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SXSW/Rewind This!

Q&A: Josh Johnson, Rewind This!

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SXSW/Rewind This!

For people of a certain age, there’s a lot of nostalgia around VHS tapes. And though it might seem like a dead format thanks to DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally streaming media, VHS isn't dead yet: Many people have hung on to old tapes, or continue to build collections that they watch with their VHS player. Many of those enthusiasts appear in Josh Johnson’s documentary, Rewind This!, which debuts this week at SXSW Film. The documentary's a fun and fascinating look at the history and impact of videotapes. mental_floss spoke with the director about VHS-related myths, the influence of VHS, and why those tapes were so darn expensive.

mental_floss: What inspired you to make a documentary about VHS?

Josh Johnson: The idea came out of the realization that I had a lot of friends who were still purchasing and acquiring VHS tapes, even though it had been a dead format for a number of years. And the reason that they were doing that is because there were thousands of films that weren’t available any other way—they had yet to be released on newer formats. So if you’re passionate about film, it was the only way to watch certain things. And that was something that struck me as being sort of interesting and not necessarily broad public knowledge. So there was that contemporary relevance of videotape that I hadn’t really thought about very much before.

And then, in thinking about that and starting to work on this as a documentary concept with my partners, we thought about the fact that the home video revolution was something that really changed the world and how people consumed media, but it had never been documented or put on film before, so the idea of being able to trace its history and also show the contemporary relevance of videotape seemed like it had the potential to be a satisfying feature.

m_f: You interviewed a number of people who have pretty incredible VHS collections. How did you find them?

JJ: The first thing that we did was ask people we knew in the local community. The film started in Austin, Texas, and we knew a lot of people who were already involved in this world. And what we found is that every person we talked to had four or five other recommendations of people we should talk to. There was this community of people that were still really passionate about collecting and acquiring this content, so it kind of took care of itself after a certain point. You know, once people were aware of the film, it became very easy to contact them and in a lot of cases they would contact us directly.

m_f: How much did you know about the history of VHS, and the early format war between Sony’s format, Betamax, and JVC’s format, VHS, before you started?

JJ: I knew a lot about it just as a film obsessive and somebody who had read about all aspects of film history throughout my life. The thing that I discovered was certain things that were sort of urban legends or things that were widely reported as facts that weren’t necessarily facts. So there are certain details about the influence of pornography on video and some things like that that turned out to not necessarily line up with the popular accepted story.

For example: A lot of people have argued over the years, or it’s just an accepted fact—quotes around the word “fact”—that Sony refused to license pornographers, and that was one of the determining factors in why VHS won out over Betamax. But there’s actually no historical record to indicate that Sony refused to do that. And there’s evidence that some adult films may have been released on Betamax. So it looks like [what made VHS the winner] was the amount of time that you record on VHS tapes and the affordability of VHS tapes, not that breakdown between who was willing to allow pornography to be accessible.

m_f: You have a ton of clips from old VHS tapes in the movie. What was the process of converting those into digital like?

JJ: We used a device that is essentially a VCR, but it’s also a capture device, so we were able to put in a tape, play it, and then record, via a PC, the moments that we wanted to capture. So the process of actually getting that footage into contemporary technology is fairly easy. The most difficult thing was actually when we wanted to do things like show examples of tape wear or degradation, because we didn’t necessarily have examples that exactly fit what we were looking for—so we had to make them ourselves. And we really wanted everything to be authentic. So what we did is actually find tapes with moments that we wanted to utilize this example and we would actually take the tape out of the cassette and physically manipulate it—I would open the front part of the tape and pull out the tape between two fingers and then I would sort of twist it back and forth between my thumb and forefinger—which would recreate what might happen if you rewound a tape in a certain section over and over again. There was definitely some trial and error [in figuring out the process of warping a tape]. It wasn’t an exact science, but it actually turned out to be fairly easy once you got the hang of doing it.

It's so different from now—if you scratch a DVD, that section just won't play. But video could degrade and degrade and degrade, you could do so much damage to it, but it would still play.  Over time it would slowly decay, and get worse and worse, but it wasn't instant. It was this very slow, organic process.

m_f: What's the average lifespan of a VHS tape?

JJ: The statistics on that seem wildly different, so it's hard to say for sure. When we talked to archivists, they said that tapes that were mass-produced in the '80s are already going to start showing signs of wear, and [would be damaged by] not housing the material the way they're supposed to. But then there are some people that argue that it has a greater lifespan than a lot of digital formats—that there will be some decay, but that these tapes will still be playable years from now. So there's a lot of conflicting information, but they're certainly sturdy enough that they should last 30 years.

m_f: We did a story recently about Nixon meeting Robocop, which was part of an event for the VHS release of the movie. What got the most response from people was not that Nixon met Robocop, but that the price of the Robocop VHS was $99. In the process of making Rewind This! what did you find out about why videotapes were so expensive, especially when they were relatively cheap to produce?

JJ: When home video first started, the idea that you could own a movie and watch it whenever you wanted was revolutionary. So, since for a few dollars people could see it at the theater one time, to own it was such a privilege I think they just placed a higher premium on it. They thought, you know, this is allowing someone to permanently own something that ordinarily we’ve had control over, so it had that higher price tag. That continued for quite a while. What really changed it was this sell-through concept that started in the porn world, but then carried over into the more legitimate film business. The idea was that if you marked the price lower, you could move more units and it would still become more profitable for you.

m_f: When Betamax first came out, and later VHS, people at movie-making studios in Hollywood were not happy. In fact, at congressional hearings about the technology in 1982, Jack Valenti—who was the head of the MPAA at the time—said "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." That seems a little extreme. Why did Hollywood flip out so much?

JJ: There was this intense fear on the part of major motion picture studios that home video was going to devalue their product. They had this entire industry that was based on publically exhibiting motion pictures and then returning them to a vault, and they maintained ownership every step of the way. So the fear was, that by allowing people to have access to [technology], they would stop going to the movie theater or it would no longer be something that was as prized. And their fear was that it would destroy the theatrical market. But what ended up happening is it created a whole new market—there was new money being put into it, and box office continued to grow and thrive. So far from being something worthy of demonizing, it actually doubled their profits once they committed to it. But the fear was that their entire industry was built on an infrastructure that might get completely destroyed by the new technology.

And I think for a lot of major studios, one of the appealing things about living in a space where we’re returning to streaming from a corporate source, is that they now have ownership again. They can distribute it to you into your home, but ownership is still theirs—you don’t have anything physical that you can keep. They can give and take away at will. It’s interesting to see how, with all of this new technology, it’s kind of going back to the exact same way that the film industry worked in the '30s.

m_f: This technology has been around for so long that a lot of us probably forget what it was like before you could just pop a tape in the VCR at home. Can you paint a picture of what life was like before VHS?

JJ: Prior to the advent of home video, the only way that you could see films would be in a theater or on television, and you were really at the mercy of the schedule that was determined by the television networks and the motion picture studios. So a film would play, often for a very long time, at a theater, and then it would be gone. Unless the film had been so successful that it would warrant bringing it back out and rereleasing it years later to capitalize on that interest, it was entirely possible that you might never see it again. Your best option would be to hope that it would play on television, and that it would be at a time that was convenient enough for you that you could be home to sit and watch it.

Once home video came out and made movies so accessible to us and gave us ownership over them, that immediately changed the way that we perceive movies. Now there’s a sense of entitlement in regards to our media: We want to have ownership, we want to be able to watch things whenever we want. But as recently as the late 70s, that entire concept was inconceivable. Nobody had even fathomed the idea that you could have a film in your house or watch it whenever you wanted. Home video really is as major a revolution in film as sound or color or any of these things—potentially, it’s even more significant than that, because those were just technological developments that alter the way that the films are created. But home video revolutionized the way that films are absorbed and distributed, and the way that audiences see and perceive them. I would argue that it’s probably the most significant revolution in the entire history of film from its starting point.

m_f: What do you think is the lasting impact or legacy of VHS?

JJ: The legacy of VHS is that it made film domestic for the first time. It allowed people to consume things on their own schedule the way they wanted to. That’s something we’ll never be able to go back to again. There will never a time again, I believe, where we don’t feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over how we consume our media. So I think that’s the lasting impact, more than anything else. But I think the other impact of home video is that it’s made people so much more knowledgeable about the totality of film, because it made film accessible to people who otherwise would never have been able to see certain things. If you didn't live in a major metropolitan area, you weren’t going to have repertory cinemas or art houses or access to foreign films. Now you can really live almost anywhere in the world, and home video has made that accessible.

m_f: And the fact that people could actually make movies with a camcorder and a VHS tape—even my friends and I made a series of really bad music videos. It was fun!

JJ: That’s how I started as well—it was just making things on a camcorder when I was 7 years old. There was a whole movement of shot-on-video filmmaking that got launched in the early '80s that continued for a long time. Now, with digital video, it’s not really quite the same thing—it’s more and more getting closer to professional cinematography. More and more films are shooting digitally, but in those early days, video had such a limited look, and it was immediately a stigma, because it looked so inferior, but it did allow really ambitious people to make work that they never would have been able to afford to otherwise, and that’s a huge part of the legacy—the way it leveled the playing field. It was a great equalizer in filmmaking.

m_f: What kind of creative solutions or DIY filmmaking did you have to use to make this film happen?

JJ: The entire production was entirely DIY. We started shooting without any funding, several years ago, just because we were passionate and wanted to do it. And when it got to the point where we needed to start traveling outside of our immediate area, we needed to start finding creative ways to finance those trips. The first thing we did was an art show here in Austin, where we had local artists produce home video-inspired artwork, and the sales from that art show funded the first leg of our travel, which was mostly to the East Coast, to New York, and then partly to the West Coast. And then we hosted a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse that funded the rest of our West Coast travel. And that brought us back, and we were able to edit together a teaser trailer based on what we had shot, and launch a Kickstarter campaign for the remainder of our travel, which was to Canada and Japan. So the whole project has been three people working in isolation, figuring out various ways to fund different portions of the production.

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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15 Fascinating Facts About Candyman
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PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a Chicago graduate student with a deep fascination with urban legends, which she and her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are using as the basis for a thesis project. After they stumble across the local legend of Candyman, a well-to-do black artist who fell in love with a white woman in the late 1800s and was murdered for it, Helen wants to learn more. When she’s told that Candyman still haunts Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, and that his spirit can be summoned by repeating his name into a mirror five times, Helen does just that … and all hell breaks loose.

What began as a low-budget indie film has morphed into a contemporary classic of the horror genre, and essential Halloween viewing. In 1992, English filmmaker Bernard Rose—who got his start working as a gopher on The Muppet Show—turned Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” into Candyman, which was released in theaters 25 years ago today. In honor of the film’s anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about Candyman.

1. EDDIE MURPHY WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE LEAD.

Though the role of Candyman turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, he wasn’t the only actor in consideration for the film’s title role: Eddie Murphy was also reportedly a contender for the part. Though it’s unclear exactly why he wasn’t cast, sources have reported that it had to do with everything from his height (at 5 feet 9 inches, he wouldn’t seem nearly as intimidating as the 6-foot-5 Todd) to his salary demands.

2. AN UNEXPECTED PREGNANCY LANDED VIRGINIA MADSEN THE LEAD.

Virginia Madsen stars in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

When asked by HorrorNewsNetwork about how she got the role of Helen in Candyman, Virginia Madsen shared that it was almost by accident: She was supposed to play Bernie, Helen’s friend and classmate, the role that eventually went to Kasi Lemmons.

“I was actually very good friends with Bernard [Rose] and his wife Alexandra,” Madsen said. “She is a wonderful actress, who actually brought Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’ to her husband. She thought this would be a great film, and he could direct her. She was supposed to be Helen. I was going to play [Kasi Lemmons'] part, until they made the character African American. Then I was out.

“Right before shooting, Alexandra found out she was pregnant. It was great for me, but it was so sad for her because this was her role; she found this story and really wanted it. So when I was asked to step in I felt like ‘I can’t take my friend’s role.’ She actually came over one day and said ‘It would just kill me to see someone else play this role, you have to be the one who plays it.’ So with her blessing I took on the role. I really tried to work my butt off just to honor her.”

3. IT COULD HAVE STARRED SANDRA BULLOCK.

On the film’s DVD commentary, producer Alan Poul said that had Madsen been unable to step into the role of Helen, the part would have likely been offered to Sandra Bullock, who was still a relative unknown actress at that point. Though she had played the role of Tess McGill in the television adaptation of Working Girl, she was still a couple of years away from Speed (1994), the role that launched her into stardom.

4. ITS OPENING SHOT WAS GROUNDBREAKING.

The film’s opening credits feature a great aerial view of Chicago, which was pretty revolutionary for its time. “We did that with an incredible new machine called the Skycam, which can shoot up to a 500mm lens with no vibration,” Rose told The Independent. “You've never seen that shot before, at least not done that smoothly.”

5. NOT ALL OF THE FILM’S CREEPY DETAILS SPRUNG FROM CLIVE BARKER’S IMAGINATION.

While investigating one of Candyman’s crime scenes, Helen and Bernie discover that the design of the apartment’s medicine cabinet made it a possible point of entry for an intruder. This was not a made-up piece of horror movie fiction. While researching the film, Rose learned that a series of murders had been committed in Chicago in this very way.

6. BERNARD ROSE SEES CANDYMAN AS A ROMANTIC FIGURE.

Tony Todd stars in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Viewers may think of Candyman as one of the horror genre’s most terrifying villains, but Rose said that “the idea always was that he was kind of a romantic figure. And again, romantic in sort of the Edgar Allan Poe sense—it's the romance of death. He's a ghost, and he's also the resurrection of something that is kind of unspoken or unspeakable in American history, which is slavery, as well. So he's kind of come back and he's haunting what is the new version of the racial segregation in Chicago.

“And I think there's also something very seductive and very sweet and very romantic about him, and that's what makes him interesting. In the same way there is about Dracula. In the end, the Bogeyman is someone you want to surrender to. You're not just afraid of. There's a certain kind of joy in his seduction. And Tony was always so romantic. Tony ties him in so elegantly and is such a gentleman. He was wonderful.”

7. THE BEES IN THE FILM WERE BRED SPECIFICALLY TO APPEAR ONSCREEN.

No, that is not CGI! The bees that play a key role in Candyman are indeed real. So that they looked appropriately terrifying, but were less dangerous to the cast and crew, the filmmakers used newborn bees—they were just 12 hours old—so that they looked fully grown, but had less powerful stingers.

8. TONY TODD WAS STUNG 23 TIMES, AND GOT A BONUS EACH TIME IT HAPPENED.

Photo of Tony Todd in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

In addition to allowing the filmmakers to cover his face with bees, Todd actually agreed to film a scene in which he had a mouthful of bees—and that, too, was all real. He told TMZ that he wore a dental dam to prevent any bees from sliding into his throat—which doesn’t mean that he didn’t suffer a sting or two … or 23, to be exact, over the course of three Candyman movies. Though it might have been worth it. “I had a great lawyer,” he told TMZ. “A thousand dollars a pop.”

9. THE BEES WEREN’T GREAT NEWS FOR MADSEN, EITHER.

Madsen, too, had to get up close and personal with those bees—a fact that almost forced her to pass on the role. “When Bernie was first asking me to do the role I said, ‘Well, I can’t. I’m allergic to bees,’” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “He said ‘No you’re not allergic to bees, you’re just afraid.’ So I had to go to UCLA and get tested because he didn’t believe [me]. I was tested for every kind of venom. I was far more allergic to wasps. So he said, ‘We’ll just [have] paramedics there, it will be fine!’ You know actors, we’ll do anything for a paycheck! So fine, I’ll be covered with bees.

“So we a had a bee wrangler and he pretty much told us you can’t freak out around the bees, or be nervous, or swat at them, it would just aggravate them. They used baby bees on me. They can still sting you, but are less likely. When they put the bees on me it was crazy because they have fur. They felt like little Q-tips roaming around on me. Then you have pheromones on you, so they’re all in love with you and think you’re a giant queen. I really just had to go into this Zen sort of place and the takes were very short. What took the longest was getting the bees off of us. They had this tiny ‘bee vacuum,’ which wouldn’t harm the bees. After the scene where the bees were all over my face and my head, it took both Tony and I 45 minutes just to get the bees off. That’s when it became difficult to sit still. It was cool though, I felt like a total badass doing it.”

10. PHILIP GLASS COMPOSED THE SCORE, BUT WAS DISAPPOINTED IN THE MOVIE.

When Philip Glass signed on to compose the score for Candyman, he apparently envisioned the final film being something totally different. According to Rolling Stone, “What he'd presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker's short story ‘The Forbidden’ had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher.” Glass was reportedly disappointed in the film, and felt that he had been manipulated. Still, the haunting music is considered a classic score—and Glass’s own view of it seems to have softened over time. “It has become a classic, so I still make money from that score, get checks every year,” he told Variety in 2014.

11. MANY OF THE FILM'S SCENES WERE SHOT AT CABRINI-GREEN.

In 2011, the last remaining high-rise in the Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished. Over the years, the property—which opened in 1942—gained a notorious reputation around the world for being a haven for violence, drugs, gangs, and other criminal activities. While the project’s real-life history weaves its way into the narrative of Candyman, it only makes sense that Rose would want to shoot there. Which he did. But in order to gain permission to shoot there, he had to agree to cast some of the residents as extras.

“I went to Chicago on a research trip to see where it could be done and I was shown around by some people from the Illinois Film Commission and they took me to Cabrini-Green,” Rose said. “And I spent some time there and I realized that this was an incredible arena for a horror movie because it was a place of such palpable fear. And rule number one when you're making a horror movie is set it somewhere frightening. And the fear of the urban housing project, it seemed to me, was actually totally irrational because you couldn't really be in that much danger. Yes, there was crime there, but people were actually afraid of driving past it. And there was such an aura of fear around the place and I thought that was really something interesting to look into because it's sort of a kind of fear that's at the heart of modern cities. And obviously, it's racially motivated, but more than that—it's poverty motivated.”

12. THE FILM’S PRODUCERS WERE WORRIED THAT THE FILM WOULD BE CONSIDERED RACIST.

During pre-production, Candyman’s producers began to worry that the film might draw criticism for being racist, given that its villain was black and it was largely set in an infamous housing project. “I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the producers were so worried,” Rose told The Independent. “And what they said to me when they'd read the script was 'Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just good fun.' Their argument was 'Why shouldn't a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn't a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter? If you're saying that they can't be, it's really perverse. This is a horror movie.'”

13. STILL, SOME FILMMAKERS COMPLAINED THAT IT WAS RACIST.

In a 1992 story in the Chicago Tribune, some high-profile black filmmakers expressed their disappointment that the film seemed to perpetuate several racist stereotypes. “There’s no question that this film plays on white middle-class fears of black people,” director Carl Franklin (Out of Time, Devil in a Blue Dress) said. “It unabashedly uses racial stereotypes and destructive myths to create shock. I found it hokey and unsettling. It didn't work for me because I don’t share those fears, buy into those myths.”

Reginald Hudlin, who directed House Party, Boomerang, and Marshall, described the film as “worrisome,” though he didn’t want to speak on the record about his specific issues with the film. “I've gotten calls about [the movie], but I think I'm going to reserve comment,” he said. “Some of my friends are in it and I may someday want to work for TriStar.”

For Rose, those assessments may have been hard to hear, as his goal in adapting Barker’s story and directing it was to upend the myths about inner cities. “[T]he tradition of oral storytelling is very much alive, especially when it's a scary story,” he told The Independent. “And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them something dreadful will happen—not to say that there isn't danger in ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an urban myth.”

14. IT’S STILL THE ROLE THAT MADSEN IS MOST RECOGNIZED FOR (ESPECIALLY AT AIRPORTS).

Kasi Lemmons and Virginia Madsen in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Though she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2005 for Alexander Payne’s Sideways, in 2012 Madsen said that Candyman is still the role she is most recognized for—especially at airports.

“More people recognize me from that movie than anything I’ve done,” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “It means a lot to me. It was after years of struggling. As an actor, you always want a film that’s annual, like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. I just love that I have a Halloween movie. Now it’s kind of legend this story. People have watched it since they were kids, and every Halloween it’s on, and they watch it now with their kids. That means a lot to me. The place I get recognized the most is the airport security for some reason. Every person in airport security has seen Candyman. Maybe it makes them a little afraid of me.”

15. THERE WAS AN ACTUAL CANDYMAN KILLER.

Though the Chicago-based legend of Candyman is a work of fiction, there was an actual serial killer known as “Candyman” or “The Candy Man.” Between 1970 and 1973, Dean Corll kidnapped, tortured, and murdered at least 28 young boys in the Houston area. Corll earned his sweet nickname from the fact that his family owned a candy factory.

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