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Ranting & Slashing: The Golden Age of DVD

I’ll never forget reading about LaserDiscs in Fangoria magazine and frothing at the mouth as they described deluxe editions of my favorite films. Glorious widescreen presentations, commentary tracks, ‘making-of’ featurettes, special effects tests, theatrical trailers – all of it wrapped inside very cool packaging and priced to own for the smallest of the niche markets.

Golden AgeBeing in high school throughout the mid-90s, it simply wasn’t feasible to own a LaserDisc player, let alone the pricey deluxe editions of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Phantasm available on that format. There was a better chance of seeing God than bagging enough groceries to be able to afford them.

It was Anchor Bay who gave younger fans their first taste of ‘elite’ collecting through a small series of widescreen VHS tapes in the late ‘90s. When I finally got my hands on a widescreen copy of Halloween, it was like watching my favorite film for the first time, despite having seen it numerous times by 1997. Finally, I understood why Carpenter’s musical stings accompanied what appeared to be random points throughout the film. We were seeing Michael stalking Annie Brackett in the background, often watching her through windows and from afar. The foreboding and suspense that Carpenter establishes throughout these scenes simply does not exist in fullscreen, and I recalled wondering how I could’ve even loved the film before seeing it in the original aspect ratio.

But it was more than just the opportunity to see our favorite films as they were originally intended. There were the extras, too. Seeing Joe Bob Briggs’ name in the closing credits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 had baffled me for years, but Anchor Bay’s widescreen special edition videocassette put an end to that long-reaching mystery. At the end of the tape was a collection of deleted scenes and theatrical trailers. Supplements weren’t as easily accessible as on LaserDisc considering one needed to fast-forward through an entire movie to show a friend a deleted scene, but it was a damn good start. I’m partial to Anchor Bay’s push to make collecting affordable, but they were far from the only ones. Many companies had realized that there was a market for widescreen presentations and began offering their titles that way. Even Dimension released a really cool Scream box set that included a second videotape with Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s audio commentary running over the entire film. Finally, collecting wasn’t relegated to those with tons of extra cash. The little people could get in on the action too.

Shortly thereafter, DVD descended upon film fans from the heavens. It wasn’t exactly cheap to jump into this fray, but it was affordable. I pooled money with one of my best friends to purchase a DVD player in early 1998. It set us back $400, but I was allowed to keep the machine at my place (since his computer had a DVD drive), and we immediately agreed to start pinching pennies again to get him a player, too. Everything about DVD was great: the quality, the extras and the packaging. It felt like a genuine collector’s format – just like LaserDisc – only this one was going to catch on. Prices were high at first (in my darkest day, I recall shelling out $35 for Fox’s Lake Placid DVD – a disc that offers no discernible supplements and a really shitty, non-anamorphic transfer to boot), but wasn’t it incredible that any movie we wanted was available to own from the get-go? No longer was I slumming the ‘used movies’ section of the video store hoping to find a previously viewed copy of From Dusk Till Dawn. Once the studio released a film to home video, we could own it.

Golden AgeIt was a revolution. Stuff was hitting DVD with a frequency that was nearly impossible to keep time with. For a poor college student there was an incredible amount of thriftiness required to keep up with the endless wave of obscurities that were popping up at Best Buy and Suncoast every Tuesday. Never in a million years did I ever imagine owning pristine, widescreen copies of Link and Blue Sunshine – but there it was. And DVD made the celluloid world smaller, too. Asian and European horror films were no longer exclusively confined to convention circuits and bootleg VHS websites, instead made readily available just like their North American peers. Plunking down some hard-earned cash for this stuff hung heavy with a too-good-to-be-true aura that made film collecting both special and exciting. Especially when companies went the extra mile in terms of liner notes, collectible booklets and creative packaging. In most cases, when a DVD came wrapped in a “special edition” banner, it was because there was something truly special about that edition – at least initially.

The studios sure took notice that consumers were gobbling up these titles with the quickness and suddenly the practice of double-dipping was upon us, as if it had always been there. Anchor Bay, true friend to the collector they are, was perhaps the worst offender – but at least they tried to make the upgrades worthwhile. Nobody wanted to buy The Evil Dead again after Elite’s seemingly definitive edition, but who in their right mind was going to pass up ‘Book of the Dead’ packaging, complete with groovy new extras? It wasn’t just them, though. How many shoddy editions did Terminator 2 fans have to endure before getting that nifty metal case, ‘Extreme Edition’ package? And who can forget MGM and their endless reissues of Rocky, James Bond and anything else that poised them to make a buck or two? Granted, newer versions often offered better transfers and more supplements, but that never quite alleviated the sting of buying a movie more than once.

It wasn’t all rosy, either. For every Anchor Bay, Blue Underground or Synapse, there were unscrupulous opportunists like Shriek Show that consistently delivered some of the most miserable-looking DVDs this side of budget packs. I’ll never forget plunking down $22 bucks for Fulci’s Demonia (shamelessly packaged under a ‘Lucio Fulci Collection’ banner as a means of aping Anchor Bay’s already-established line of discs) and being appalled by the disgraceful image quality offered. Rampant artifacting, bleeding images – all of it intrinsic of a piss-poor mastering job from Shriek Show. In the years that followed, I purchased many of their titles and I’m hard pressed to recall a single one that didn’t disappoint in one way or another (incorrect aspect ratios, horrendous audio, etc). There were other companies that were content to deliver equally weak product, but it was worse coming from Shriek Show considering the phenomenal library they had acquired.

There’s probably some debate as to how long the “Golden Age” of DVD collecting lasted. In my mind it spanned four years from 2000 – 2004. Sure great stuff was (and still is) hitting shelves, but not with as much fervor as in those amazing times. Blame market saturation. With all the double-dips and an overall steady stream of titles hitting shelves, the market expanded to a point where DVDs were everywhere (from drug stores to supermarkets). The bottom fell out when the supply failed to match the demand, resulting in $5 bargain bin prices at Wal Mart and other massive chains desperate to move inventory. Suddenly DVD didn’t seem so much like the collector’s format. It wasn’t. At the same time, Netflix established itself as a viable service, encouraging a cheaper alternative to purchasing the rarities that horror companies were releasing. Why not rent something like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key rather than spend $20 to own it? And once you factored in illegal downloading of these titles, it’s not hard to understand how this was a death knell for some of the smaller DVD companies out there. These days, many people are content to stream their content online and while this is a respectable way to view most of the junk passing for new horror these days, I have no desire to stream the work of Dario Argento and enjoy it though inferior picture quality and incorrect aspect ratios.

Golden AgeSome say physical media’s days are numbered. Stores like Best Buy have greatly reduced the amount of shelf space they’ll allocate to discs (not to mention they stopped carrying titles from folks like Synapse years ago) while selections simply aren’t as impressive as they once were. And while I don’t want to open the can of worms around a download-only future, my own two cents is that hard media will suffer further decline (unquestionably) without going extinct. Just as laserdisc was a small format throughout the 90s, physical forms of media (be it Blu-ray, or whatever’s next down the pike) will likely become minor niche products in the next five to ten years. You can still get vinyl today, and I believe that film has an equally pure and rabid fanbase of collectors who’ll prevent physical media from ever truly disappearing. It’s not that I’ll fight the idea of streaming and/or instant downloads entirely. When someone eventually gives me the opportunity to enjoy Sweet Sixteen or Death Bed in some form of quality download, I’ll happily take notice. Until then, the look and feel of the library I’ve accumulated over the last thirteen years will continue to provide me with endless enjoyment. After all, one never knows when they’ll have the urge to watch Future-Kill on a whim.

Where does this leave the collector and, more importantly, the DVD companies that have survived this long and done countless years of exemplary work? Thankfully, they’re supplying us with great releases here and there. The frequency has been considerably reduced in some cases (I’m looking at you, Anchor Bay), but the onset of Blu-ray has once again enabled fans to re-discover classic titles in the best possible quality. On the standard definition front, little guys like Code Red have continued to unearth some of the genre’s most forgotten titles (and, should you be inclined, order yourself a copy of Messiah of Evil or Slithis – you won’t be disappointed) while the old guard (Synapse, Blue Underground and Anchor Bay) have jumped into the high definition game with jaw-droppingly beautiful results. Severin might be new to the game, but they’re making a go at some gorgeous Blu-ray special editions as well.

As great as the aforementioned guys are, there’s something a bit disappointing about their recent releases. I’m not singling them out either as they’re consistently doing work that impresses on a technical level – and that’s always most important. Blu-ray special edition packages don’t often feel all that ‘special’. There are exceptions of course: Warner Bros. really went out of their way to make Blade Runner and The Exorcist as classy as possible. Fox’s Alien collection was an aesthetic marvel and ditto Sony’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind set. But it’s a shame to see our best friends in horror resort to the standard case, disc-only model for all releases these days. Gone are the informative liner notes and classy packaging that often times complimented the features on the disc. Everything feels a bit plain these days, especially when compared to how great it once was. Sure times are tough: the economy is in its infancy as far as recovery is concerned and not nearly as many people are buying physical media as they once were. Video game publishers are announcing the demise of actual instruction booklets in their games, so it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing a return of liner notes and/or inserts anytime soon.

I can’t make that point without drawing attention to the two most exciting exceptions to that rule. Across the pond, the U.K.-based Arrow has been pumping out some of the most incredible Blu-ray packages the home video format has ever seen. Multiple covers, mini-posters, booklets and double discs to boot, they’re carrying the torch for those of us who like a little something extra with our special editions. Stateside, Shout! Factory has done very much the same thing. This wouldn’t matter much if the technical presentations weren’t also satisfying, but these little bells and whistles go a long way toward satiating the enthusiastic collector.

It’s a bit of a bummer once you realize the sparkling sheen of DVD has worn off. Of course, it’s been gone for a while now and it’s a completely different world than it was thirteen years back: Books are on tablets, TV shows and movies are consumed on the Internet and on cell phones and there’s a bit of melancholy hung heavy in the air when it comes to our beloved physical media. It might be impossible to predict the future of DVD/Blu-ray, but if the day ever comes where we can no longer purchase one of those wonderful little glossy discs, we’ll still have our collections. And we can take comfort in nostalgia knowing it was one hell of a fantastic ride while it lasted.

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Matt Serafini

Author (Under the Blade, Feral), slasher movie enthusiast, N7 Operative. Plays games, watches movies, reads books. Occasionally writes about them.

  • LSD Zombie

    I remember going into Suncoast to peruse the horror section. I bought all of the F13TH films on VHS from Suncoast. Good times…..Now we’ve got Best Buy. And their horror section sucks ass.

    • Foywonder

      Unless you’re looking to buy the most mainstream new releases, every Best Buy DVD section sucks. Even Circuit City had better DVD selections.

      • Masked Slasher

        They were great back then though.

        They had every Anchor Bay / Snyapse title that came out – and plenty of ’em. That was more than enough for me.

        Disappointing to see what’s become of their selection, though. It’s beyond awful.