Thursday 28 January 2021

Dark Eyes Retrovision #24 - VHS Forever? Psychotronic People (UK 2014: Dir Darren J. Perry, Mark Williams)

It seems almost fitting to review this documentary under the 'Retrovision' strand; it's nearly seven years old now, but its subject matter harks back to a cultural phenomenon that has been increasingly fetishised and worried over in the intervening years: the boom in home video entertainment, the 'Video Nasties' farrago and the arrival of the dreaded Video Recordings Act of 1984.

Jason Impey's 2019 documentary VIPCO: The Untold Story, which covered some of the same ground, was remarkable for two things; the method used to obtain interviews with then VIPCO boss (VIPCO being one of the most successful VHS labels to emerge from the first wave of the video boom in the UK) Michael Lee; and the chance vs causality approach to the build up of his video empire (full review of that doc here). 

The chanciness of the growth in videos comes through in Perry and Williams's documentary, which broadly covers the period from 1978 (when JVC introduced the first video cassette recorder, priced at a whopping £799, to the UK), to the clampdown on videos which led to the 1984 Act of Parliament. The further away from this period that we get, the more difficult it is to remember the times in which it happened (if you were old enough). But the huge and sudden rise of independent video outlets, newsagents and corner grocery shops supplying uncertificated video tapes for rental to the public for consumption at home at the beginning of the 1980s was a cultural sea change not equalled until the world wide web started to gain mass appeal in the mid 1990s.

Now I'm a bit arse about face here. I reviewed this doc's sequel VHS Forever? Once Upon a Time in Camden over a year ago (you can read the review here), which focused on the Psychotronic Video shop in north London, and which looms large in the recollections of the various talking heads offering their testimonies; while it's true that the Forbidden Planet store - and others around the country - had been plying their (legitimate) wares for years before the Psychotronic shop, this was the place that made scores of weird and wonderful releases available over the counter (albeit in often nth grade quality copies).

As well as the fans and the dealers, who delight in the usual 'my-version's-rarer-than-yours' chatter, VHS Forever? Psychotronic People also includes 'names' like Lloyd Kaufman, Norman J Warren, and David McGillivray, all of whom weigh in on the crappy quality of the VHS versions of their movies, or act incredulous at the hypocritical approach of the Tory government of the day to the eventual clampdown. Slightly strangely, Caroline Munro turns up to wax lyrical about how she adores VHS covers, and gets to talk lovingly about the big box releases of Dracula AD 1972 and The Last Horror Film.  The company names that crop up, Intervision, Alpha Video, Medusa, CIC Video, Wizard Video, Astra, Magnetic Video and of course VIPCO, act as a kind of mantra for those in the know; it's a period in history that remains vivid for a small group of people, overlooked or forgotten by most of the rest of the population. "It was a disgrace to the country" says one, of the draconian police tactics, perhaps not realising that the same sentiment was echoed in the (small) section of the community who wanted the clampdown in the first place.

The 'Del Trotter' characters responsible for the video companies often had little interest in the contents of their product; they saw an opening and exploited it. That makes it rather strange that the titles on offer, provided more by accident than design, should have fuelled the interest of so many young horror fans; where would Euro horror have been without those camel coated purveyors of cinematic filth?

Perry and Williams' approach to assembling the film puts enthusiasm above technique, but it's one quite in keeping with the subject matter. What shines through is the passion of grown men (and it is mostly men) for whom this brief period of British cultural history has defined a lifetime of obsession and a residual anger about the curtailment of free speech and viewing liberty.

You can order the DVD of VHS Forever? Psychotronic People from here.

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