The romance of vinyl – the gallery-worthy artwork, the sensual slide of record from sleeve, the crackle of needle into groove – doesn’t quite translate to nostalgia for rented VHS cassettes. Those ugly chunks of plastic dropped out of clunky cases like fragile housebricks and slid into players the size of shredding machines with the sort of pained mechanical clanks and grinds you might expect from rusted, overweight Daleks having sex. There was no skip-forward option, you had to spool through the piracy warning films and Patrick Swayze trailers in full before you got to your film, and even then it was a vaguely grubby experience. The soundtrack was always horribly distended, the film grainy and some of the scenes were often ruined by static from the tape being repeatedly rewound. If you rented Basic Instinct at any point in the ‘90s, you’d be forgiven for thinking half of it was filmed in a snowstorm.
Yet even in an age where new generations are realising the worth and value of physical forms of art, surely nobody wants to bring back the VHS? Well, apparently they do. Inspired by the success of a few small VHS rental stores opening up in America, where the demise of Blockbuster Video in 2014 was the starkest sign of streaming dominance (only one Blockbusters remains, in Bend, Oregon), Andy Johnson from Liverpool has recently opened the UK’s only existing equivalent. He had 10,000 VHS tapes he had to get out of his house on his partner’s orders (probably), so he decided to offer them for rent in a shop in Toxteth called VideOdyssey.
“People latched onto it,” he told The Mirror, “and we started getting collectors from all over. I’ve had visitors from as far away as Singapore and Texas. I had one guy who came from Canada. He joined as a member, just so he could have a video shop membership card again. He said it made him feel all warm and fuzzy just holding the old VHS boxes and using the player.” Such is Andy’s dedication to the format that he recently decided to drive 600 miles to Dundee in order to save 20,000 tapes from another collector who was getting rid of them.
But it’s not just collectors who frequent Andy’s shop. He also rents out old VHS players for those households who may have ventured into a Currys since 1988. Older people want them to play their old wedding or family videos; younger people want to find out what’s on the tapes they’ve found in their deceased relatives’ houses, in the hope that there are some heart-warming memories of grandma to be salvaged from a home video marked ‘Swinging With Phil And Linda’.
Others want a taste of the Good Old Days before Back To The Future II was exposed as such a despicable lie. “A teenage couple come in and rent a different film a week,” Andy said. “They want the vintage experience.” The thing is, they’d already had it. The joy of VHS rental in 2021 isn’t in the grainy, curved screen squint-iness of actually watching the film you’ve chosen, you see. It’s in the act of choosing it.
VHS rental shops take us back to a time when home cinema was almost as sacred a ritual as cinema itself. ‘Getting a video’ was virtually a night out in its own right. You’d bus it to a Blockbusters where the scent of popcorn and sugar was only mildly tanged by traces of child mucus and employee body odour. Pushing your way into this cavernous emporium of cinematic possibility, you’d head straight to the wall of “New Releases” and share a frisson of mild disappointment with your partner that none of the show-boxes of the film you actually wanted to see had rentable copies behind them – the dreaded Flat Wall Of Frustration.
But that was where your journey of discovery began. For the next hour you wandered endless aisles of straight-to-video slasher flicks, romcoms and French arthouse quasi-pornos, none of which had been watched by anyone since they left the editing suite. Many of us drew a lifetime’s love of trashy scripting, puppet-like acting and amateurish chainsaw decapitation effects from these chasms of dust and unrecouped funding. When else would you ever consider sitting through a Friday The 13th marathon, Battlefield Earth or Police Academy: Mission To Moscow? It’s here that we discover and refine our own tastes and tendencies, and where films like The Room and Showgirls became cults, growing in-the-know, word-of-mouth communities with the level of ironic dedication to cinematic awfulness that Emily In Paris could only dream of.
Ultimately, of course, you’re talked into renting Pretty Woman again (I mean, you’re not actually going to watch it after all), then get to the check-out desk to realise you’ve washed your membership card in your other jeans and spend the night watching old Brass Eye episodes instead. But disappointment never comes into it. The act of leaving your house to select your evening’s entertainment – just like the revived allure of going to a record shop to buy an LP – has turned a non-night into an event and the mindless consumer into a connoisseur of no little distinction. Every time we choose our favourite art with our entire beings rather than just our thumbs, or take time over those choices rather than lazily succumbing to the same algorithmic suggestion as everyone else, we become a little fuller, more substantial, more individual. That’s the real pleasure of VHS even if – in strictly convenience terms – DVD nostalgia can’t come too soon.