Coming Soon to Videocassette: The Curious, Nostalgic Pleasures of VHS Intros

A good portion of the online experience is all about forging ahead to the next frontier of discovery, brought about through social media, where everyone is competing for the latest hashtag, meme, or viral trend to prove to their friends, followers, or bots that they’re “hip with the times.” Another side, however, plays helpless romantic to a past that never seems to go away. It’s no secret that the Internet has served as a central hub for every possible signpost of nostalgia imaginable, pointing every conceivable user to an experiential corner that perhaps only they themselves will appreciate. Whether it’s searching for that Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles lunchbox you envied your friend for having or completing that Dragon Ball Z two parter that’s cliffhanger always left you bewildered on how it would ever resolve itself, chances are there’s a way to find whatever your heart desires as long as you have the will to search for it.

Cinephilia in particular has taken a liking to fetishizing home video as the end-all-be-all way to experience a movie, outside of the theatrical experience of course. Digital streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and even YouTube have replaced physical media as the primary way people watch movies and television. In response, movie nerds have proselytized far and wide the pleasures that only cassettes or discs can bring. It’s logical to debate the merits of Blu-Ray or 4K discs in relation to streaming video, as the former formats offer sharp picture and sound quality that don’t rely on an Internet connection that threaten to crumble at any given moment. What’s more curious, however, is the adoration and enthusiasm that the analog medium of VHS has received, considering that the outdated format looks at its best comparable to 144 pixel YouTube video, the lowest possible setting. This fascination goes well beyond traditional arguments of consistency in picture and sound and to the more delicate, subjective experience of how these forgotten tapes make the viewer feel. The nostalgia in question stems from the very imperfectness of presentation that videotapes once proclaimed was an adequate alternative to the inevitably peerless theatrical experience. More than a few bizarre online projects have popped up that question the sanity of such endeavors, from Reddit threads of eager posters celebrating their hauls from local flea markets to a group called Everything is Terrible’s quest to build a pyramid in the desert out of old copies of Jerry Maguire.

If any of this sounds like a condescending critique of these video-obsessives, trust me when I say it’s not (well, mostly not). I myself am fascinated with the analog, forgotten format as an entry point into my own childhood nostalgia, even though over half of my movie watching life has been spent collecting DVDs and Blu-Rays, a format that I will be inevitably more tied to. However, my particular VHS joys come from a fairly accessible mode that only requires a connection to YouTube. Fans of the format have taken to recording VHS intros through direct capture devices or from the simpler, amateurish, but also more charming method of recording their own TVs playing the tape in question. These strange collections of trailers, soundtrack ads, and other promotions have provided me for an amusing and enlightening trip down memory lane that memorializes the forgotten, well worn tapestry that makes up these tapes as much as it reminds me of the bygone eras that my favorite movies were birthed from.

One of the most interesting observations I made when I willingly fell down this rabbit hole was the luxury that some of the biggest films of the era felt in skipping or minimizing the usual vomit of coming attractions that other releases felt the need to project towards its audience. 1989’s Batman, a blockbuster smash that shortened the theatrical-to-video window to a mere (gasp) four months, didn’t feel the need to hogtie it’s VHS release with any previews of Warner Brothers’s 1990 slate, which included gems like Goodfellas and Joe Versus the Volcano. Instead, the tape opted for a clumsy Diet Coke ad that features Alfred slurping down the diet drink[1] and a brief animated bit with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck encouraging the audience to look into Warner Brother’s greater catalog that offers every conceivable piece of merchandise from the studio. Short of plugging Prince’s accompanying album, this whole approach feels particularly on brand for a movie that was experienced primarily as a product and secondarily as its own cinematic experience.

Another strategy taken by a blockbuster juggernaut was 1997’s Titanic, which skips any advertising or trailers altogether in favor of a THX intro, which in its own way promotes the presentation itself as the most important thing when watching a film as technically impressive as James Cameron’s lavish historical epic. However, it’s possible that the film’s status as a co-production between Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox prevents a level of product placement that would’ve been afforded to a sole distributing power. Nevertheless, the film didn’t make its home video debut until a full nine months later, which speaks to the theatrical lasting power that the cultural phenomenon had.

By 2002, DVD had replaced VHS as the primary home video format, making the audience’s eyes even sharper and cognizant of quality. However, lots of films still got VHS releases that appealed to the hangers-on that either refused or were unable to upgrade. The first entry into the ultra successful Harry Potter franchise, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, takes an interesting approach of marketing a co-promotion between Coca Cola and Reading is Fundamental that puts books in the hands of needy children. It’s encouraging to see a major studio and corporation (Warner Brothers and Coke respectively) taking the opportunity to promote literacy hot off the success of a literary and movie juggernaut. But they were also savvy enough to put alongside it an ad for the film’s original soundtrack, written by the incomparable John Williams. Reading and music: how magical.

But of course not all VHS releases were for recent films. The Star Wars series in particular has had a long history on home video nearly as dense as the narrative’s own mythology. 1995, a full twelve years after the series’s most recent entry (Return of the Jedi), saw the release of a “new” box-set that promoted the films’ recent THX mastering that will also be “your last chance to own the original version of Star Wars…” Just two years later, George Lucas would release the “Special Editions” that included new special effects and other editorial changes, much to the chagrin of fans everywhere. But this 1995 release does feature exclusive interviews with Lucas by film critic Leonard Maltin, who is always a delight. These short but sweet conversations offer an interesting glimpse into the mind of a man parsing his legacy just on the cusp of tempting the faithful into abandoning it with the subsequent special editions and prequel trilogy. But George will always have a special place in my heart so I find these interviews to better resemble hidden treasures than trigger warnings.

But it must be noted that all of the aforementioned examples were exceptions to the rule, which dictated an all out assault on the senses that served up more trailers, advertisements, and brand recognition that one knew what to do with. In my memory, none stand out more in this regard than the 1996 release of the previous year’s Toy Story, which was Pixar’s first feature length film that simultaneously was the very first feature-length computer-animated film in general. This milestone picture launched Pixar as a household name that coincided with and eventually succeeded Disney (who would later purchase Pixar) as the premier animation studio in the world. Toy Story debuted in the midst of the Disney Renaissance, which catapulted the studio to new heights in the 90s after their long journey in the creative wilderness in the late 70s through the 80s. Toy Story‘s status as a co-production between Pixar and Disney allows for the latter company to push onto all the children and families watching at home a blitz of advertising and marketing that illustrates even today what a time of incredible transition the mid 90s was for the company. We get footage of future Disney releases (The Hunchback of Notre DameHercules, and the live action remake of 101 Dalmatians), see a full ad celebrating and promoting Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary, watch a sneak peek of ABC’s (which the ad even brags is a recent acquisition of the company) Saturday Morning line-up[2], and see a trailer for a home-video re-release of the company’s classic Bambi. And let’s not forget the accompanying trailer for Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, the 1997 direct-to-video conclusion of the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids trilogy.[3] As for Toy Story itself, we’re treated to an ad for the “Toy Story Animated Storybook,” a CD-ROM that is filled with games, challenges, and activities that is “an amazing three-dimensional adventure.” The sum total of all of these adverts is an almost breathtaking degree of product integration that would leave the team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce grinning from ear to ear. Two decades later, Disney is operating at a similar pedigree of surgical precision that is at once impressive and chilling.

A similar, albeit maturer, version of this method can be found in 1999’s The Mummy, a Universal production. Similar to Disney, Universal revels in advertising its theme parks (Universal Studios) and by extension their own popular films represented in their parks (Jurassic Park). Additionally, the intro celebrates their own horror history with the VHS release of their classic monster stable (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etc.), the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, etc.), and more contemporary horror and thrillers (Cape Fear, The People Under the Stairs, etc.), where they explicitly drop the name of Wes Craven as an explicit incentive. Throw that it with the forgettable trailer for the even more forgettable Dragonheart: A New Beginning and the obligatory plug of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Mummy and you have yet another example of a studio drawing attention to its own catalog by offering up a set of experiences that only they can truly provide.

This period of 90s brand integration perhaps reached its nadir in 1997 with Batman and Robin, the atrocious end to the lucrative run of films started by the previously mentioned Batman in 1989. It seems only fitting that such a horrible movie would get a stupendous display of commercialism so here we go. First up is the blink and you’ll forget it trailer for the animated fantasy Quest for Camelot, a Y.A. addendum to Arthurian legend. When you put this up next to the work that Disney was doing at the time (as showcased in the Toy Story intro), it’s easy to feel discouraged about the state of a studio that had once brought us the brilliant Looney Tunes shorts. Up next is the tantalizing, exciting teaser for Lost in Space, an adaptation of the 1960s TV show of the same name. Even today I still wish we got a movie that reflected the slick fun that particular trailer promised instead of the pedestrian one that ended up in theaters. This is followed by maybe the most hilarious overestimation I’ve ever seen of DVD, which is depicted as a cutting edge, white knuckle thrill ride that nearly sends the family in it to another dimension. And it’s even funnier years later when I recognize the film they happen to be watching is the mediocre Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser. Much less exciting is a trailer for Free Willy 3: The Rescue. However, that is followed by a preview for Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero, which turns out to be a much better Batman/Mr. Freeze story than the one you’re about to watch. The tape proceeds with a trailer for Wild America, a road movie starring 90s heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas that follows three brothers documenting their trek through the American West. I’ve never seen it but I have it on good authority from my best friend (enthusiastically, I might add) that it’s worth a watch. Up next is Michael, the John Travolta-plays-a-troubled-angel-vehicle we’ve all been clamoring for since his debut on Welcome Back, Kotter in 1976. Outside of this film being the subject of one of my all-time favorite articles from The Onion, the premise and Nora Ephron’s writing and directing credits alone make it seem like a pleasant enough watch. But what follows with the next two ads is the real tell for what this VHS release is all about. First, we see a toy ad for the action figures of Batman and Robin, just in case you mistook the film itself as a feature length toy ad.[4] Finally, the soundtrack is unveiled, which replaces Batman Forever’s terrific efforts from Seal (“Kissed from a Rose”) and U2 (“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”) with a collection as diverse as it is inconsistent: R. Kelly, Goo Goo Dolls, The Smashing Pumpkins, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, R.E.M., Jewel, and many more. It’s highly curious we didn’t get a Coolio song since he was in fact IN the movie but such is life.[5] As poisonous as the Toy Story intro was, at least it was given to us in the form of a shiny, irresistible apple. Batman and Robin couldn’t even provide that courtesy, instead shoving in our mouths a Taco Bell chalupa soaked in bat guano.

Finally, we’ll end our trip down the Blockbuster aisle of our memories with Pulp Fiction, the 1994 arthouse smash that solidified Quentin Tarantino as the hottest name in independent film. Though the movie was a considerable theatrical hit, even more viewers (especially those more casual or conservative in nature) encountered this and Tarantino’s earlier cinematic debut (Reservoir Dogs) on home video. The first trailer featured is Four Rooms, an anthology comedy centered around the zany adventures of a hapless bellhop (Tim Roth). This preview and the advertising of the film in general emphasized Tarantino’s presence, with the young auteur directing the final installment entitled, to no one’s surprise, “The Man from Hollywood.” In addition, the preview for Crimson Tide, a trailer so intense the name drop of Tony Scott as the director improbably alleviates the stress, somehow was able to cut in every moment Gene Hackman wasn’t cursing at the top of his lungs. Funny enough, Tarantino worked on that film as an uncredited punch-up writer. Next up is the trailer for Exotica, a Bruce Greenwood starring erotic thriller that I’ve never heard of but am intrigued to watch now based on its pure randomness alone. Later on we have the preview for the laughable feature we know as the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd, which amusingly features the same background music featured in the Lost in Space trailer. Of course we’re treated to an obligatory ad for Pulp Fiction’s gigantic, influential soundtrack. But one of the most remarkable little discoveries on the whole tape is in the trailer for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Apart from the sixth entry of a franchise being titles similar to “The Return of…” or “The Beginning of…” being one of my favorite dumb elements of a series running on fumes, the original title of the film in question is revealed in the trailer as “Halloween 666: The Origin of Michael Myers.” It’s small artifacts like this that make watching these old time capsules of a bygone era making due with what they have such a fulfilling experience in of themselves. That and spotting a young, baby-faced Paul Rudd as being an inevitable victim of a resurrected Michael Myers. Yeah, that too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lengthy detour into the analog pleasures of VHS intros. Here’s a few more favorites of mine that didn’t quite make the cut but nonetheless are worthy examples of this weird phenomenon.

Men in Black (1997)

Nothing particularly noteworthy about this one, just a pretty great movie with some other pretty great movies featured.

Casper (1995)

Just remember: the next time you have trouble getting a Pepsi out of the fridge, Casper has it way harder than you.

Godzilla (1998)

Somehow, I had forgotten about the ill-fated collaboration between Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page until my dear brother reminded me. Here’s a link to the full thing, by the way.

Addams Family Reunion (1998)

Don’t call yourself a music fan until you’ve seen Strate Vocalz live.

[1] Perhaps the dapper English butler is diabetic and watching his sugar levels?

[2] Remember that bizarro Mighty Ducks show that literally featured intergalactic, crime fighting, hockey playing ducks?

[3] Some, including me, would deem it a thrillogy.

[4] Batteries and ice blocks NOT included.

[5] Maybe he was putting the finishing touches on the Kenan and Kel theme song?


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