The Cult of Action: Digital is the New VHS
VHS and digital. Two formats, separated by decades and advances in technology, may be more similar than you think.
Published on January 16, 2014 | Filed under The Cult of Action
The Avengers

Genre film is a finicky thing. By definition, it can have trouble finding an audience. Of course, with the biggest film in recent memory (The Avengers) being a sci-fi superhero romp, it’s hard to imagine certain genres ever having that problem, but genre didn’t used to play to those audiences. What changed that?

Three little letters: V.H.S.

Prior to home video technology becoming commonplace, most genre films were condemned to matinees in the early years. Then when the Hayes Code was thankfully ferried off to its grave, really all manner of interesting genre stuff got a one way ticket to the grindhouses, from the most exploitive sleaze to the finest kung-fu films of the day. And that was all fine, if you lived in New York and could trot on down to 42nd St. whenever the urge to see the latest Larry Cohen or Abel Ferrera joint struck you. However, in most places, the really gritty and/or interesting genre stuff wasn’t to be found anywhere.


Enter the 1980s: in 1976 the first consumer VHS player was released in Japan. It wouldn’t be a mainstay in American homes until the ‘80s, however. And with it came the action. Oh, the action. VHS ushered in the rise of the big action movie. It seems odd, especially since Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s efforts were seen on the big screen, but all of those films (and those of Van Damme, Seagal and others) did gangbusters on VHS (and cable, but that’s a story for another time). Movies that would heretofore have been the second feature of a matinee program or something shown in a poorly-kept, sticky-floored 42nd St. grindhouse were now readily available to people across the nation. And with rentals going big shortly after VHS’ release, it was only a buck or two to see the latest face-punching, bad guy-exploding action romp. (It bears mention that other genres, particularly horror, benefitted greatly from the VHS boom, but this column is about action film.) Perhaps more importantly, it allowed movies that wouldn’t get theatrical distribution to come straight to the home.

Deadly Prey

So, what does this have to do with digital? Well, I would think it’s pretty obvious, but digital is making huge inroads for indie filmmakers who don’t necessarily want to play nice with big distributors or the MPAA. Sure, a lot of them will still show their films at festivals, but tons of distributors are inking deals with Netflix, Amazon and others to go straight to digital, either to rent or own or even stream for free. Keanu Reeves’ laudable directorial debut, Man of Tai-Chi (which Bryce reviewed), went straight to digital, simultaneous with a brief theatrical run. Ryan Gosling’s second collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn also went from a short, limited theatrical run to the digital market. Digital is taking up the torch of VHS and running even further with it than VHS did. And that’s nothing but good news for fans of a good old-fashioned series of kicks to the face.

Joe is the co-creator of the Action Cast!, a biweekly podcast about action movies hosted at OnTheStick.com, along with his other podcasts. He's also a film school dropout, a former pro wrestler and a struggling actor. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 2013, and so far has spent more money in D.C. on revival screenings than first run films.
Joe Drilling