An appreciation for homemade VHS mix tapes from yesteryear...
by: Courtney Sell
There is a pretty incredible poetry that resides deep within the flickering tracking issues of dusty, sun faded thrift store VHS tapes. The element of surprise in finding out what strange TV show or dare I say, Charles Bronson TNT afternoon movie will appear after the initial program reaches its end is nearly orgasmic to us rabid VHS junkies. Spending hours if not days on end searching thrift store after thrift store in search of that beautifully rare, strange looking, possibly water damaged and self labeled VHS is a way of life for some - at least it is for me. When that handwritten label which in most cases is halfway torn off or has lost its stick reads something such as “Wilson Family Summer Vacation 92’” or even better, words in a different language, I know I have found a diamond in the rough. I have very little interest in obtaining a 99 cent VHS copy of “Fletch”, “Moonstruck” or anything of that sort, instead, my eyes gravitate to the bottom of the barrel; the tapes sometimes without a cover, the tapes with stains on the label, the tapes that look as if they have been salvaged from a flood - these are where my interest lays. Once I rush back home and jam that beauty into my VCR, I know I am in for one hell of a kaleidoscopic ride into the darkest realms of homemade cinema obscurity. The art of found footage has taken on a whole new formula.
My obsession with tape over VHS cassettes began when I was around five or six. My Mother used to tape programs off of the TV, mainly Disney Channel shows and those strange, seemingly way-too-intense to actually be a Children's’ movie type of programs of the Eisner generation, such as “Mr. Boogedy”, “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” and dare I say, “The Peanut Butter Solution.” As I got older and my nostalgia began to develop, I recall playing some of these tapes in the late afternoon hours just to watch the old commercials that would be captured within the grain of severe tracking issues. Products I forgot about, TV show ads I always seemed to be annoyed by (“Empty Nest” & “Step by Step” to name a few) and even the tail ends of movies which were previously on the tape, but for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut on the home video shelf. Reused VHS tapes are my obsession and though it is a very niche market, I promise you that in every thrift store across the globe, those handwritten labeled VHS tapes which most discard due to the absence of box art, are in fact gold.
When I was a freshman in High School, I made my first eBay purchase. The VHS was Suspiria and I paid a heavy price to finally see the film that I had read about in every horror movie book but for obvious reasons, could never find at the local ma and pa video stores of small town New England. When the day arrived and the package appeared on my doorstep, I was captivated by the fact that the seller simply send an unmarked VHS without any labeling or box art. The mystery of the tape was a bit nerve-racking as I approached my beloved sticker covered VCR. Did they actually send me Suspiria? Or was it some homemade porn? It was ominous to say the least. Yet, much to my relief, Suspiria began and played through. Just as I was reaching to turn the tape off during the ending credits, something incredible happened. Something so mind bending, so insane, something that I never thought in a million years could happen, did. Through the flickering ghosts that are tracking issues of the VHS astral realm, I began to notice human shapes forming and soon, it became very clear as the snow finally settled that I was now also the proud owner of “Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!”! Another film I had read all about but hadn’t had the chance to see! Strange thing is, and I think about this nearly every day because I’m basically insane, who the fuck was the idiot who used a copy of “Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill!” as their initial tape over tape?! And what may have come before?! I let the film roll through and unfortunately, it ended without any other surprises. However, this experience led my obsession to search far and wide for any unmarked or sketchy marked label VHS in friends basements, thrift stores, attics, dumpsters - you name it. Where there is a blank tape used for capturing images off of the television, there will most likely be hours of unintentional experimental filmmaking for the lovers of the niche fad such as myself to enjoy.
My friend Carl once discovered at a nearby thrift store, what we agreed is most likely the lost masterpiece of “Taped over cinema”. We now affectionately refer to the miraculous piece of
VHS mistake-art as “Six Things Happen” - obviously taking our cue from those early blunt Warhol film titles. The tape rolls for the entire length a VHS can run. Seeing as it is not a “film” per se, I have trouble defining something that was unintentionally made but plays like a wonderful experimental movie, so we are kind of wading in murky waters here. Six sequences. The soccer mom camera on a tripod, date and time on the bottom right corner. The perspective of the voyeur is always far in the distance from any human, as if being used as a surveillance camera. At one point a woman gardens in the distance for what seems to be an hour. In another sequence, a man may or may not be receiving a hand job by a stranger though the perspective is obscured by furniture, distance and tracking issues (thank god). I can vaguely recall that the entire aesthetic somehow in some weird weird way reminded me of moments from “Begotten”. The “Things” that do happen on screen are minor, but seeing as the found footage on the tape plays slower than a Bela Tarr film, every minor happening is enthralling in the strangest manner. This is the beauty of the tape over. There is an aura of mystery surrounding the reasonings and decisions to blend, shall we say “The Care Bears Movie” with “ A Nightmare on Elm Street part 3” but with that mystery comes pure outsider poetry; At least to us insane movie folk.
A few weeks back, while sorting through my childhood belongings after being away from home for many months, I stumbled across a few personal tape overs that caught my attention. One began with the extremely rare Christmas Story sequel “Ollie Hop Noodles Haven on Bliss” and ended with the beginning of an episode of “Under the Umbrella Tree”. My Mother’s unique cursive handwriting failed to mention “Under the Umbrella Tree” on the label as well as everything else on the tape. What happened in between these two bookends of rare and forgotten programs was nothing short of exciting, harrowing and nostalgic as fuck. I called some friends over, bought a bunch of booze and we spent the entire night sifting through and watching these little gems with eyes as if we had just discovered an entirely new form of cinema. Though I am aware Harmony Korine did something very similar to what i’m describing here with his film “Trash Humpers”, perhaps he was equally inspired by what I am describing. There is simply one difference however. “Trash Humpers” was fake whereas “Six Things Happen” for all we know is one hundred percent real. On a side note - I’d love to remake “Six Things Happen” in 3D. Maybe.
I scrap the rest of my projects just to do this, because again, I must be insane. Yet, this is how inspired I get by discovered tape overs. These are the things in life that make me so happy and the reason why I sincerely believe VHS is the most exciting format in the history of cinema. So next time you’re thinking of junking that stack of unlabeled or damaged VHS tapes in your Parents' basement, just know that hidden deep within, there very well could be an undiscovered outsider found footage masterpiece like “Six Things Happen”. And the world will thank you for preserving it.
If you share this similar odd obsession with me, you can follow my “All Taped Over” journey on Instagram where I will profile my findings along with providing the track listings of the programs featured amongst the grain of the tracking issues! @all_taped_over_
Words by LTR's friend and collaborator, Courtney Sell