Movie Review: Rewind This

Rewind This!
Directed by Josh Johnson
Starring Frank Henenlotter, Drew McWeeny, and Charles Band
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Available on iTunes
Official Site

Videotapes once played a huge role in my life. I grew up in a family that never had much money to splurge on weekend excursions to the local cinema, except on rare occasions. Therefore, we were reliant on home video to keep us up to date on the most popular movie releases of the day. In the beginning we had to not only rent the videos, but also the VCR to play them, and a neighborhood store called Video Circus carried the early model “top loaders” that were big enough to build the pyramids of Egypt with. For years my younger siblings and I were fixated on certain movies and every time my mother offered to rent us a movie for the weekend, we were always crowing for Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol or The Princess Bride. As I got older, I started to build my own collection of films on tape; my library officially kicked off on Christmas Day 1993 when my late grandmother Betty gifted me Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and The Rocketeer.

Once I got my first job and suddenly felt the rush of having real money in my pocket for once, I purchased more tapes and even my first VCR, which I picked up dirt cheap at a thrift store. When I was 20, I started working for a Tower Records and Video in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia and took great advantage of an amazing employee discount to build my movie collection into a literal library of cinema. Having a VCR and access to digital cable movie channels precipitated the purchase of blank video tapes that could three to four movies depending on their length and how much storage space was on each tape. Within a few years, I had more movies than I had time to watch them.

So there is no way in Hell I am going to miss out on Josh Johnson‘s sweet and entertaining new documentary Rewind This!. This is the movie for my inner child to watch with misty eyes and a silly grin brought out by memories that only exist in my mind now as fourth generation dupes. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and featuring interviews with an impressive line-up of filmmakers, fans, collectors, and many more, Rewind This! is a pure joy to watch. This film tells the epic rollercoaster ride of a true story about the rise and fall of videotapes and VCRs and the Pompeii-level impact their popularity made on cinema around the world from the perspective of those who saw their lives forever altered by those black, rectangular plastic boxes and the wonders they contained.

Among the subjects interviewed for Rewind This! are independent home video mavericks David Gregory of Severin Films and Don May Jr. of Synapse Films; online film critic Drew McWeeny; author (Destroy All Movies!, which I own and is a killer read) and Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson; Japanese actress Showko Nakahara (Visitor Q); Ringu writer Hiroshi Takahashi; filmmakers David Schmoeller (Tourist Trap), Kevin Tenney (Night of the Demons), Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case), Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), and Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter); Mamoru Oshii, directed of the Japanese animated classic Ghost in the Shell; Troma Entertainment co-founder (and a fine director in his own right) Lloyd Kaufman; Empire Pictures/Full Moon Entertainment honcho Charles Band; Chris Strompolos, the star and producer of the shot-on-video remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark that became an underground cult sensation; and the late horror actor and filmmaker Andrew Copp (Black Sun), who passed away this past January not long after filming his interview (the movie is dedicated to his memory).

Johnson also interviewed several devoted and fervent videotape collectors whose methods for cataloging and displaying their prodigious throng of VHS titles I could certainly relate to. One person chooses to arrange their tapes on shelves according to the color of their boxes, while a man named Dormarth who publishes his own zine has an entire beautifully-designed attic devoted to his innumerable library of horror videos. Rewind This! has no narration to connect its many threads of discourse, leaving it to the interviewees to weave a comprehensive history of VHS beginning in 1977 when businessman Andre Blay founded one of the first home video distribution companies, Magnetic Video, and broke new ground in the format by convincing 20th Century Fox to license him a large selection of their most popular titles for release on video tape. Blay made a fortune in video rentals and within two years Fox had bought out Magnetic to the tune of $7.2 million. The revolution had begun.

VHS initially had a stiff competitor in Betamax tapes, but the financial and technical advantages VHS had for consumers over its rival ensured it won the war in the end (Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. voluptuous horror hostess extraordinaire Elvira, is interviewed here and was apparently a major Beta supporter and collector). The interviews cover topics like the matter of aspect ratio issues (demonstrated by showing Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in the boxy “pan & scan” format), the popularity of cheaply-produced Z-grade exploitation flicks on video (including many interchangeable ninja movies), how VHS helped adult films become a billion dollar industry thanks to the burgeoning sell-through market that allowed VHS tapes to be bought at sensible prices, the effect video rentals had on movie ticket sales, the surprise success of specialty releases like Electronic Aquarium and Jane Fonda’s mega-popular exercise video series, the effectiveness of marketing gimmicks that helped lesser-known titles become smash hits with video store customers (the talking box for Henenlotter’s horror comedy Frankenhooker for example), and finally how many rental stores still manage to stay open in the face of online video streaming and torrenting.

In addition to showing clips from the aforementioned videos, Johnson also includes brief segments from titles like Henenlotter’s debut feature Basket Case (which became a smash when it debuted as a sell-through cassette), Corey Haim’s narcissistic interview tape Me, Myself, & I, the workout video Bubba Until It Hurts with late gridiron great and actor Bubba Smith, Rolling Vengeance, Leslie Nielsen’s humorous sports spoof Bad Golf Made Easier, Street Trash, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Deadly Prey, and the legendary shot-on-video oddities Death Rider, Sledgehammer, The Dead Next Door, and Chester Novell Turner’s diabolical double bill of Black Devil Doll from Hell and Tales from the Quadead Zone. I’ve seen most of these movies in full (except for the Bubba and Corey Haim tapes) and they’re not all that bad. I even own a DVD copy of Heavy Metal Parking Lot autographed by its directors (met them at a screening here in RVA two years ago). Your neighborhood video store was often the only place you could find these weird and wild little features that were deemed too unworthy – or unwatchable – for the big screen in the days before the Internet. Funny enough, some of those S.O.V. titles were resurrected in recent years through revival screenings sponsored by venues such as the Alamo Drafthouse and Cinefamily.

Rewind This! also introduces us to some real fascinating characters who look to video tapes as a way of life and not just a way to pass time. Take for instance the one and only David “The Rock” Nelson, a rabidly independent filmmaker and former Marine who specializes in making low-budget monster movie shorts filmed on video. Nelson has been called a modern day Ed Wood and he even worked with Plan 9 from Outer Space/Glen or Glenda actor Conrad Brooks in the aptly-named Conrad Brooks vs. the Werewolf. He has also made shorts with titles like The Devil Ant and Dracula vs. Sodom Insane. A fixture at horror conventions, Nelson makes one of the greatest impressions of all the interview subjects in this movie by sheer force of his fearless filmmaking spirit and unique personality. It is impossible to not love the guy for having the guts to adhere strictly to his own cinematic visions and never compromise his artistic integrity, even if you don’t think much of the features he makes.

In 2002, I was given a DVD player as a Christmas present and my massive collection of videos soon gave way to an passion for digital versatile discs. In order to clear space and make a little extra cash for more DVDs, I sold my entire collection of videos on ebay and at local record and thrift shops. An important chapter of my life had come to a close, but as a firm believer in evolution I knew the time had come to embrace fantastic new home entertainment technologies and enhance my education in cinema. That love affair lasted almost a decade before I upgrade to Blu-ray. You should see my collection now. However, most people who chose to sell off their VHS collections in lieu of keeping up with the advancements in digital home viewing video technology will never truly understand how important those black plastic shells and the thick spools of magnetic tape contained within were to budding filmmakers and film archivists. Eisener, his Hobo with a Shotgun producer Rob Cotterill, and Egoyan all talk about how watching movies on video functioned as a free film school and how they learned how to shoot and edit their own features on tape.

In one of the high points of the documentary, archivist Caroline Frick shares some sobering facts about the many movies that have yet to be transferred to digital formats we stand to lose forever if the tapes are allowed to deteriorate. Only then do we begin to understand that the aquisition and preservation of VHS tapes is more than just a frivolous hobby for the truly dedicated collectors, and we have to respect them for their tireless devotion to a cause that many would often turn their noses up at.

Video stores still endure all over the world. There are a few even in my town, like Video Mart Corporation in Chesterfield and Video Fan in down RVA. There used to be a decent little mom & pop store down the street from my home that never did much business outside of the porn section kept hidden away in a walled-off area like a crazy relative. They were recently closed down and an adult novelties and lingerie store called Taboo opened in its place. I’m sure they sell porn too so the transition doesn’t feel all that shocking. A few months prior to their closing the store was selling off their entire VHS stock dirt cheap. After two trips, I came away with enough tapes to restart my old collection. Good thing I still have access to a VCR.

A brief moment in Rewind This! when the questionable necessity of videotape rewinders was discussed brought up my own wistful recollection of the days when I was clerking at Tower Records. When I started working, there the store’s video section had a decent selection of movies on video for rent as well as an extensive XXX library in an isolated corner of the building where only those who did not experience discomfort or embarrassment dared venture during daylight hours. After a few months the regular rental movies were done away with and we briefly carried some DVDs for rent in the early days when that format was coming into its own. Eventually only the porno section remained. If that wasn’t depressing enough, we used to get some of the strangest individuals you’d ever find outside of a mental institution coming into the store looking for the most depraved hardcore flicks the store was permitted to carry. We had a video rewinder on hand always because most of our delightful customers could never be bothered to rewind the tapes themselves before returning them. That always puzzled me; it’s not like the act of pushing the rewind button on a VCR remote required more than one free hand.

That hardly compares to McWeeny’s tale of working in a video store and encountering a particularly troublesome customer who enjoyed renting children’s video tapes, splicing in single frames of porno into them, and then returning them so that the kids could get an early introduction to the birds and the bees before their parents could give them “the talk”. I could not agree with Henenlotter’s assertion that the Criterion Collection produces the most boring video covers ever made (he really needs to go into a Best Buy or Wal-Mart one of these days and check out their new release DVD and Blu-ray section to see what truly dull and uninspired video cover art looks like), but when he holds up the VHS “big box” cover art for Pete Walker’s 1974 horror film House of Whipcord as an example of the superiority of vintage exploitation video art it’s hard not to side with him on at least that one issue.

I honestly cannot recommend Rewind This! enough as both an exhaustive history of the wild and occasionally bizarre world of VHS tapes and a solemn and amusing love letter to the joys they have brought to hundreds of millions of home viewers the world over. It’s one of the finest movies I have seen this year thus far.

1 Comment »

  1. Great review, I’m adding this one to the top of my viewing list!

    Comment by Clint Stone — September 8, 2013 @ 7:18 am

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