cult of vhs review

In our modern times, with seemingly endless movie selections available at the touch of a button and in high definition quality, it seems crazy that anyone would anyone choose to collect clunky obsolete media such as VHS. However, across the globe a plethora of people are doing just that, but why? This is the question director Rob Preciado sets out to answer, along with a slew of collectors and creators, in the documentary Cult of VHS

Every summer I attend the VHS Fest at The Mahoning Drive-In Theater; an illustrious single-screen drive-in that was built in 1948 and is nestled in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It’s two magical days of watching filmed on VHS movies (mostly horror) late into the night, scream queen guests like Linnea Quigley and Ginger Lynn gracing us with their beauty and incredible good humor, vendors, and music. One of the highlights though is the plethora of folks selling VHS tapes (both vintage and new officially licensed releases), as well as art, t-shirts, and just about any memorabilia, you can imagine. Watching people finally find the title they’ve been hunting for the longest of times, or fortuitously stumble across a VHS which is a veritable nostalgia bomb, is such a delight. It’s one of those events where the participants find themselves surrounded by people who speak their language and share a mutual love. 

So naturally, when I saw Cult of VHS in the FrightFest lineup I just about jumped out of my seat with excitement. The documentary, which was created in part due to a Kickstarter campaign in 2020, is comprised mostly of interviews with collectors and film creators, and interspersed with VHS-era commercials and trailers. The folks being interviewed are incredibly diverse, hailing from all over the globe and spanning generations, and range from hobby collectors to creators as well as movers and shakers in the industry. Collectively, they paint a beautiful portrait of why the love affair runs so deep.

I found some guests much more interesting than others, such as the prolific horror VHS cover artist Graham Humphreys, or Kevin Martin, the eccentric owner of The Lobby DVD Shop–a bastion for VHS and horror culture. Some of the interviews felt repetitive and aimless, with overlapping content of interviewees discussing in detail why they love and collect VHS. Others offered incredible insight into the history of the medium as well as idiosyncrasies in the production and consumption of VHS between different countries. It was neat to see the divergent marketing campaigns and actual production quality of packaging and art depending on what country you were in.

The structure of the film is loose at best, where topics felt added only after the interview content was gathered, instead of a clear aim and structure established before the film was created. Cult of VHS also gives the impression at times that the Preciado himself is either not a collector, and relied on his interviewees for direction, or that he created a film around his particular group instead of penetrating deep into this pop culture cult. I’m not sure that either of these scenarios is the case, but that is the impression the documentary gives. The two sections that stood out with more clarity though were about VHS cover art (specifically compared to the boring DVD counterparts) and a little glimpse of the Video Nasties’ history and what it was like to be a horror fan at the time. 

cult of vhs

Noticeably missing from the film were companies such as Lunchmeat and Witter Entertainment (you can see our interview with Witter here), who are officially licensing and releasing old-school horror as well as recent releases on VHS. A general look at VHS going forward, instead of just an item of the past, would have been interesting. Also, there was no footage from any of the VHS meetings and events, like VHS Fest, that happen every year across the globe. 

The production quality waxes and wanes dependent largely on the home equipment of the interviewees. In the post-COVID quarantine era though, this is somewhat forgivable. However, the annoying soundtrack was deplorable–not in the music itself, but in its overuse, repetition, and excessive volume that periodically drowns out people talking. There were just so many instances where music wasn’t even necessary, and I found myself frustratingly aware of its presence throughout the run time. However, the vintage commercials sprinkled between and during interviews were absolutely incredible and hit the nostalgia feels hard. One thing that struck me as a missed opportunity was for the whole film to be shot in VHS, but I get why that is something they avoided.

Overall, the film was interesting and absolutely full of heart and unadulterated love for this medium. I think the film could have been structured better, as well as gone a little deeper into the history and the future of the format. However, the film is an absolute joy to watch and offers interesting insights–whether you are a member of the cult or not. A definite must-see.


We Watched Cult of VHS as part of the 2022 FrightFest Line-up

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