If you’re like me—that is to say, getting older by the minute—then you might fondly remember trips to your local video store in the 1980s, when VHS technology represented the cutting edge of home entertainment. For me, though, the ready availability and rewatch potential of Star Wars and Beverly Hills Cop was secondary to the pure pleasure of perusing the video racks, seeking out horror movies with the most lurid and hyperbolic box art. I was a bit of a chicken as a kid—I didn’t dive into the horror genre until my teens, and until then I was convinced that actually sitting down to watch these films would either cause me to drop dead from fright or drive me to incurable insanity (maybe both!). That didn’t stop me from seeking out the harmless thrill of faded VHS boxes featuring an array of homicidal madmen, slime-dripping mutations, and, of course, semi-naked ladies.
So, you can imagine my delight when, just before Christmas, Fantagraphics finally released Jacques Boyreau’s loving tribute to this period, Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box (I think I pre-ordered this book around Christmas 2008!). This compact volume, which arrives in a VHS-style cardboard sleeve (click here for a video demonstration of the book’s format), features the front and back covers of a wild array of forgotten trash cinema, featuring wonderfully sleazy titles like Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity, Death Promise, Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, and The Porn Murders. The front covers offer the sensational titillation of madmen, monsters, implements of destruction, and near-nudity, while the back covers prominently tell you the movie’s running time (the shorter the better—very few of these films last longer than 90 minutes), while either telling you frustratingly little or entirely too much about what can charitably be called the “plot”. The ridiculous taglines for some of these titles provide much of Portable Grindhouse’s laughs; The Lift, possibly the only movie ever made about a killer elevator, pleads with the viewer to “Take The Stairs, Take The Stairs. For God’s Sake Take The Stairs!”, while Night of Bloody Horror reassures us that “It’s Only A Picture!” (a much less effective rip-off of Last House On The Left’s famous “Just Keep Telling Yourself It’s Only A Movie!” tagline). There are some genuinely cool pieces of art to accompany some of these films, like the horrific portrait of the monster embryo that accompanies the 1979 eco-thriller Prophecy, and some equally terrible ones, like the awkward painting for the Boris Karloff mad scientist film The Chamber Of Fear (does that guy with the knife actually have two left arms?).
This book is obviously a labour of love for Boyreau—in his introduction, he offers up a history lesson on the rise of the format, while extolling the superiority of the format over, say DVD or Blu-Ray (his argument, while not entirely convincing, is certainly passionate). However, there are some odd choices on display in this book—I’m not sure how Network, Schwarzkopf: How The War Was Won, Gary Coleman: For Safety’s Sake, or Barbie & The Rockers: Out Of This World fit in amongst films like C.H.U.D. and Ninja Blacklist. Lame, obscure comedies like the Jerry Lewis vehicle Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower The River and Going Ape (featuring Taxi-era Tony Danza and Danny DeVito) also feel slightly out of place, but the inclusion of such mainstream oddities does add to the feel of meticulously going through a very picked-over video rental section. Boyreau’s choices sometimes illuminate how poorly the video companies understood their audience; the car chase classic Vanishing Point features a portrait of stars Barry Newman and Charlotte Rampling walking along a beach. There isn’t a car to be found anywhere on the box! The back cover’s no help either, as it features a list of other titles available from the distributor in lieu of a plot description. The inclusion of selections like this help to create an overall portrait of the shaky first steps of an art form (and, eventually, a multi-million dollar industry) in its infancy. Portable Grindhouse celebrates the sleazy kick of killing time in a slightly crappy video rental store, minus the inevitable arguments about what to rent or the possibility of your VCR eating the tape.