Poor Wes. The man might head up the single greatest horror news and editorial website the world has yet known, but he has tremendous difficulty in discerning shit from Shinola when it comes to the eternal hunt for VHS glory. You see, several weeks ago Wes very kindly picked up a few tapes with me in mind. After contacting me on Facebook, a package was shipped off to my doorstep and much to my appreciation three screwed-together assemblages of plastic and tape were in my grasp. Upon tearing open the gift, I struggled with mixed emotions at the exposed bounty that lay before me. Beat-up cardboard slipboxes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, Delicatessen, and The Thing from Another World. The uncaring, nihilistic, and brash collector in me would immediately laugh at these titles and cast them off as unworthy of a second glance. Of course, it’s the thought that counts, I wasn’t expecting anything truly great anyway, and I thank Wes again for his efforts.
Although to be honest, I felt more sorry than anything for our resident Master Exploder. Such a worldly thespian of exploitation should possess more skill in scoping out potentially great finds on the outmoded, clunky home video format in question. So I’ve collected five quick n’ dirty tips for digging out the cream of the magnetic crop when out in the field at yard sales, swap meets, thrift shops, or wherever you run across these delightful cartridges of sadism. These are designed to assist beginners, but I still apply them to this very day in my travels.
Sniff around for Clams and Boxes (stop snickering)
This isn’t a steadfast rule, but for the most part more interesting titles were housed in plastic clamshell cases and big cardboard boxes (also called porno boxes). “Big boxes” usually stick out like sore thumbs, but clamshells have an odd way of bending in at first glance. If you’ve ever been in the general proximity of a child you’re already aware of the clamshell. Disney seemed to have singlehandedly kept this case alive as their tapes arrived in large white “puffy” plastic cases that enclose a VHS like book. Go to any Goodwill location to locate stacks if in a pinch. The Prism release of Shock Waves (1973) to your right is in a “puffy” black clam while Imperial Entertainment’s Stagefright (1987) is in a “hard” clam. Thorn EMI’s Black Sabbath (1963) is in a small white hard clam as typical from that distributor. King of Video’s The Thirsty Dead (1974) is in an enclosed clam with the paper cover sealed within the case.
What’s the point? Well, doing a quick scan with my eyes for cases like these is the first thing I do when encountering a bunch of tapes. If there’s a one bit of advice to take from this article; remember to do this very thing, calm down, and look carefully. Most of the time, unless you hit a honeyhole, you’ll find most tapes are in the traditional “cassette-fitting” cardboard slipbox that became the overwhelming norm as VHS became affordable for consumers to actually own. That’s not to say nothing good was released in slipboxes, but they’re much more common, and a seller might have a few clams or big boxes squirreled away within their piles. Basically, gravitate towards cases/boxes that are outside the normal cardboard slipcover first. Many times they’ll end up being everyday Disney titles, but you never really know until you’ve check ’em out. It tends to come down to that one great tape out of the whole lot.
Bone Up on History
This comes with time, but knowing the general histories and norms of old school distributors can help in snagging primo selections. Little things like knowing that MEDIA Home Entertainment started out as “MEDA” with a unique uniform cover art layout. Or that 20th Century Fox were the first distributor releasing titles under the Magnetic Video moniker. The importance of horror/cult-centric studios like Paragon Video or Wizard Video as pioneering forces in home video. The ridiculous rarity of selections from AIR Video, Video City Productions, or Sun Video. Learning what kind of cases certain distributors usually utilized and their usual logos. Getting a feel for what particular genres different companies usually traded in.
All of this helps in quicker retrieval when looking through many titles sprawled out on sheets at swap meets. Instead of taking twenty minutes to look through a small box or being that one 70-year-old guy who has to look at every cover to tell what it is. I tend to see logos before titles and know to swoop in when spotting a symbol from old distributor in a slew of more recent, common tapes. This also assists in spotting off titles you’ve never heard of. Of course, it’s obvious that the more you know about what’s out there and more titles you’ve never heard of stick out. There’s nothing like finding some weird unknown horror flick and then proceeding to dig around the ‘net trying to figure out what the hell it is. Yet also don’t disregard the classics or Betamax and be sure your eyes pass by every title…
Condition? Not So Much…
Some collectors are extremely anal about box/tape condition. I’m personally not one of them. Like any collector will tell you: the time to buy something odd or unique is when you see it. Let’s cut the shit for a minute and admit most tapes found “in the wild” range from a quarter to two bucks a piece. Most people have no idea they’re desired let alone actually valuable in some instances. So plopping down McDonald’s Value Menu cash on a tape with heavy box edge wear or a cover that’s been cut up shouldn’t break anyone financially. One really can’t do much about such situations anyway.
I’m not advocating the purchase of damaged common tapes, but one should have no qualms about picking up a well-worn copy of an obscure number. You never know when you’ll grab some mindblowingly unique despite condition and if you pass it by–it’ll probably end up lost forever in a landfill and finding another copy might take years. Hell, sometimes the bends, slices, and gashes give the tape more character…
Use eBay for the Exotic
You’ll find a constant stream of Horror VHS on eBay; yet it’s best to hold off most of the time–at least on the domestics. Aside from that surprise killer deal, with patience you’ll find, often in-person, most of the stateside tapes seen on eBay for much less than what online sellers are trying to push. I know that the waiting is the hardest part, but that only makes those eventual finds in musty boxes at some hole-in-the-wall swap meet or thrift shop that much sweeter.
eBay is best used as a supplement to your collection. Unless an extremely rare circumstance arises, one simply won’t find too many tapes from other countries trolling yard sales. This is where online auction sites come in handy. Dig and keep digging and you’ll eventually find yourself harvesting a growing selection of awesome tapes from across the globe plopped in your mailbox. Thanks to the power of the Internet.
…and finally, Have Fun!
One of the biggest thrills of collecting horror, exploitation, and cult tapes is the sheer amount out there. These types of films drove the video rental boom and witnessed the horror genre in particular at its peak of popularity. The home video landscape is much different nowadays, as distribution power has greatly condensed with most releases coming from major Hollywood studios. Back in the ’80s, countless companies sprang up along with the majors and either became huge distributors of major titles or simply vanished leaving their output scare.
There’s always new surprises, even for hardened tapehead veterans. One can also either re-visit the nostalgia of the long bygone mom n’ pop video store or get a taste of the days before Blockbuster and Netflix for the first time. In enjoying this hobby, you preserve and celebrate a very important era in the history of the films we all love. Hopefully these little tips will help you through the tangle of tape in pursuit of those more choice finds on that long dead format of yore…