In the pre-consumer-internet world of my adolescence, the VHS was king, and its kingdom was second-hand bargain bins, tape-trading and a certain degree of copyright infringement. Born at the height of the VHS/ Betamax format war, by the time I was a teenager, the sheer proliferation of cassettes in the market offered an extensive, dirt-cheap window into the best—and best worst—films available. From Troma to Tarkovsky and Gamera to Goddard, I more or less owe my knowledge of cinema to the humble VHS format.
Holding Portable Grindhouse: the Lost Art of the VHS Box in my hands, I get the same sense of excitement as in those barely-lit video stores of the late-1990s. Presented in a slipcase resembling a blood-splattered cassette, the book is a collection of sublime and/or ridiculous cover art (and poorly-conceived marketing copy) from the seedy underbelly of home entertainment. From the opening surgically-severed head of Crimson: the Color of Terror to the closing candelabra-pierced throat of The Legend of Hell House, you know that you’re in safe but gore-covered hands with editor Jacques Boyreau.
It speaks volumes that iconic one-too-many horror sequels like Friday the 13th: the Final Friday and Halloween III sit almost innocuously amidst this barrage of schlock and awe. All manner of genres are present with classic exploitation überfrau Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS vying for attention against Gary Coleman’s home-safety guide For Safety’s Sake (see above)— to pick just two amazing examples. Choice cuts include: Dutch horror The Lift (“Take the stairs, take the stairs. For God’s sake, take the Stairs!!!”), Slashdance (no explanation necessary), and late-80s knowingly-marketed Spanish-to-English dub of Beaks: The Movie (“A world where the birds have gone berserk! Even a canary can’t be trusted!”). It’s really taking all my focus not to stop writing and just head to eBay immediately.
By no means producing a definitive collection of any kind, Boyreau seems to understand exactly what makes these artefacts special and has taken great care to preserve them here. Much like VHSs themselves, it’s a strictly no-frills affair, containing no commentary or footnotes outside of Boyreau’s impassioned introduction. It would have been great to have more information about the artists and copywriters involved, but there’s already a very good chance that that information is as lost in time as the spirit of these movies themselves.
With the VHS long superseded by an ever more vast and accessible selection of digital media, it’s easy to forget just how important the format was. As Boyreau states, for many people, the VHS (and its art) represented the movie made material. For the majority of consumers, the home video marked the first time they were given power over watching movies, and, for better or for worse, Portable Grindhouse exists as a tribute to the idea that films are able to be literally possessed: a last hoorah of physical media.
Portable Grindhouse is an essential time-capsule of an era before “safe” promotional design became so ubiquitous that dullness is now practically seen as mandatory. Exciting, strange, and sometimes a little bit mind-blowing, these cassettes are every bit as relevant as ever and Boyreau and Fantagraphics deserve a pat on the back for putting them back into the spotlight (without exposing them to direct sunlight, of course).
Author’s Note: Although Portable Grindhouse is currently out of print, the kind people at Fantagraphics inform me that copies are still available via Amazon. For more awesome movie history from Fantagraphics, I recommend the very-much-in-print Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film.
Martin Steenton is a comic book editor and blogger from the United Kingdom. Raised on a steady diet of kaiju movies, professional wrestling, and giant robot cartoons, he still counts the VHS copies of Russ Meyer films he covertly taped from cable as a kid amongst his prized possessions. He currently writes regularly for Avoid the Future, and accepts donations of wrestling masks, exotic root beer, and cold hard cash.