Sunday, April 28, 2013

VHS Horror Movie Collecting and Wizard Video: How Much is Too Much?



Given my interests in horror and sci-fi, I've seen a wide variety of collectors who have built impressive inventories of prized horror and sci-fi artifacts. Collections have been built around pulp magazines, movie posters, model kits, and items specific to a particular franchise. There are even those who prefer to collect copies of horror and sci-fi movies in a non-digital format--namely, the analog medium of VHS. Yet as with every form of collecting, one question remains the same: How much is too much to pay for a particular collectible? In the area of VHS exploitation movies, collectors have asked that very same question when it comes to the recent "special edition" Wizard Video re-releases by Charles Band. Read on for some of my thoughts about this latest exercise in nostalgia marketing.

If you love low-budget exploitation cinema and don't know who Charles Band is, you should. Like Roger Corman and Lloyd Kaufman, Band made a name for himself by churning out tons of low-budget exploitation fare, either by his creating it himself or distributing it through one of his media companies. Wizard Video was Band's initial foray into the VHS market during the early 80s and while it distributed some of Band's own work, it mostly distributed low-budget titles from the U.S. and Europe. Wizard Video built its reputation on being the first to release notorious exploitation classics such Zombie and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as its usage of gruesome and erotic artwork on oversized VHS boxes.

Titles from Wizard Video's library have become prized collector's items in the years since the VHS format faded from the home entertainment scene. Thus, when Band claimed to have mint-condition copies of 36 Wizard Video titles in a warehouse a few months ago, the VHS collector market took notice. Since February, Band has been re-releasing these copies as special editions, with four titles being made available per each month. Each title is priced at $50 (not including shipping and handling), and each box is hand-numbered on the spine, autographed by Charles Band, and includes a duplicated VHS copy of the title inside of a clamshell holder.




Questions have arisen since Band's announcement, particularly as to whether these copies are authentic originals or just cheaply made imitations that Band is trying to pass off as the real thing for a quick profit. (Click here to see videos at the VHS Collector site that examine the Wizard Video re-releases in detail.) Of course, Band denies this accusation, in spite of his own history of questionable business practices. Yet VHS tape origins aside, a key question persists: For what you get from Band--an autographed and numbered big box with a VHS tape inside of it--are these titles really worth the prices that Band is charging?

Since I'm a child of the 80s, I have a certain affinity for the VHS format and the mom-and-pop rental shops that appeared around it. (Click here and here for my previous VHS retrospectives.) Like the late-night horror show hosts and the Crestwood House books that came before them, the lurid big VHS boxes that often collected dust on the shelves of video rental shops played a huge role in introducing young horror fans to all sorts of obscure and funky horror film titles. European exploitation icons such as Jesus "Jess" Franco, Lucio Fulci, Paul Naschy and Jean Rollins found their first American audiences thanks to distribution companies such as Wizard Video.




One of the most memorable aspects of the VHS craze was the artwork on the VHS box covers, particularly Wizard Video covers. Many were simply amazing, with higher production and entertainment value than the movies themselves. These covers featured some of the best pop horror art since the horror comic books from the 50s, 60s and 70s and they were on display in video stores across the country for movie fans of all ages to appreciate. There hasn't been anything quite like this to promote horror movies since most of the video stores folded, so I can understand why some horror fans who lived through the VHS era would want to preserve a piece of that time in their own homes.

On the other hand, I think that the price that Band is charging for his videos is too expensive, especially for tapes that aren't authentic originals. For $50, I would expect a special edition Wizard Video VHS package to include a production booklet about the movie itself, as well as a bio of the artist who painted the cover art that Wizard Video used to entice people to rent the movie in the first place. Since the artwork is what Wizard Video boxes are known for, the artists behind it should get their due. Without these extra features and the lingering doubts about their authenticity, Band's Wizard Video offer is asking for too much for so little. Even if you swear by the VHS format over DVD and Blu-ray, you'll get much more bonus material from a special edition DVD or Blu-ray than any of Band's special edition Wizard Video releases. For example, compare all of the extra features included in Criterion's DVD release of Equinox (read my Equinox post here) to the upcoming special edition Wizard Video release of Equinox, which was renamed as The Beast. If you love low-budget and cult classic horror, the Criterion release is clearly the better and cheaper choice.




Another dubious aspect of the special edition Wizard Video sale is Band's autograph on the boxes. Sure, Band has written, directed and produced many films over the course of his career, but many of the Wizard Video titles aren't his--he just distributed them. Thus, using his autograph to justify charging extra money for films that he did not make just feels sleazy (regardless of how tasteless and god-awful these films actually are). Sure, Band distributed a handful of Franco movies in the U.S. through Wizard Video but if I'm going to get an autographed copy of a Franco film, then I want Franco's autograph and not Band's.

I have very fond memories of the VHS era, and I still regret not renting more of the big box titles when I had the chance and purchasing them used from my local video store when it went bust. Yet what Charles Band is offering strikes me as a shameless attempt to cash in on VHS nostalgia, and I can think of much better ways to appreciate a bygone era of home entertainment than sending money to Band.





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