VHS is having a moment. Despite the fact that its been dead technology for almost a decade now and the majority of the world doesn’t even have room in their lives anymore for DVDs—let alone chunky videotapes—the legend of VHS continues to live on.
I, for one, am happy about it – not because it’s a superior product, but because the VHS era was one of the most important periods in film production and distribution history. Not only could people finally get all of their favourite Hollywood theatrical hits into their living room, but new production companies sprang up all over the place to make movies directly for video store shelves in order to satisfy the rabid demand for home entertainment.
Growing up in the ‘90s, I looked forward to the weekends when I could go to my local video store and browse through all the movies I’d never heard of, often picking out something based solely on box cover art presentation alone. Unfortunately, as VHS died, so did many of the home video productions made for it, failing to make the jump to subsequent video formats and being slowly forgotten as online streaming and Netflix rose in prominence.
Luckily, the Laserblast Film Society is now here to shine a light on this dynamic time in cinema history. Every third Wednesday of the month, the Royal Cinema presents Laserblast Video Night, screening a straight-to-video film on the big screen off an original VHS tape.
Laserblast founders and hosts Justin Decloux and Peter Kuplowsky chatted with TFS to talk about unearthing and screening these films the way they were never meant to be seen.
“We thought it would be neat if we only showed movies that were made for the VHS market,” explains Kuplowsky, who is also a veteran programmer for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and programming associate of Midnight Madness at TIFF. “They were either shot on VHS or they went direct to VHS and it was never intended for theatrical play. That way, we would be looking at a specific range of films and filmmakers that were kind of interesting because there wasn’t a lot of writing about them. And then we wanted to go one step further and actually show these movies on VHS. We dub new VHS tapes for the screening to ensure that there won’t be egregious tracking issues and we add a trailer mix to the front of it too. The other thing that was really important to us was we were going to show a lot of movies that would definitely be on the borderline of ‘Is this a good movie?’”
Since the series launched in March, Laserblast has offered up some juicy titles for lovers of Z-grade cinema. First up was the loopy ‘80s slasher flick Truth or Dare? A Critical Madness, which was directed by a teenager named Tim Ritter. They followed that with the mid-’90s sci-fi/actioner Hologram Man, which is sort of a variation on Demolition Man but with 10 times the amount of explosions and gunfire. Next up was 1995’s Superfights, a nonstop barrage of fun martial arts mayhem.
“I think the most important part is that the filmmaker goes out with intention and he wants to make something good,” Decloux says about their film choices.
At the last Laserblast Video Night, audiences were treated to the supremely odd Runaway Nightmare, which will be receiving a DVD release from awesome up-and-coming label Vinegar Syndrome.
“They supported the screening and they actually restored the movie from it’s original negative for a brand new struck-from-the-negative VHS,” says Kuplowsky. “The movie is by a first time filmmaker; he’s only made one movie. He also stars and is a dead ringer for Nicolas Cage, but he has the voice of James Stewart, which is really bizarre. And it’s one of those movies where you really struggle to figure out what the intentions were because it’s kind of a comedy but the comedy is really weird and the jokes sometimes come from unusual places and it also has a supernatural bent that again you’re trying to wrap your head around.”
In July, Laserblast will screen Mechanical Violator Hakaider from Keita Amemiya.
“[Amemiya] did all these crazy video game based things. And Mechanical Violator is a villain from I think Kamen Rider but they’ve made it all like dark and awesome and it’s post-apocalyptic,” Decloux says.
Laserblast Video Nights is the environment that the hosts create, making it more than just a movie screening. “I’m a big fan of late night variety shows,” Kuplowsky says. “I’m a big fan of Craig Ferguson and Tom Scharpling’s The Best Show on WFMU. I just like weird radio and variety communities that involve comedy and surrealism and absurdity, and so I’ve always been interested in doing something like that in intros. So we’ve come up with goofy ways to introduce the movies. The first time was pretty simple, we just played Truth or Dare on stage. The second time I got stuck in the Internet and came out in a Hologram Man outfit. The third time we actually had wrestlers from the VCW, which is a local wrestling troupe. We had to ask the age old question: Who would win in a fight, a Hologram Man or a Superfighter? So we had that fight and we actually recorded it and we’re trying to put a video together, which hopefully gets the word out to people that we do goofy stuff like this.”
Kuplowsky and Decloux also reach out to local artists to design posters for each screening. So far they’ve displayed work from Shira Haberman, Trevor Henderson, Diana McNally, and Matthew Therrien. At the end of the night, one lucky member of the audience gets to win the tape that was just screened, with all new box cover art created specifically for it.
When I ask them about the current spate of winking over-the-top exploitation throwbacks, such as the kind of movies you see on the Syfy channel every week, they have similar feelings. “Self-awareness is a huge problem. I think the best kinds of movies like that play it fairly straight,” Decloux says. “There’s been a thousand Syfy movies and there’s weirdly been no gems. Like Sharknado is okay – that’s one I watched because people were like, ‘That’s actually fun.’ But it’s alright.”
“But it’s fun because it’s one of the first of those movies that has something happen every 15 minutes, which is important,” Kuplowsky adds. “Most of these movies are so full of filler. Of course, the problem is they’ve made it much more high concept driven than it was, so now I feel the films to follow Sharknado, they’re not copying Sharknado because something happened every 15 minutes, they’re just copying the high concept and saying, ‘Isn’t this concept ridiculous?!!’”
So what do the Laserblast guys look for in a great ‘bad’ movie? “We have a mutual friend, Chris Nash, who describes these films in the best way, which is ‘interesting choices’,” answers Kuplowsky. “It’s why we like watching bad movies, we like watching movies where you really don’t understand how they got from A to B. You don’t understand the logical reason, you don’t understand the emotional or thematic reason.”
If you’re wondering where the moniker of the series came from, it’s actually taken from a 1978 movie called Laserblast about a teenage boy who turns into a killing machine after finding a high tech laser gun left behind by alien creatures. As Kuplowsky elaborates, “Justin was looking at a shelf of movies and just going, ‘We’ll call it this or this or this,’ and then settled on Laserblast. I personally have always enjoyed it because it’s sort of nonsensical. But ‘Blast’ connotes a good time and ‘Laser’… uhh, the future?”
These screenings are a blast, all right. Don’t miss ‘em. Check the Royal website for details.