This is a blog I have meant to write for a couple weeks now but life tends to get under your wheels sometimes and pushes you the way it wants you to go thus, the lateness of this missive. Now, I am the only one who really CARES that it’s late but still, it irks me.
A few weeks back I was able to hit up the Tape Eaters VHS tape convention in Ann Arbor and it really took me back to my youth. The convention was put on by like-minded folks with a deep love of all things VHS and there were thousands of tapes there to peruse and purchase from the average blockbuster to vintage porn and lots in between. With all of the tapes was other similarly retro merch and the event felt like a flea market for nerds. It was glorious, if a bit robust in smell. There is something about the VHS era that you either ‘get’ or you don’t. This sort of fandom and nostalgia is no different than any other and it has its detractors as well as fans and for me it brings back so many memories. I don’t really cling to VHS any longer unless the items are signed or out of print but I still have a very soft spot for the medium.
I was lucky enough to be a child of the ‘80s, which meant the hey-day of home media releases of feature films and other items. With the popularization of the VHS format and Video Cassette Recorders anyone with a VCR could now watch hundreds and thousands of films and truly take a trip through film history. You could record TV programs, movies, could dub films you rented (a tricky but rewarding proposition where you essentially copied films for your personal use which usually required two VCRs or something similar, me, I used our camcorder to do it), but most importantly you could live and re-live the movies you adored. I remember my folks getting the family a VCR in 1985 and how it opened a world to me. I discovered and fell in love with so many movies. The video store was a place of sheer magic for me. And that’s something we have lost as a culture. Sure, you can stream movies, and rent on demand but it’s not the same as the video store. This was a place where you would watch the release schedule patiently as you awaited the home releases of the movies you desperately wanted to see. You had to be lucky to get that hot new release as other folks wanted it too and there weren’t fifty copies to rent, there were four, maybe, but when you got it it was all the sweeter. It was down those aisles where you discovered films you had read about but never seen, where you caught sight of movies you had never even heard about before. It was there that I discovered Peter Jackson, Italian zombie movies, gore films, classics, indie films, the glory of erotic thrillers, and where I was able to lose myself during a dark period of my life. A rental was a commitment; it was money from YOUR pocket spent on something that you hoped would be good. Something on Netflix isn’t as exciting as the thrill of renting Reservoir Dogs or Clerks for the first time. The discovery isn’t the same. And that was the world of VHS. All the movies I had pined to see were there for me and the discovery of bigger and better stores, of SUPER stores where they had movies and movies and movies. There was a place in Royal Oak, Michigan called Thomas Video and I’d go there to buy laserdiscs and just to LOOK at the stuff they had and it was a movie nerd’s paradise. I wished I lived down there so I could rent all of those movies I dreamed of seeing. Sure, it’s a better time now because we are getting films both known and unknown, cult and forgotten, famous and lost and we’re getting them in amazing formats with more extras than we can imagine (That I just picked up a three disc special edition of Cannibal Holocaust from the person releasing it and had it sign by a star of the film still isn’t computing for me) but there was something magical about those VHS days that I bet record enthusiasts can appreciate. It’s not that VHS was a better format but that it was a saturating format, moreso that even DVD has been, and that with it the floodgates opened and hundreds of thousands of films were released to the public that had never been available before.
While thinking of that era it hit that special effects makeup legend Dick Smith had died and it was that news that kept me in the 1980s. Smith was a legendary artist who inspired what has been the greatest generation of makeup fx artists out there with the likes of KNB, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Stan Winston, and Rick Baker among the many that founds a mentor in Smith. He wasn’t a horror makeup artist so much as one that brought realism to things and in that revolutionized the process and how people looked at the craft. He brought respectability to a craft that had been seen as little more than spookshow trickery. I spent much of my teen years dreaming of being an fx artist but never pursued anything. It was a dream that I didn’t have the drive to make a reality. Without Smith though so many people who crafted the realism, the terror, and the fun of the 1980s horror scene would never have gotten their starts and even more people wouldn’t have found a mentor and teacher who encouraged their passions with his makeup correspondence school. This was a man that elevated the craft to a level it had never been before. Makeup legend Jack Pierce, Lon Chaney, and so many others were artists that showed how you could transform a man into a monster and it was Smith who found a way to make a man truly age into the future without fail.
With the passing of Dick Smith it was a sign that the golden age of special effects makeup where people created literal and figurative magic by hand and took us to places we’d only dreamed of…or feared. I love CGI and think it’s finally becoming a tool and not a crutch but practical special effects, as the old ways were referred to, are still more personal to me because they ground the creatures and characters in this world and give the actors something to act to and with and the audience something solid to face. The days of practical effects are waning, and it’s a shame because it’s truly an art that will be forgotten. Shows like Face/Off are keeping the passion alive but the films are not as supportive of that work as they once were so the future isn’t as bright as it once was for those professionals working in that field.
The 1980s was a wonderful time, a time of dreams and nightmares and they’re gone. All eras pass, and this is nothing new and nothing to deeply mourn. Things are meant to pass. It’s sad, but it’s life. There are things to be passionate about. Things to get excited about. This is a renaissance time for nerds. With collectors and fans being embraced by companies and studios, with the many comic based film adaptations, with the number of conventions and outlets to meet other, and there is more acceptance for nerd culture than there ever has been before so it’s a great time to be into the geekier pursuits. For me, I will always look back though with a little sadness, a little joy, and will recall a time when everything was discovery and where the world we live in now was created. I don’t look back in anger, or sorrow, but with a sad little smile but that that era gives me a smile is what matters.
That’s what really matters and I am thankful for those that helped put that smile there.