VHS Massacre: Cult Films and the Decline of Physical Media (2016)


For other documentaries about the VHS resurgence and the nearing end of physical media, a lot of directors have spent their time trying to figure out where it all began and celebrate the idea of the VHS boom of the modern era. “VHS Massacre” seems to be standing in ground zero of the end of physical media and trying to figure out where it’s all going, rather than where it all began. For many of us that have reveled in the new wave of VHS appreciation, we all know how it began. VHS won over Beta, despite the latter have more quality simply because VHS had more appeal to its product. It cost less, the tapes stored more footage, and porn became almost exclusive to the format. But with the rise of digital media, VHS has gone the way of the dodo, now relegated to good will bins and mom and pop stores deep in small towns and counties.

Sadly, DVD and Blu-Ray are steering in to the same pitfall and directors Thomas Edward Seymour and Kenneth Powell struggle to find various outlets that still believe in the idea of physical media, both of whom dread the impending dominance of digital formats where everything is streamed online and the idea of collecting is rendered null and void. Because as various studios and online outlets begin building their own niche streaming sites, independent cinema is being pushed to the wayside left to fend for itself and scrounge up for viewers. Directors Seymour and Powell spend a majority of the documentary looking for their film “Mark of the Beast” in various stores and coincidentally leave a wake of closed down video stores in their paths, as they almost bear witness to the end of the idea of physical media and the independent film community.

Seymour and Powell seem to have a great time trying to find Seymour and Jon Gorman’s movie “Mark of the Beast” amidst a sea of blu-rays and DVD’s for “Magic Mike XXL” and “The Avengers.” In fact it eventually becomes a running joke how every time they step foot in a store selling movies, they end up walking in to a display case for the male stripper film. But while Seymour and Powell seem to have a good time in that respect, the rising tide of sadness begins to reveal itself as they see more and more of their beloved movie havens close down in the wake of inflation, and zero demand for physical copies of films. What seems to drive Seymour and Powell to even more of a depressing state is that the stores they visit seem to show zero interest in storing independent cinema. Interviewee Lloyd Kaufman and Seymour even share an anecdote with how Netflix was at one time a bastion for independent cinema, and now has almost exclusively catered to more mainstream, family fare.

This has driven indie companies like Full Moon, and Troma to launch their own streaming services, hoping movie fans will eventually come flocking to explore a hidden gem that Netflix has zero interest in promoting. While “VHS Massacre” is a very good documentary, the one caveat to the experience is that the documentary lacks any kind of focus. Seymour and co. hop from topic to topic, never finding a link to their subject matter, and how it concerns the overall subject matter of the film. There’s discussion about VHS artwork, a look at VHS festivals, discussions about how Hollywood has no respect for collecting, there are also discussions about the various cheap reasons for why studios are seeking to decimate physical media, but none of it ever feels cohesive. At one point there’s a neat scene where Seymour’s wife discusses the infamous phallic cover for the VHS release of “The Little Mermaid,” but it doesn’t lead in to any discussions concerning censorship, or how standards have vastly changed for home releases.

That said, “VHS Massacre” is a very good documentary with some really good interviews with folks like Joe Bob Briggs, and David Royal and Jason West of Vultra Video. Thomas Edward Seymour and Kenneth Powell take a profound and serious look at the VHS boom, the struggle to save physical media, and how it corrolates with the fight to help independent cinema as a whole.

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