Rupert Pupkin Speaks: VHS Gems Guest Post: Laird Jimenez ""

Monday, October 1, 2012

VHS Gems Guest Post: Laird Jimenez

I’m happy to say that this list was far more challenging to make this year than it would have been last year, as the number of titles that are only available on VHS grows smaller every year. Credit is largely due to the studios (with the prolific Warner Archive taking the lead) for finding an economic model that works for them in MOD. If I may climb on top of this soap box, however, let me say there are several sad truths we must recognize:

1. Many movies will never make the jump from VHS to digital. This happens with every shift in technology be it film to VHS or vinyl to CD. There are myriad reasons for this, but rather than listing them, it’s a lot easier to say: “Always keep a VCR in your house.” Hell, stockpile the things if you’re paranoid.

2. Current playback media are not well-suited for long-term access. As great as the waves of movies being given distribution through on-demand manufacturing are, the reality is DVD-R media has a predicted shelf-life of 5-10 years. I know from personal experience this estimate is just that, an estimate, but I also know from first hand experience that a beat-up, 30-year-old analog tape may not look pretty, but it will play and is watchable. The same cannot be said for a scratched, 10-year-old DVD-R. And digital files? Pshhh… you’d have better luck trying to download a ghost than access any “digital copy” of a movie you “own” in 30 years.
3. The mere presence of something on DVD does not tell you anything about the quality of the product or how easy it is to acquire. A number of titles I would have put on this list have shown up on budget 50 movie DVD sets in which the picture is often sourced from a VHS or Beta! A handful of others I disqualified because they are available internationally on non-US/non-UK formats.

I’m certainly not going to argue that VHS is the superior medium. I’m only advocating for its continuing relevance as a way to watch movies, because ultimately, that’s what I care about. I don’t want to sell you a new TV or discuss new gadgets. I just want to celebrate the movies I love, and I’d love for everyone to be able to see what they want to on the format of their choice. I don’t want any piece of culture or history, whether its high art or S.O.V trash, to be left behind or forgotten simply because it was not in the economic interest of some corporation to continue giving consumers access. Right now we have the greatest access to film libraries we may ever have in our lifetimes (or anyone else's for that matter), in part because VHS is still here. Even if you are a Netflix subscriber or a Redbox user, please, for the love of movies, support your local independent video store (if you have one left). Once they are gone, you may never see some of these movies again.


Death of a Bureaucrat (1966)
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea may be one of the more well known Cuban directors, but two of his earliest Cuban films are still unavailable on a digital platform. Death of a Bureaucrat is a surreal farce in which the burial of a loved one becomes a hellish odyssey. After a worker is buried with his union ID card, the one piece of ID his wife needs to collect pension benefits, his nephew must run a gauntlet of paperwork, bureaucrats, and procedural chaos in order to exhume the body, have it reburied, and make sure his aunt gets her due (kind of a like a socially critical black comedy Mr. Sardonicus... OK, not really). The absurd comedy inherent in the set-up is punctuated by slapstick and screwball dialogue. It's as ridiculous as Luis Buñuel's Mexican films from the same period (which are in dire need of a US DVD release), but more accessible. If you've ever had a bad experience at the DMV or other such government run agency, you'll recognize that reality is only slightly exaggerated.

Decline of Western Civilization I & II (1981/1988)
Penelope Spheeris' invaluable documents of the LA punk and international metal scenes are conspicuously absent from any digital format. There's an official (?) website claiming that they are coming soon, but I'll believe it when I see it. I'd imagine managing music clearance rights would be nightmarish for these. Or maybe Ozzy Osbourne is sore about the (reportedly faked) sequence in which he's so tremulous he can't even manage to pour orange juice into a glass without spilling it all over the counter. In any case, the people, places, and scenes covered in by these two documentaries are rarely covered in such an entertaining, candid fashion. Hopefully, in another year, this can be scratched off the list.

On The Air (1992)
David Lynch and Mark Frost's failed attempt at a comeback after the disastrous (from their professional perspective) second season of Twin Peaks never manages to capture anywhere near the level of greatness of that series, but nonetheless is an interesting seven-episode behind-the-scenes comedy. On the set of a TV-series ostensibly set in 1957 (though it seems like the very Lynch universe in which the 1990s and 1950s take place simultaneously), a series of accidents and miscommunications transform a banal, cornball TV-melodrama into surreal, absurdist comedy. I have no idea how this would have worked as a TV series (most likely it wouldn't have), but it's great as one of the few strictly comedic pieces that Lynch was ever involved in (besides maybe his wonderful short The Cowboy & the Frenchman). I don't think Lynch gets enough credit for how great his sense of humor is. People tend to hyperfocus on the weird and miss how playful he is most of the time. Greg Olson's fairly recent book on David Lynch does a great job of thematically linking On the Air to Lynch's other works.

Speaking of Animals (1940s)
I first became aware of these theatrical shorts after a clip of hillbilly dogs having a hoedown appeared in Scarecrow Video's VIVA VHS! clipshow. Similar in nature to the Dogville shorts (which are available through Warner Archive) these comedic shorts took live action footage of animals, often in costumes, and added animated mouths giving them the ability to speak and sing. The concept (and according to Wikipedia first three films) were the brainchild of none other than my favorite animator, Tex Avery, who lists among his accomplishments giving Bugs Bunny his "What's Up, Doc?" catchphrase and creating Droopy Dog. If you can stomach puns, one-liners, and what was probably some light animal abuse (that happened half a century ago), hopefully you'll find these as hilarious as I do. Three years ago I emailed the rights owner, Shields Pictures, to inquire as to when we might expect a DVD release. Surprisingly, I received a personal response from a very enthusiastic human being who told me they were in the process of transferring the silver nitrate prints to HD masters for restoration and release. Their site has not been updated in two years, so I'm afraid the project may have died on the vine. For now we must be content with the extremely rare handful of volumes that were released on VHS.

Terrorvision (1986)
One man's gem is another man's "bad movie we love," I know, but I just can't help but love a movie so aggressively silly and "heavy metal." Charles Band & co. churned (and continue to churn) out a lot of turds in their lifetime, but they also gave us genuinely good horror movies like Tourist Trap and Re-Animator. Terrorvision is not nearly as good as either of those, but it does feature a great monster, a TV horror host character, a metalhead, a shell-shocked grandad, a bratty kid who loves horror movies, and a bi-sexual swinging couple. This may sound like a Troma movie, but it never delves into self-conscious comedy and aggressive amateurism. Most everything is played straight and the tone is kept light, but not so light that it can't get goopy violent when the plot demands it. It's refreshing considering how most horror nowadays seems to aspire to be clever and/or shocking, and most horror-comedies go for easy gross-out laughs and/or self-reference. I know people who hate this movie, and I can't understand why. MGM has an HD master (they've aired it on their TV station), let's get this thing released digitally already.
*Availability changes so fast these days that a week after I sent my list to Mr. Pupkin this was announced for release by Scream Factory!

How to Kill 400 Duponts (Arriva Dorellik) (1967)
This spoof of Danger: Diabolik specifically and the Eurospy/supervillain subgenre in general is full of cartoonish gags and features an endlessly stymied and incredulous Terry Thomas (who also stars in Diabolik). I usually don't like Italian comedy, but something about this one is especially charming. In a plot device somewhat similar to Kind Hearts and Coronets, a supervillain hitman/master of disguise, the Fantomas-esque Dorellik, is murdering the members of the Dupont family so the family fortune may be passed to a lone survivor. Can he be stopped? Find out, only on VHS (in English, anyway). Fan-made trailer on YouTube

Love Butcher (1975)
Ignoring the likely illegitimate DVD release by JEF Films, this has yet to officially resurface. If you ever wanted to see what would happen if Jerry Lewis and Alfred Hitchcock collaborated on a movie called the Psycho Nutty Professor, well, this may be something like that. Caleb is a simpleminded gardener. His brother Lester is a suave ladies man. Caleb is treated like crap by the eccentric, rich women for whom he works, so Lester gets revenge by seducing and murdering the women using a variety of gardening tools. I'm pretty sure the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing in crafting some of the bizarre characters, costumes and scenarios. It all feels campy in a very deliberate, John Waters way. Erik Sterns performance as both Caleb and Lester is outstanding. Performances like this and Tom Basham's in Psychopath are the gems that keep me digging through low budget slashers.

Titles that will likely get a release but for now are VHS only:


Try and Get Me (aka Sound of Fury) (1950)
A great parable about mob justice. Loosely remade by Fritz Lang as the far inferior Fury. On a list of Republic titles likely to be released by Olive Films.

China Gate (1957)
Sam Fuller's solid men on a mission movie is set in French-Indochina and features Nat King Cole and Lee Van Cleef in supporting roles. Great theme song by Nat King Cole.
Also on a list of Republic titles likely to be released by Olive Films.

Greed (1924)
Erich von Stroheim's massive epic suffered from studio interference and lost elements, but a reconstruction funded largely by Turner in the late 90s reincorporated large chunks of "lost" footage in the form of stills. The film is sprawled across two VHS tapes and has yet to appear digitally. Don't be intimidated by the runtime. The storytelling and filmmaking are masterful. I'd be shocked if this doesn't get rereleased sooner than later.

Honorable Mention:

 Gone in 60 Seconds/Junkman (1974/1982)
I would call these VHS gems because for the DVD release the wife of the late, great director/stunt driver H.B. Halicki opted to cover up foul language and replace the original soundtrack with extremely generic sounding keyboard music. The impact of the movies is not necessarily diminished, but its irksome that we may never get an officially released digital copy of these spectacular car chase flicks with their intended soundtrack. This is certainly not the only instance of this (previous editions of Return of the Living Dead had soundtrack replacements as did MTV's The State), and I'm sure there will continue to be more.

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