. This also meant that the quality of the picture and sound would be worse. Back in the day, we didn’t really care one way or the other. We just wanted to see the film.

VHS is a standard definition format, which means that the picture and sound aren’t as good as DVD or blu-ray. This was fine because we were watching these things on a standard definition television. This is the thing that most people who complain about VHS being a “bad” format. We didn’t have high definition televisions in the 80s and 90s. We had the old tube TVs. The loss of quality was not that much when watching a VHS movie on the TV. This meant that VHS tapes looked good on our standard definition TVs. Watching this stuff today on our HD or 4K TVs, they look like crap, but they aren’t crap. VHS was never meant to be viewed on anything but a standard definition TV. Hell, DVD wasn’t really meant to be viewed on an HD or 4K TV, but they look ok.

Most VHS tapes didn’t have any special features. During the 80s and the early 90s, the only special features we would get would be trailers for other films at the beginning of the tape. Laserdiscs had some special features, but the influx of special features (docs, deleted scenes, etc) didn’t really take off until the mid-90s with Universal’s Signature Collection discs. The Criterion Collection laserdisc did have special features, but those were mostly commentary tracks. Outside of the aforementioned Full Moon releases, VHS tapes really didn’t have special features. There were some movies in the mid-90s that got the Special Edition treatment. Films like DAWN OF THE DEAD, HALLOWEEN, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET got two tape editions from Anchor Bay, Media Home Entertainment, and Video Treasures. The first tape would usually include the film along with maybe some trailers, depending on how long the film was while tape two would include things like deleted scenes and trailers.

In 1996, I got a VHS copy of SCREAM (1996) for Christmas. It was a two tape set with the first tape being the Unrated Version of the film (one of two releases the Unrated Version has ever seen, at least in the US) while tape two was the same film with an audio commentary by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson. That was really the only way to include an audio commentary on a VHS tape. I mean, you could include them on one tape if it were recorded at a different speed, but the studios wouldn’t do that so a two-tape set was required.

So, was VHS as bad as everyone says it was? No. Under the microscope of now, sure it looks pretty bad, but that’s looking at it through eyes that probably hadn’t seen a VHS properly shown on a Standard Definition TV. The people complaining about the quality of VHS are probably 20 years or under, which means they might not have even seen a real video store. VHS was awesome back in the day. Sure, we couldn’t skip to our favorite part of the film or listen to an audio commentary, but that didn’t matter. These things held movies and that was all that mattered.

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