MASS EFFECT DLC today. I’ll be indisposed.

But first – a bit of philosophy…and a question.

PHILOSOPHY:

If you read this column at all, you know that I try to maintain pretty straight-ahead coverage of what hits video week to week. I don’t always spend time talking about the major releases because chances are, all you need to know is that a title is out today. Am I going to do 1000 words on how you need to see 21 Jump Street? No – you guys are awesome. You already know that you do. But what I am likely to do is point out that some slightly odd, off-the-path flick got a release today – because those are the films that need ink the most, and they’re the ones most likely to surprise us (sometimes I’ve seen what I‘m hyping, and I’m writing about it because I think it might interest the savviest film fans on the web, our own Chewers).

I don’t write for the site as often as I used to, nor, it would seem, as often as some would like. There are real-world reasons for this – but there is also a rationale. I truly love movies, and I am committed as I can be to finding something to like about even the worst film. No one sets out to make a bad movie – worst case scenario, they seek to make what used to be referred to as a “programmer” – a serviceable film that, in the days of the double feature, could just as easily find itself at the top of a marquee as at the bottom. To my mind, that is what the vast majority of studio product is today – high concept star vehicles with decent budgets meant to provide 112 minutes of ooh and or/ahh. They can’t all be prestige pics, and they can’t all be memorable – let alone classic. Certainly, some films do a better job of checking boxes and hitting the quadrants than others, but when one of them doesn’t work out…it doesn’t really make sense to me to do 3000 words tearing the thing to pieces. I’d rather do a few hundred on something I adore – in the hopes that you seek it out and adore it too.

What I’m trying to say is, I might not say a whole lot – but when I do, it’s to point out something you might really love. And if I do bite down and shred something – there’s a really good reason. In this column, my ire tends to be focused on studios or distributors that do an awful job with worthwhile product (I’m looking at you, Echo Bridge – like I’m a Hobo with a Shotgun, I‘m looking at you), or awful trends in video (like how niche demographics influence the insanity in the art and the commerce).

Today…I’ll be sinking my teeth into the latter.

THE QUESTION (stated in the form of neverending blather):

August 22nd, 1986. In just one week, it would be my twelfth birthday. And by the time that hallowed holiday rolled around, the Tri-Star Pictures production Night of the Creeps - released on August 22nd, 1986 – would have disappeared from theaters after grossing a fairly shitty $500,000. The film was a charming, witty, and assured homage to the old-fashioned Creature Feature that Hollywood had forgotten how to make. Its director, Fred Dekker, would go on to craft another charming, witty, and assured film – The Monster Squad. Released by Tri-Star in the same frame one year later, it fared slightly better at the box office – it pulled in $3,000,000.

The problem with that number is that the film cost four times what Night of the Creeps did. The other problem is that Night of the Creeps and Monster Squad are both great little flicks. Sometimes there is no justice. And sometimes justice is time.

Time enough for the film to hit VHS…time enough to cultivate a cult…time enough to become beloved.

This is all going somewhere, I promise. It’s just going to take its sweet molasses-ass time getting there.

HBO Video released Creeps in 1987. Vestron dropped the Squad in ‘88. For nearly two decades, those VHS cassettes (and in the case of Creeps, Laserdiscs) were the only way to see the film when it wasn’t shown on cable. The image on these tapes was, of course, typical of VHS – grainy, yet soft (so there was a rough texture to the image, but a total lack of fine detail), far too dark (or worse still, an alternating dark-to-light – the result of a shitty telecine transfer or a symptom of Macrovision anti-copying encoding  – or both), muted colors (but with that absurdly saturated bleeding red that made for out-of-control horizontal striping), and, as the tapes began to wear, a faded, rolling picture. Fuck You, tracking.

In 2007, Lionsgate released The Monster Squad in a beautifully-remastered Special Edition. The disc was loaded with features and retrospectives and reunions of cast and crew – and the image, displayed for the first time in its original aspect ratio, was revelatory. It was absolutely gorgeous. Stunned by the sales of the DVD, Lionsgate put the film on Blu Ray a couple years later, with added features and a picture remastered again for High Definition. By Fred Dekker’s admission, the new master seemed pointless – but he was nevertheless astounded by the result. And he was right to be. As wondrous as the DVD looked, the Blu Ray was even better.

Sony itself released Night of the Creeps. Their initial plan was to do a Special Edition DVD – but encouraged by early pre-order numbers, they added a Blu SKU to the mix. Both formats featured a restoration of the film’s superior original ending (seen previously on bootleg DVDs made from the film’s rare television airings). Again – the results were fantastic.

Between the street dates for these two sterling digital releases – on December 31st, 2008 – a company in Florida called Distribution Video and Audio shipped out its last batch of prerecorded VHS tapes. Studios had ceased manufacture, and the only company selling remainders of that studio product had given it up. VHS was done.

Growing up, I saw the home video boom firsthand. My initial exposure to video occurred in 1981 over a long weekend at a friend‘s house, wherein I watched three films my father chose for me on Sony’s Betamax Time Commander: The Blues Brothers, Alien, and Apocalypse Now. I was seven years old.

They called it the Time Commander. I guess they were hoping for a cartoon spin-off.

The experience was enough to make me beg my father to buy a VCR for our house. A few months later, he bought us an elegant four-headed monolith from Fisher.

Somewhere in space, this could all be happening right now. But let’s hope not.

Note the futuristic stylings…I’m serious! This thing had a digital readout, multicolored LEDS, and a stainless steel finish. In 1981, it was amazing to find a home appliance that didn’t feature WOOD GRAIN. It’s like I was in fucking Blade Runner!

I began recording everything I could from PBS – all sorts of uncut movies used to play there back in the day. I’d tape the Late Movie on WGN outta’ Chicago – lots of old noir there…and it’s where I saw Psycho for the first time.

We got cable in ‘83 – and that meant more movies on WWOR from NYC…and Night Flight on USA. HBO and Showtime and Cinemax played all kinds of great movies at all hours of the day. And Cinemax meant Joe Bob Briggs, hero to children everywhere.

In this time, my family struck up a great relationship with the people who ran the first video store in our town – Merrillville Video. They used to give us posters and standees – and we’d get dibs on product they were selling off.

Getting an actual retail/rentail (yeah, that was a word) copy of a film for $20.00 or $25.00 was pretty sweet when the shops paid upwards of one hundred dollars per copy. There was no such thing as sell-through back then. It was a strictly rental market, and the studios set the prices to keep it that way.

Eventually, the Lake County Public Library started loaning videocassettes. Oh, the shit was on now. Unless it was something insanely sexually explicit, I was allowed to rent anything. School was in session. I found Akira Kurosawa.

By 1985, the boom felt thermonuclear – there were four video stores in my town…and I had hundreds of tapes filled with films and music videos and television episodes. Our friends at Merrillville Video would by us sleeved rental cases in bulk. I started drawing my own covers for the films I recorded. I’d watch the film – pause on an image I liked, and recreate it as my new, awesome alternate cover art. We bought a second VCR. I started dubbing rentals. I recorded The Terminator from a pay cable broadcast, and began dismantling the film. I wanted to know how Cameron did it because I wanted to do it too.

In ‘86, after renting one on a vacation and having a pretty hilarious time with it, my father decided we needed a video camera. It turns out we got the same make and model Robert Rodriguez talks about in Rebel Without a Crew. He chose it for the same reason I did – it could shoot single frames for animation. It was time for stop-motion monsters (or, in my case, killer athletic socks. I made a short film about a killer gym sock. It happened).

By now I was a Fangoria kid. My friends and I were buying makeup effects supplies out of the back of every other issue, trying to figure out how things worked. We made head casts and started doing wounds and monster faces – and we’d videotape our progress and watch how-to videos by Tom Savini and Dick Smith (and maybe we rewound and laughed at Dick Smith saying “Hypnotize them, Dennis” way too many times). And when I bought a copy of the Vestron Video release of Evil Dead 2 from the dead-and-gone Camelot Records…and we started reading about how some goons from the Midwest were making movies…we started to feel like it could be more than just some stupid dream. We could make movies.

In 1988, Steven Spielberg flexed his mogul muscle and forced Warner Brothers to release his latest collaboration with Joe Dante, Innerspace, to VHS in its original aspect ratio. I was thrilled – we could see the entire picture, just like a theater screen! Of course, slack-jawed yokels thought their “teevees was brokin'”- so very few widescreen VHS titles were released.

This image has zero defects.

Many of the aforementioned yokels have, unfortunately, not yet died – so if you listen closely…you can hear them crying in the night about the movie not playin’ right. What music they make…

I understood how important composition was, and I wanted to see films as they were meant to be seen. By 1989, I bought my first Laserdisc player – a refurbished Pioneer CLD-A100. I can tell you the model number because it’s currently sitting two and a half feet away from me in perfect working order. I’ve still got somewhere in the area of 300 Laserdiscs. For a wannabe moviemaker and absolute lover of film, what was better than Laserdisc? Documentaries! Deleted footage! Alternate takes! Trailers! Commentaries!

Holy Christ – commentaries. The director of the film taught you how to make the film while you watched the film. Are you kidding me, Laserdisc?! It was a beautiful dream. I paid $100.00 for the Criterion Edition Laser of The Killer. My best friend Don bought me Hard Boiled one Christmas. It was $120.00. That happened. Some of the documentaries and commentaries on Laserdisc have never been ported over to new formats – which is how I justify those painful expenditures.

They had better covers then, too.

By 1990, I was going to nerd cons and Fango Weekends o’ Horror (we called them Weekend’s of Hos because we were children and not witty), and we got to meet all kinds of inspirational and encouraging filmmakers. I met Sam Raimi in Detroit right before Darkman opened (he used to answer my weenie-kid fan letters. I told my friends he should make the Spider-Man movie back when Cannon had the rights. No one listened), and my brother and I won FX/costume competitions judged by the KNB guys and Clive Barker. We gave tapes of our stupid/weird shorts to people we liked – it was good times. And some of the best times involved prowling dealers’ room floors searching for con bootleg videotapes. This was my introduction to the Hong Kong Cinema. This was where I discovered Giallo and Poliziotteschi and EuroCult weirdness. If the immense public library in my old ‘hood was Film School, I did Post-Graduate work on the con floors. I still have tonnes of those old tapes in storage.

I nabbed my own VCR – a JVC model with a production-style shuttle. I could now control the speed of the image forward and backward – which came in really handy when I wanted to do a Peckinpah-style gunfight or a bit of reverse acting (Raimi explained the subtleties of the technique). I linked two VCRs together and cut my shorts that way. The days of shooting in chronological order (and rewinding over blown takes) were over.

I moved to Mosherton, Indiana in 1992, and wound up taking a job at one of the seven video stores in town. Seven. We had Zak’s Movies and Music, Star Video, Star Video II, Mosherton Video, Duneland Pizza & Video, and two family-owned places whose names escape me. I went to work at Mosherton Video, where I worked for an utter moron. He actually got mad at me for alphabetizing the library after people complained that they could never find anything but porno in this hellhole/dump/shitbox. I never bothered organizing the porno.

In 1995…Blockbuster came to town. It was a locally owned and operated entity, but it slowly murdered all of the weird little places just the same. When the video store I worked at closed, I started busting blocks. I established friendships that endure to this day. I dated a girl I worked with (we bonded over a mutual love of John Carpenter), and it blossomed into one of the worst love stories of all times (should I have figured out she was evil incarnate when she got hot and bothered while we were watching my con bootleg of Salo? Probably).

The Blockbuster died a few years ago. They never were able to get rid of all of the shitty old VHS.

I can’t imagine you’re still with me. If you are, you’re probably wondering what the point of this whole thing is. Or maybe you know…?

I just want you to understand – the world of film was opened up to me through VHS. By the time I graduated to DVD in 1999 (an all-region OPPO, naturally), I had well over two thousand VHS tapes – more than half of which were prerecorded studio product. I still have hundreds today – some that are simply not available on Laserdisc or DVD or Blu Ray (I’ve got a television cut of Army of Darkness with scenes not present in the theatrical release, Director’s Cut, or weird con bootleg workprint I own). Many of the films will more than likely never make the leap, so yeah – I won’t be parting with those anytime soon.

But…here’s the thing…

(OMG HE’S GOING TO GET TO A FUCKING POINT NOW)

I’m seeing this terrifying trend emerge…this fetishizing of VHS as if it’s something incredibly special or beautiful. I’ve read blogs full of blather about how “thrilling” it is to adjust tracking or deal with all of the precious imperfections of the miserable bygone format. I’ve seen people spew pretentious fuckwittery about how it’s [pinkies out]simmmlpllly nohht posssibllle[/pinkies out] to love film if you didn’t grow up seeing them on VHS (shhh – no one tell MARTIN SCORSESE). I grew up on VHS. Watching movies on VHS shaped my life and my dreams, and I can tell you that – unless it’s the only way I can possibly see London After Midnight or The Day the Clown CriedI never need to watch another shitty-looking VHS tape ever again for the rest of my entire fucking life.

Even the stuff that doesn’t exist on DVD is stuff I’ve more than likely transferred to my PC by now, so yeah – the quality’s still garbage, but I don’t have to worry about tracking or eaten tapes or any of the annoying shit that comes with that awful format.

People might ask (okay - people who give a solitary shit what I think about anything might ask), “Well – what do you think about people who prefer vinyl to compact disc?”

I’ve been in people’s homes who have incredible sound systems…with turntables that cost more than at least three of the vehicles I’ve owned in my lifetime – and I can tell there’s something happening sonically. I can maybe feel that richer, fuller sound – and since so many albums have been remixed to different, often detrimental levels – a purist might find that record albums are the only way to hear the original mix. This is perfectly rational justification.

But for so many others…it’s just posturing. Because unless they bought a truly special turntable, much of the warmth and fidelity to the original recording will get lost from the needle to the plastic. That’s the way technology works. A cheap turntable connected to incredible speakers will get you shit sound. A majestic turntable connected to junky speakers will get you shit sound – and since the vast majority of those who purchase vinyl possess one or more of those two elements…yeah.

Is this yours? No? Then you probably don’t need vinyl. Unless you’re a club DJ – and don’t you guys just hit “shuffle” anymore anyway?

But VHS to DVD or Blu Ray is not the same thing as vinyl to CD. VHS doesn’t retain some sort of incredible technical fidelity to the original image…it doesn’t look more “film-like”…and it could never be argued that the VHS standard is capable of higher resolution or clarity. Worst of all – in the vast majority of instances, the composition of the film’s photography is damaged. If the image was shot open matte, you might be seeing more of the frame than in 1.85.1 – but it’s not any part of the frame you were supposed to see! Sure-sure, sometimes it‘s Kelly Preston‘s fuzzypatch or Kate Capshaw‘s rack, but those two instances shouldn’t necessitate a return to the fucking Stone Age. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, it’s boom mics and crew members and unfinished props (if you’ve got a VHS copy of Re-Animator, you might wonder how the “stupid” director and the “lame” special effects guys thought they’d get away with leaving those visible blood tubes and fake torso stubbins in the frame. The answer: VHS IS SHIT). VHS isn’t seeing the film as it was meant to be seen; VHS has always only ever been a compromised mess – especially in the face of Laserdisc.

Not pictured – fuzzypatch. I watched it for Catherine Mary Stewart, anyway.

You know, I can even understand the preference for DVD to Blu Ray brought on by a fear of the image “correction“ employed in the High Definition age. Focus group research has shown that the Slack-Jawed Yokels corralled for focus group research – once they’re made to put down their corn dogs and watch what they’re being shown – prefer a bright, color-saturated image devoid of grain, so we find oftentimes that an HD master is sanded smooth with so much Digital Noise Reduction that it appears as though our favorite films are being Sweded with statues crafted by Anna Maria Grosholtz herself. So yeah – keep that DVD handy, ‘cause Fox STILL hasn’t done a Predator Blu Ray worth a dime. Thanks guys!

The other day, in doing some research for a piece on the new cut of Nightbreed (the Blu Ray is happening), I discovered this passage from one Justin Edwards at Icons of Fright:

The past couple months I’ve tried to watch my VHS copy of Clive Barker’s “Star Wars of horror” film NIGHTBREED, to no avail. My tape is essentially useless, making the $1  I spent on it a cautionary tale. I’m well aware DVDs exist but my love of the analog format prevails despite this failed situation…

I don’t know Mr. Edwards – and I’m not interested in ripping on him – I just wanna’ know why? Why could you possibly have a “love of the analog format” – you just fully admitted that your shitty tape doesn’t work! I own the DVD! I watched it last night! I know for a fact that the DVD looks better than the VHS – because I OWNED IT ON VHS. Your “love of the analog format” will not serve or save you! I don’t hate you, I’m not interested in berating you – I just want to understand.

In a perfect world, this ramble would spread far and wide…and people who “love” VHS would come here and use the comments to explain to me why they think VHS is worth anything more than a runny shit. You like the oversized clamshell boxes and the wild art? Fine. Keep ‘em. I’ve got a bunch. My Frankenhooker box still asks me if I “Wanna’ date?” – at least last time I checked.

The answer is “Yes.”

I have a Godfather Trilogy Box Set with a tip-in plate signed by Coppola. I’m never getting rid of that. But the Coppola Restorations exist on Blu Ray. And I own them. WHY WOULD I EVER WATCH THE AWFUL TAPES IN THAT BOX?

You like the painting of Jennifer Connelly and the skulhedface and the bugs – meee tooo! It’s fantastique – but if you’d rather watch Creepers on Media Home Entertainment’s atrocious looking, grievously-edited VHS instead of Phenomena on Arrow’s excellent Blu Ray – do humanity a favor and throw yourself down a well. Shave that ironic facial hair first - then throw yourself down a well.

Why in the hell are companies duping new VHS? Why is that happening? Do you want the films to look like shit? Is THAT the point? Or is it just the new wave of trucker cap/porno ‘tache/eight-track bullshit nostalgia?

Tell me. Make me believe. Justify this. Why in Satan’s Own Eternal Damned Kingdom would anyone with higher brain function PREFER VHS? Especially people who purport to truly love film? It doesn’t look better. It doesn’t sound better. It’s not the better experience, nor was it ever the intended one (even when people shot movies on VHS, they wished they were shooting on film – they just knew that the worst case scenario was that they’d never get to make a film if they didn’t try, and VHS was all they had).

For decades, people wished for better treatment and presentation of films. And strides have been made. We’ve got beautiful versions of Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. Why would we ever want to go back? What’s next – nostalgia for HD-DVD? It wasn’t the better format, either. I know this because I own one. Just so I can watch Streets of Fire.

And now – some stuff came out on Blu Ray and DVD this week. There was no VHS. REJOICE.

21 JUMP STREET

BUY IT ON AMAZON!

Fuck you, Blu Ray!

THE 39 STEPS (CRITERION)

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Voyager releases this seminal bit o’ Hitch on Blu Ray before the floodgates open. Bit of a boxed set on the way, if you’ve not heard…

THE ARTIST

BUY THIS FROM AMAZON INSTEAD!

Not really sure why people freaked out about this movie the way they did – but that’s not to say the team behind this film has not done excellent work. One hopes that leads to even greater opportunities.

Meanwhile, every time I see this pic, I imagine they’ve just finished their version of The Aristocrats. And it involves the dog.

21 Jump Street
The 39 Steps (Criterion)
The Artist
Bachman & Turner: Live at the Roseland Ballroom NYC
Bending the Rules – Dear WWE Films. You have two choices. Hire me, or stop.
Best Laid Plans
Bullhead
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Decoy Bride
Dr. Seuss: Green Eggs & Ham and Other Stories
Earth from Above: Food & Wildlife Conservation
Earth from Above: Preservation of Water & Forests
The Hangman
Hiding
Kasabian: Live at the O2
Marco Antonio Solis: Una Noche De Luna
Mirror, Mirror
Nazis at the Center of the Earth
The Night Of The Grizzly
Oranges and Sunshine
Ouran High School Host Club: The Complete Series
Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here
Poirot: Series 5
The Samurai Trilogy (Criterion)
Sector 7 (3D)
Shark Divers: Collection
The Spirit Is Willing
Stone Temple Pilots: Alive in Windy City
Swan Lake
Tales of Vesperia
Tales That Witness Madness – Freddie Francis up in this piece!
A Thousand Words
Towanoquon: The Complete Collection
Wrath of the Titans
WWE Falls Count Anywhere: The Greatest Street Fights

LINKIN PARK – LIVING THINGS

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Man, Shinoda and Bennington have got their backs to the wall. They’ve been “Victimized,” they’re “Powerless,” and after suffering through all the “Lies Greed Misery,” the only answer is to “Burn It Down.”  Hopefully, the instant adoption of half the big-sound choruses on this album for TV commercials and episode-closing montages will ease their pain somewhat. If you’re scoring at home, it’s electronica 3, guitars 2, none left on bass.

R.KELLY – WRITE ME BACK

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Retro-soul is a crowded enough field these days that it really helps to work your own niche. Kelly’s problem here (even more so than on 2010’s Love Letter) is that he’s not satisfied with effectively hitting the makeout-music mark as a svelte Barry White (on “Share My Love”), a smarmy Smokey Robinson (“Fool for You” ), or an even creepier (if such a thing is possible) Michael Jackson (“Feelin’ Single”). Instead, we get limp Isleys (“Party Jumpin'”), feeble Joe Turner (“All Rounds on Me”), and one of the least convincing gospel ballads in memory (“Believe in Me”). Aloe Blacc or Raphael Saddiq mold vintage soul elements into a sound at the service of their unique personalities; Kelly feels as though he’s trying to hide his. OK, I can understand why he might (he’s one of those celebrities whose notoriety has spread far beyond the base of people who actually know his work), but, in this case anyway, it makes for an album that’s pretty, but also pretty forgettable.

MAROON 5 – OVEREXPOSED

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Love it when an album reviews itself…

OTHER NOTABLE 6.26 RELEASES

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold
Blues Traveler – Suzie Cracks the Whip
Elizabeth Cook – Gospel Plow
Jerry Douglas – Traveler
Everclear – Invisible Stars
The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends (CD edition)
Gojira – L’Enfant Sauvage
Joe Jackson – The Duke
Little Feat – Rooster Rag
Memphis May Fire – Challenger
The Offspring – Days Go By  
Elvis Presley – Setlist: The Very Best of Elvis Presley Live 1950s
Jill Scott – Crates: Remix Fundamentals Volume 1
Various Artists – Rick Ross Presents: Self Made 2
Cassandra Wilson – Another Country

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (PS3, 360)

This game almost looks worse than the movie. And like the movie, the idea started out strong enough and was quickly ruined by terrible decisions and a studio that doesn’t know what it wants to do with the franchise. Do yourself a favor and pick up last weeks Lego Batman 2 instead. It pretty much gets everything a Spider-Man game should do right. Except have Spider-Man. Which is probably a good thing.

SPEC OPS: THE LINE (PC, PS3, 360)

An oft-delayed third-person military shooter with lofty ideas about video game narrative. Although the schizophrenic advertising wants us to think the game is about how hard it is on soldiers to make faces explode in disgusting, ostensibly cool ways, I’m hoping the violence is handled with a little more weight than that. The narrative, which takes place in Dubai during cataclysmic sand storms, is a direct (acknowledged) lift from Heart of Darkness. You’re squad goes into Dubai to take out a rogue Colonel, but first you must make your way across Dubai’s one remaining road. Yeah, it’s obvious and we get a new military shooter every week these days. Hell, Far Cry 2 did the Conrad thing really well just a few years ago. But when few modern shooters put as much thought into telling an interesting and relevant story as they put into a four map DLC money grab, I’ll take what I can get.

So that’s all done. I’ll be back on the meds next week. Thanks for reading.

FIN.