This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
There is a place called the Cool Shit Shelf. Upon it sits a Special Edition Inception attaché case containing a spinning top totem. Above that looms The Complete Collection Lost box set (stick with me) with a tenuously linked Senet board game and plastic Egyptian ankh. And let’s not forget the Reservoir Dogs Deluxe Mr. Blonde edition with…well, you get the picture. All are exceptional in their own right, boasting a wealth of deleted scenes, Making ofs, or exclusive sleeves.
Although these collectors’ items take pride of place on the Cool Shit Shelf™, they are the equivalent of a vanilla, double-sided flip-disc in a snap case when compared to a medium which allowed personalized film edits, customizable artwork, and unique bonus features. That medium, was the home-recorded VHS.
Not convinced? Again, stick with me…
The Video Home System (VHS) revolutionised the entertainment industry in the late 1970s, allowing films to enter the home via recordable cassettes. Recorded by parents or children and either from the television or other video cassettes, films became accessible and adaptable. For an entire generation, its legacy far outlasts an E-240. Even on long play. DVD and Blu-ray will come and go, but the home-recorded VHS will forever be the ultimate Special Edition.
The accidental credits stings
Credit stings once felt like a genuine treat, rather than something superfluous that kept you from beating the traffic out of the cinema parking lot. However, the home recorded VHS had almost unlimited potential in keeping you glued to your seat.
A young boy once sat transfixed as the Star Wars end credits rolled, but instead of swapping tapes straight on to The Empire Strikes Back as was the ritual…he let the credits run, engrossed. In a Hoth-like snowstorm, the scene fuzzed from the luminous space scroll, to a dingy high school locker room. Suspiciously mature-looking college kids peered through a hole in the tiles, straight into the girls’ shower room.
With equal parts horror and intrigue, the young Star Wars fan watched as the girls in the shower did very non-Star Wars things. He fumbled for the wired remote control, the eject button was pressed and the scene was never watched again. Even five credit stings couldn’t quite compare after that.
The director’s cut
The words ‘director’s cut’ often spark intrigue and excitement within the film fan. It is an opportunity to witness the director’s true vision, unabated by studio or classification board restrictions. Unfortunately, for every Logan there is a Sabretooth, for every Rock there is a Vin Diesel, and for every director’s cut there is a TV edit on HR VHS. With a blatant disregard for the labor of love that makes up the majority of movies, ad breaks saw to it that rising action had the rug pulled out from under it, climaxes were unsatisfying and punch lines fell short.
Seemingly hacked at by a blind woodsman, the TV edit managed to siphon all emotional resonance out of the heartfelt reveal of Phoebe Cates’ father’s demise in Gremlins, when it was bluntly axed to make way for a Scottish Widows insurance ad. It was the ultimate representation of capitalism over art and truly indicative of the 1980s. But it also reduced the need to use the ‘I’ve got something in my eye’ excuse so, swings and roundabouts.
That’s not to say that these TV edits on HR VHS didn’t have their plus points. These unique versions of films live on in infamy and more often than not, hilarity. Profanity always has been and always will be big and clever, so it remains a testament to those who edited films for TV that their substitutions often outdid the originals.
The HR VHS cut of Robocop (1987) saw the late Miguel Ferrer’s character deliver a motivational speech to the titular law enforcer, but whereas the cut literally dropped the F-Bomb, it left something that lingered in the lexicon of a generation: “You’re gonna be one bad mother crusher!” Now that’s big and clever. From freak yous to Mother Hubbards via melon farmers, hearing the original potty-mouthed version was never quite as satisfying after that.
Of course it worked the other way around too. Parental censoring that employed the HR VHS was the technological evolution of being told to cover your ears or to watch from behind your hands. Clumsy cuts omitted vital scenes that often left the viewer open to persecution from those of a more lenient parentage. The HR VHS version suggested that Top Gun’s Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis were doing the honorable thing and waiting until they were married before they consummated their relationship. Just a little smooch and Maverick was back off to the barracks to practice his Righteous Brothers harmonies; that was the impression given.
Imagine the surprise when the DVD was eventually bought and watched. It was like Porky‘s all over again. And again.
Film has the capacity to bring people together and the HR VHS was responsible for promoting an acute sense of community; through a convoluted process of wiring video recorders together, audio-visual genii (presumably stationed at a Doc Brown-esque lab) flooded school playgrounds with otherwise banned copies of Child’s Play, The Evil Dead and a whole host of other video nasties.
Although a highly dubious practice, the sharing of these video cassettes did help to tackle taboos. Just ask the owner of the Basic Instinct HR VHS Special Edition with the hidden Easter egg: an Easter egg that let everyone else know exactly which scene was the person in question’s favorite. Whoever knew that the constant play, pause, rewind, and repeat would forever bookmark a scene in fuzzy grey static? Thankfully, school children are known for their discretion and the subject was dropped without further ado.
In hindsight, sharing a YouTube link just doesn’t seem the same does it?
Never mind the store exclusive sleeves, holographic covers, and limited edition steelbooks, The HR VHS was completely customizable. Prying the plastic tabs out of the cassette was the ultimate security measure, protecting your film and ensuring that rerecording was impossible to all, bar those who possessed a roll of scotch tape and an ounce of ingenuity. Discovering a blue coloured tape flap on the cassette itself felt akin to discovering a blue Stormtrooper figure (one can only assume) while doctoring the parent-applied age certification stickers was as simple as changing an F grade to an A grade on your school report.
But it was perhaps the journey that each HR VHS went through that gave it an irreplaceable and undeniable sense of personality. Handwritten labels which displayed the titles of previously recorded films harboured immense intrigue and mystery.
For years, the label ‘Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie‘ reached out from underneath The Goonies, inviting you in and conjuring countless questions of what the film could possibly be about. Sadly this was something that was always better off left to the imagination.
Caked in so much Tipp-Ex that it resembled a plasterer’s radio, the cassette label documented a film fan’s journey from its maiden voyage to its eventual unwinding. Whether revealing what may have been wholly unappreciated at the time (my parents used to have American Graffiti?!) or reminding you of your own rites de passage into film, (from Transformers: The Movie to Terminator 2: Judgment Day to simply ‘Robb’s tape – DO NOT TOUCH!!’) the HR VHS is an artifact that will remain unrivalled by DVD and Blu-ray.
Digital doesn’t deserve a seat at the table.
More than just a vehicle for your favorite film, the HR VHS remains heavily loaded with a sense of identity, nostalgia and reminisces of family and friends, and of where the love affair with film began. How’s that for a Special Edition?