In 2004, Sony announced that they would stop manufacturing VHS players. This came a year after JVC, Matsushita and Woo-Young Kim all announced they were ceasing production. So while the death of VHS video was certainly painful, it was no surprise. Soon after the demise of VCRs came the rise of DVDs and Blu-rays, but then those home cinema formats eventually fell by the wayside too. In 2014, for instance, sales for both physical discs and online streaming services overtook box office sales for the first time ever in the US. In other words, it appears that we are moving more rapidly towards a world where movies will be viewed and distributed entirely digitally, rather than on physical media (which studios seem to be phasing out).
Cinephiles and retro collectors alike have a fascination with analogue forms of media. With some specific formats, analogue still holds a distinct advantage over digital mediums — just ask any audiophile if they would rather listen to an LP vinyl record or a 128 Kbps MP3 file. The same happens to some photographers, who still prefer analogue photography’s “organic” look and feel.
Home video, on the other hand, has been steadily improving over the years. There’s hardly anyone who would say that a 4K TV looks worse than a TV from the 80s. As great as CRT TVs are for retro gaming, their definition is somewhat lacking when it comes to watching movies.
While streaming and non-physical media seem to be the way to go in today’s media consumption market, there’s a considerable number of users who are still nostalgic for the simplicity of owning a tape and playing it on a VCR. However, for some reason or another, the incredibly popular VHS format quickly faded into obscurity as soon as the DVD took root in the home video market.
That said, there’s essentially no one claiming that VHS tapes are superior to Blu-Ray discs in the same way that we hear about the advantages of vinyl over digital. The reason for this is that, inarguably, the VHS format wasn’t all that great in terms of video fidelity.
VHS tapes were infamous for the obscene amount of colour fringing and their overall noisy quality, even compared to some less popular media formats, like the short-lived LaserDisc. The lack of S-Video output in virtually every consumer-level VHS player also meant that some of the more tech-savvy users could not get an optimal image out of their beloved video cassettes.
All that said, VHS cassettes dominated the market for the best part of the 80s and 90s, and even managed to survive for some part of the early 2000s. It’s surreal to think that Jarhead, a movie released in 2005, had a VHS release, which is a format that launched all the way back in 1976.
So far, we have a media format that was cheap to produce and had some unimpressive video quality. Why was it so popular then? The reason, other than nostalgia, is that the imperfect charm of VHS is simply intoxicating to some film buffs. As we said before, analogue media can be fascinating.
VHS cassettes contain classic movies in their original states. Star Wars fans might know the woes of having to navigate each new release, looking for the one with the least digital “improvements.” VHS films are always in their original state, without the blemishes of new editions and changes to their source material ever made.
Also worth mentioning — and this ties with what we mentioned about audiophiles before — while the video quality of VHS cassettes might be somewhat lacking, the same can’t be said of their sound. The magnetic tape recording process allows VHS tapes to have much higher audio quality than their DVD counterparts. Additionally, if we’re talking about early DVDs and VCDs, VHS tapes have zero compression artefacts.
So yes, much of the push for a VHS renaissance comes from nostalgia for a frankly outdated medium — but the allure of the VHS on modern cinema is undeniable. The imperfect charm of having your tapes in SD quality, coupled with the satisfaction that comes from owning an analogue physical collection still puts the dated VHS standard into a special place in the hearts of millions of movie fans all over the world.