Recently on The Retro Network I participated in an awesome TRN Talk: VHS Collecting podcast discussing the art of VHS collecting with Jason (@RD80s) and the always enthusiastic Chad Young from the Horror Movie BBQ (@HorrorMovieBBQ).
Since podcasting is an audio medium, I thought I would provide a companion piece in the form of a visual guide to VHS collecting. What follows is an exploration of the various kinds of VHS packaging that you may encounter as video cassette nostalgia tugs at your heart.
Warner Home Video Clamshell
In the early days of VHS hitting shelves as a rental format, customers of video rental stores would often find themselves staring at these plastic “Clamshell” cases when making a movie selection for the evening. Most notable about this style is that Warner Home Video kept the same background design on each tape, simply changing the color scheme and dropping a promotional still or movie poster image in front of it. One small detail you can see here is that between the release of the original Police Academy and the sequel, Warner Bros changed their studio logo back to the classic “golden shield”.
Inside there was a molded Warner Bros insignia, but other than that a standard white plastic. One thing to keep in mind is that during this phase of VHS, these tapes were sold to video rental stores for $70 to $80 a piece, which made them cost prohibitive for most people to add to their home libraries, which is why most of these tapes are found as ex-rental copies.
MGM/UA Big Box
On the other side of the VHS arena were the Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists releases, traditionally referred to as “Big Box” style. These large cardboard boxes took up a lot of space and often featured more eye-catching graphics that filled the entire cover. The silvery metallic coloration also helped to make these videos feel like a high-class home viewing experience.
The inside of the boxes also contributed to the prestige feel as the cover opened to feature a cast list in a format that felt like a printed program for the cinematic experience about to play across the TV screen in suburban living rooms. Also, did you know Erik Estrada from CHiPs headlined his own movie?
Comic Book Big Box
An exciting variation on the Big Box format were the “Comic Book” boxes produced for The Transformers and G.I. Joe: Real American Hero cartoons put out by Family Home Entertainment. These colorful oversized containers featured beautiful art by Marvel Comics artists, often in actual paneled comic style story previews of the adventure contained on the tape.
It was nice that even when F.H.E. switched to the space-saving slip-case format they kept the illustrated packaging that made their releases so iconic. As a kid these were worthy of study at the rental store and I was thrilled when I was able pick up a few from both series at Goodwill recently.
As home video became more affordable and sold in retail stores, VHS packaging changed to the sleeker and simpler “Slip-Case” style. These thin cardboard sleeves allowed the tape just enough room to slip inside. These are the most common style of tapes found at thrift stores, since this is how tapes were sold to the public from the mid-80s until the early 2000s. Horror titles like these are often the most sought after because although VHS was becoming more affordable, gory tales of terror were still mostly available only at a rental outlet and considered a niche market. I always found this odd considering how popular horror movies were in theaters throughout the 1980’s.
CBS FOX Video
One of the biggest suppliers of the VHS tapes in the early days of slip-case format was CBS FOX Video, which provided subscription movie services through mail-order. These titles were pulled mainly from the 20th Century Fox library of films, but also included quite a few British titles as well. They may have varied in genre, but all featured that CBS FOX Video logo.
These are a favorite of mine in terms of my own personal collection. Regardless of the video content, if I ever see that iconic logo on a VHS box, I pick it up. To me they are part of an entire series that I one day hope to have a full collection of. The same can be said for the next box design.
Just as Warner Home Video Competed with MGM/UA in the world of Big Box tapes, RCA/Columbia was the major competitor to CBS FOX Video during the early days of selling tapes directly to the consumer. These tapes were distinguishable by the simple red border that surrounded the movie poster image on the front of the box, as well as one edge of the tape with the title in white lettering, while the other side featured the movie title in it’s promotional font.
This appealing design choice gave this series of tapes a uniformity that make them very collectable in my eyes. From a nostalgic point of view I remember that Critters tape being a source of fascination for me as I would briskly walk past the horror aisle in video stores. Plus that weird New Line Cinema logo in the top center is a not the standard backlit film cell graphic we are all used to now, making it a unique piece of history.
Hardcase and Cut Box
Now we move on to one of the saddest situations in the VHS collector experience. Cut-Boxes were the product of video store owners wanting to protect their videos by putting them in more durable hard cases. Often the case was smaller than the original box or larger in the case of a slip-case, so they would cut the box down until could be slipped into the plastic area on the outside.
As you can see, this often resulted in many of the graphics being awkwardly cropped and text descriptions being mangled. Some video suppliers did sell hard cases with specially designed art that fit perfectly into the dimensions of the container like this Rambo: First Blood Part II case, but that was not often a common practice for most movie rental stores.
Hardcase TV Collections
One way you could get a durable case and fitted artwork was when popular TV series were brought to home video in multi-volume collections, usually through mail order. In the days before streaming, if you couldn’t find scheduled reruns in the TV Guide or wanted a higher quality viewing experience than broadcast, this was the way to get access to your favorite shows. Unfortunately with only 2 episodes per tape in most cases, the price point was very high and so was the amount of space these tapes would take up on shelves in people’s homes. TV collections are the one area I feel DVD was a superior format to VHS, being able to fit an entire series on a few discs in a single box.
A later rental tape protection option used most famous by Hollywood Video, the “Squeeze-Case” was a way of using a slip-case cover to promote the tape but preventing the box from being damaged by covering it in a translucent plastic exo-skeleton that would only release the tape when the sides were squeezed inward. This allowed the cassette to slip out through the bottom. Sometimes rental stores would still have to cut the box to make it fit inside, but in most cases this preserved the original box art quite nicely.
I don’t officially know what this style of case is called, but I always refer to them as “Capsule” cases. Made of hard plastic, these cases are rounded on the edges and are an interesting middle ground between a slip-case and traditional hardcase packaging. They are very stylish and make the video seem more valuable in some ways, especially when the plastic is given a unique color for each release.
Released in the late 1990’s and usually being touted as a Special Edition or Collector’s Edition, I was not aware of this box style until I started getting heavy into collecting. I do not recall ever even seeing these on the shelves in places like Suncoast Video, so I am not sure how long they were offered or through what channels.
One fun variation that was not apparent to the home video viewer until they got the tape out of the sleeve was the idea of molding the video cassette itself with a different color plastic that fit the theme of the contents. For example, this Ren and Stimpy tape was colored bright orange to match the color of the Nickelodeon logo, the network on which the show was originally broadcast.
Another way to get attention on store shelves, (especially if your movie wasn’t very good) was with gimmicks. In the case of The Phantom a lenticular card was glued to the box that made it appear as if the purple suited hero was punching toward the buyer and demanding that they “SLAM EVIL!”. Even though The Running Man was an R-rated action flick, it was still possible to catch the eye of an adult buyer by adding a little holographic printing effect to Arnold’s face.
Focused Collecting and Foreign Releases
As we bring this guide to a close I’ll indulge myself by mentioning my latest obsession. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 comedy Troop Beverly Hills, I have set out to collect all the various home video releases of the film in every format. The most popular format in the United States was of course VHS and as you can see the film was released in multiple slip case designs, a clamshell case and I even have the original hardcase video store copy I rented with my family as a child.
Having every American release (that I know of) I decided to move into finding foreign releases of the film. Most of the European editions from the UK, Italy, etc are in the PAL video format, but my Brazilian copy is standard VHS. I have many more countries to contact for future copies, but it just one more way to add some fun to my continued VHS collecting activities.
I hope this has been informative and nostalgic for you. I have over 800 tapes in my collection so this is just scratching the surface. I’d be curious to know where the focus of your VHS collection is. Are you a Horror fan, love old school professional wrestling or just the tapes you owned in your younger days? Let me know in the comments below.