If there is any modicum of movie geekdom in your blood, Josh Johnson’s documentary “Rewind This!” is an essential insight. Perhaps you’ve been a adoring collector of VHS tapes, or can’t seem to get rid of that box of bootlegs in your basement. Maybe, like most you’ve abandoned the medium, without ever giving a thought to its lasting legacy.
The advent of VHS structurally changed the profit margins of the movie industry by creating the rental fee at video stores and home purchase. It fueled the propagation of genre fans all over the world, all the while democratizing the culture of cinema by putting movies in our hands with complete control of how and when you view them. Though, “Rewind This!” reveals a deeper sentiment from its wonderful roster of talking heads in that VHS spurred an entire revolution of passionate, often bad movies with great cover art.
This is a culture midnight movies have guarded for posterity and recently movie theaters and distributors such as the Alamo Drafthouse have been curating. The documentary began incubating in Josh Johnson’s movie-brain while immersed in the Austin film scene. An unbending passion of cinema appreciation pours excitedly from Johnson’s interview subjects, and there is a prevailing sense of humor that permits the subject to never take itself too seriously.
A moment near the end of the documentary encapsulates this tone, when a subject waxes poetic on the “Be Kind Rewind” sticker that adorned many a VHS rental. There is a profoundly deeper truth in what he says about this unassuming sticker, but delivered with a wit and charm that makes for a digestible profundity. Like if Werner Herzog had a sense of humor. In his first feature length documentary, Josh Johnson certainly has the seedlings of penetrating seemingly simple subjects, surrounded by historical, philosophical and cultural fascinations.
As much as “Rewind This!” embraces a steady style and message, as Johnson said at the Telluride Horror Show, it was a film that evolved and took shape with each new direction his interview subjects gave him. Like a good documentarian should, Johnson embraced where his subjects took him and allowed his subjects to be the voice of the film.
They are an eclectic and delightful bunch too. Horror exploitation luminary, Frank Henenlotter, director of “Basket Case,” “Frankenhooker,” and “Brain Damage,” colors the film throughout. His legacy in film, like so many great horror and genre filmmakers and actors is owed to the distribution channels blazed by VHS. Among many other VHS collectors giving life to the film, is a cadre of film masters and young-bloods. From the voices of Atom Egoyan, Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, Jason Eisner and Lloyd “Troma” Kaufman, the relevance of VHS emerges as a force that changed movies.
VHS provide more than just rewindable boob-shots and bootleg empires, it informed and inspired a generation of filmmakers. It certainly made me thing twice about putting that box of tapes out at the yard sale, as in every squiggle of worn reel is a piece of my own personal cinematic history. A history swallowed into the catacombs of material mediums in this dawn of the digital age.
What more is being lost is a fate Record Stores prophesied. As Johnson pointed out at the 2013 Telluride Horror Show, the tactile experience of hunting down gems in the randomness of video stores is lost to a glut of “suggested viewing” awaiting your next Netflix login. A sense of real-world exploration that can’t compare to isolated video surfing on YouTube.
The documentary is available at rewindthismovie.com.