Here’s a blast from the past- my first copy of Blade Runner on VHS. I don’t have a video recorder any more so have no way of playing this thing but I’ll always keep it, even when I eventually bin my old DVD copies of the film. I have a very strong nostalgic connection with this beauty. I’m certainly not one of those strange hardcore collectors that buy multiple copies of the film in the same format from different countries and store them in a garage somewhere forever, but my first VHS copy (widescreen Directors Cut version would follow later) has an affectionate place in my heart. Younger readers will only have a vague memory, if even that, of this archaic technology known as videotape. It was sub broadcast-quality, analogue-based Standard Definition, and content was in the early days exclusively pan and scan, as widescreen televisions back then was something unheard of even in Star Trek and 2001:A Space Odyssey.
VHS was an abbreviation for Video Home System, an analogue-based cassette standard developed by JVC (Victor Company of Japan). Back in the late 1970s/early 1980s the home video market was in its infancy but would revolutionise how people accessed television and film content. Initially very expensive and a niche market, inevitably both hardware and software was expensive and limited, but as costs were reduced it would gradually explode in popularity. I remember sometime around 1980 a friend of mine’s older brother had a machine with a copy, of all things, of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. I recall seeing a small section of an up-market department store in town having several films- they came packaged in cardboard slipcases back then, something I believe the US persisted with but over here in the UK we made a transition to plastic hard cases.
There were a number of competing formats back then, the main two being VHS and Sony’s Betamax, in a rivalry that would be repeated many years later with HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Eventually VHS became the format of choice, mainly because the exploding video rental business seemed to prefer the VHS system, which inevitably influenced consumers choice of system. My family first rented a VHS machine in 1983- the first film we rented was Poltergeist. I cannot describe to anyone of the current generation how much of a wonder and huge event it was being able to rent a film like that (remember back then we had four tv channels over here and a minimum three-year wait between cinema and (possibly censored) tv screenings of movies so seeing a twelve-month old Spielberg movie ‘On Demand’ as it were, was pretty mind-blowing).
Anyone who remembers those early days will testify to something akin to awe of this amazing technology. Something tactile still lingers in my memory about physically holding those black plastic cassettes, the film -all those sights and sounds- on that magnetic tape. Somewhere in my loft I believe I still have a copy of a video rental magazine from July of that year -it had Tron‘s Bruce Boxleitner on the cover- which had a listing and short summary for every film then available on tape (which might indicate how few films were available back then). As well as summer releases of Tron and Blade Runner, I recall it featured a glowing review of newly-released Escape From New York, highlighting its remarkable stereo soundtrack. As I recall, I believe VHS actually benefited the ‘look’ of Blade Runner– it certainly looked different then to how it would later on optical disc formats. Colours -particularly reds- were more blown and the smoky, grainy look of the film was accentuated by the low resolution of the tape. Something like how the workprint looks on the Blu-ray set now, only more so.
It would be a while before VHS rental would lead to the sell-through model as we know it today , i.e. actually buying reasonably-priced copies of movies on tape. Back then, you could buy a movie but it would set you back about £70.
My copy of Blade Runner was back in the earliest days of the sell-through market. Housed in an over-sized hardcase such as would be found in rental stores (the case could be used for both VHS and Betamax formats), this copy of Blade Runner also used the same art direction of the rental copy of the film (note the ’15’ cert that is stickered onto the original artwork- the original release would not have had any certificate info as I believe at the time it wasn’t required on copies of films on home video- the era of the ‘video nasty’ would put paid to that). It’s interesting because the text on the rear of the case is a carry-over of the publicity used for the films original abortive cinema release, long before the film would become popular and critically acclaimed. It also indicates a time when prospective renters would be given plenty of information on the back of a film’s case to inform them about the film, as they browsed the racks of titles.
“It’s man against machine in a race against time- Los Angeles in the year 2020. Huge neon advertisements illuminate the night sky above the city’s towering skyscrapers. The interiors, however, are murky and dark, the oppressive gloom occasionally relieved by beams of light from a roving spotlight. The majority of Earth’s population has left for outer space with only the misfits and decadent sophisticates left behind to populate the planet. Infiltrating this strange, derelict society are four replicants, laboratory-created creatures who are practically indistinguishable from humans- whose job it is to perform menial tasks in outer space, and who are forbidden, on pain of destruction, to set foot on Earth. These replicants have hijacked a space-shuttle by killing its crew and are now in Los Angeles passing themselves off as humans. It is up to super-cop Harrison Ford to seek them out and eliminate them before they can eliminate him…”
Finally, here’s a picture featuring the alpha and omega of Blade Runner’s home video releases, with my early VHS copy alongside the recent 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. Like home video, Blade Runner has come a long way over those 30 years. Owning that VHS copy way back when, I could never have imagined the film receiving a Directors Cut or Final Cut, or a release including those as well as the workprint and two theatrical versions. I think in some ways that is why I will always keep that VHS copy of Blade Runner- it was the advent of VHS and the burgeoning home video market that saved Blade Runner. It gained an increasingly cult following as people used home video as an opportunity to discover the film and re-examine it with repeated viewings. Years before, the film would have been largely forgotten and only resurfaced on eventual network screenings; it may have been reappraised eventually, as I believe quality will always win out in the long run, but home video increased the speed of said reappraisal. Those days of feeling like a lone voice singing the praises of a film most had never even heard of seem a long time ago now, and I almost miss those days to be honest -the VHS copy reminds me of those days. Priceless.