by Reg Seeton
Well before the explosion of DVD players and DVR, VCRs were the big ticket item of the ‘80s. Prior to 1980 when VCRs caught on with the mainstream public, moviegoers had to rely on their memories of a film until it appeared on TV as a major movie event of the week. When VCRs exploded on to the scene, giving fans the option to watch almost any new movie in the comfort of their own home, it revolutionized the entire movie industry in the same way the digital revolution is transforming Hollywood today. Like the recent format war between Blu-Ray and HD, the home video market of the ‘80s saw VHS win out over Beta.
For the entire decade of the ‘80s, VHS reigned supreme as the leader of home video. In that time, the home video revolution spawned thousands of video stores across the country filled with hundreds upon hundreds of movies on VHS. Who knows where all of those tapes went when DVD took over, but throughout the '80s, fans had a love affair with movies and VHS videotapes, which lasted almost twenty years. Here’s a look back at 13 Popular VHS Rentals of the ‘80s.
Indy, Star Wars and E.T.
We all know where the three Indiana Jones movies, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and E.T. rank among popular movies of the ‘80s. Both the Indy franchise and the Star Wars saga are in leagues of their own. In fact, we could write a "top" list of popular ‘80s movies and both would take up the top five slots. It’s a no-brainer how popular they were as rentals and ‘80s home video sales, but it wouldn’t make for a diverse or interesting list. As for Star Wars on home video, the truly great versions on VHS weren’t released until the mid-to-late ‘90s anyway. As for E.T., it took WAY too long to get a home video release on VHS despite fan outcry that we’re leaving it with the cinematic elite in favor of some of the other popular VHS titles of the ‘80s.
Sure Police Academy was a hit in theaters in 1984, but people went nuts for it on VHS. So nuts that VHS rentals helped to launch a franchise that really only deserved one or two sequels at best. When you think about it, how creator Paul Maslansky managed to get a total of seven movies out of Police Academy is one of the most amazing achievements ever in the history of cinema. I’m kidding, but still. Anyone who can get seven movies made is definitely doing something right. Police Academy turned Steve Guttenberg into one of the hottest actors of the early ‘80s and helped to propel a little known actress named Kim Cattrall into such movies as Big Trouble in Little China, Mannequin, and Midnight Crossing long before her milfy role in Sex and the City. Police Academy went from being an "always out" rental to a "watch again" new release to a VHS tape that collected dust in the bargain bin.
What instantly comes to mind when you think of 48 Hours? In most cases, two things - Eddie Murphy in prison singing "Roxanne" and the bar scene where Murphy belts out, "There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Reggie Hammond." Since Eddie Murphy was THE up and coming comedian of the ‘80s on Saturday Night Live in 1982, 48 Hours was destined to be a huge hit on VHS. You couldn’t walk into a video store without seeing it. Eddie Murphy might not have been such a huge star in the ‘80s if it wasn’t for the birth if the VHS era. Even now when you think 48 Hours, I bet a lot of you are getting a mental image of the VHS cover. Not only did it launch the big screen career of Eddie Murphy, it also transformed Nick Nolte from "that guy in North Dallas Forty" into a household name. The best part: it was one of the coolest action comedies of the ‘80s. Luckily for Murphy, that’s what happens when a guy like Walter Hill directs your first movie.
Friday the 13th
Among the horror franchises that benefited the most from VHS, Friday the 13th became a regular staple for weekend movie gatherings and background party visuals. The entire franchise owes much of its legacy to the repeat viewings on the weekends and the many movie gatherings that took place when VHS players first hit the market. In terms of early VHS hits, Friday the 13th is one of the first generation home video horror movies of the ‘80s that created even more demand for a sequel after being eaten by so many VHS players. It’s funny how Friday the 13th became the perfect cult date movie. If there was nothing else worth renting at the video store, you could always count on Jason to draw a crowd on a boring Saturday night. Over 20 years after its VHS release, with a new movie about to hit theaters, Friday the 13th is still going strong thanks to its early home video lineage.
I’m sure a lot of people have forgotten all about Colors, but it was one of the most controversial movies of the ‘80s and one of the most popular VHS rentals of its day. Since gang violence was running rampant in the streets of L.A., with thugs bursting into theaters and shooting rival gang members dead in their seats, a lot of theater owners didn’t want anything to do with the film. Controversy turned out to be a cash cow for the movie on VHS since people could watch the film at home without having to worry about being gunned down in the theater. Colors was one of those movies that found huge momentum on home video and a movie you had to grab from the new release wall if you wanted to look tough. With Robert Duvall and Sean Penn as two street cops in the middle of L.A.’s gangland turf war and Ice T’s stick-in-your-head title track, the success of Colors on home video transformed a nation of ghetto-blasting breakdancers into suburban gangsta wannabes.
As far as cliché catch phrases of the ‘80s go, "They’re here" ranks high on the list next to "Where’s the beef?" It was cool the first 50 times you heard someone say it as they kneeled in front of the TV, but the next 15,000 were like nails down a chalkboard. Although Poltergeist scared audiences to near death, it was also edge of your seat fun as an average family lost their minds when they learned they were living with a bunch of ghosts. It wasn’t as terrifying as some would lead you to believe, but it did make audiences squirm in their seats after seeing maggots feeding on a steak in the kitchen and an investigator claw his own face off in the mirror. Like Friday the 13th, the movie became one of the classic must rent and must own VHS tapes of the day. Usually you’d find it right next to My Bloody Valentine.
Conan the Barbarian
For a lot of people who grew up in the ‘80s, it’s probably hard for them not to think of Conan as anything other than a VHS tape. I’m willing to bet that a lot of ‘80s babies haven’t seen the movie since the then. Not only was it a movie that all video storeowners had to have on the shelf if they wanted to stay in business, it was a movie that was dubbed by almost everyone. There weren’t too many houses you could walk into and not find Conan among the tape collection. Then again, in the early days of VHS there wasn’t much to choose from, but Conan was always playing somewhere. Although Conan the Destroyer wasn’t as much of a VHS priority, Barbarian solidified Schwarzenegger as the biggest VHS action hero of the ‘80s. Given what now looks like primitive technology, fans were lucky if they made it through Conan’s grisly meeting with James Earl Jones without the tape being chewed to pieces. Anyone remember how much video stores charged for replacement tapes? They now start at .20 cents on Amazon.
How many of you still see this on VHS somewhere at least once a week? You could get up from your seat right now and head to the nearest Wallgreens and you’d probably still find Dirty Dancing on VHS within seconds. As far as popular ‘80s actors on tape, Patrick Swayze was king. For a lot of ‘80s movie nuts, it’s safe to say their relationship with Dirty Dancing came from one of two places - the theater or VHS. By the time the movie made it to DVD, was there any need to see Dirty Dancing for the 101st time? All you need to do is look at the VHS cover to get "The Time of My Life" stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Given the huge success of the movie on both VHS and in theaters, it’s mind-blowing how a sequel wasn’t made until 2004 with Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. By the time Havana Nights hit the market, VHS was dead... along with any of the original magic of Dirty Dancing.
Eddie Murphy: Delirious
Borrowing heavily from the stand-up legacy of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy shot to even bigger heights during the ‘80s with his own live routine, Delirious, which became one of the most popular VHS rentals of the day. For proof, all you need to do is ask any middle-aged dude what "Goonie-Goo-Goo" means. Released in 1983 at the height of Murphy’s popularity on Saturday Night Live and his transition to the big screen with 48 Hours, Delirious was as much a part of the ‘80s pop-culture landscape as anything else. Back then you’d be hard pressed to find any guy who hadn’t watched Delirious at least twice. The reality of multiple viewing was more like five or six times. If there’s any one VHS tape that got eaten by VCRs the most, this was it. It’s amazing to think that Delirious hit DVD shelves only last year.
Anyone who lost their virginity in 1982 can tell you how popular Porky’s was on VHS. It was a massive hit in North America that launched the teen-sex craze of the ‘80s. Loaded with sex, booze, hookers and parties, Porky’s was THE movie your parents didn’t want you to see. That meant you had to see it. But thanks to the fact that you could sneak over to your friend’s house and watch it on VHS with no one watching, Porky’s became a huge cult hit in the early ‘80s. Kicking off a wave of teen and college T&A movies that also included the likes of Private School and Spring Break, Porky’s set the tone for ‘80s comedies that also paved the way for such movies as Bachelor Party. The most important lesson from Porky’s - If you’re planning to spy on babes from behind a wall, don’t put private parts in the peep hole.
Shortly after VCRs first hit the market, Airplane became one of the premiere rentals of the first generation home video market. Airplane was so popular in the early ‘80s, it was almost as if VCRs were sold with the movie prepackaged in the same manner as Combat for the Atari 2600. Since VCRs were just catching on with the mainstream public in 1980, the release of Airplane in the same year helped to turn the comedic spoof of the popular ‘70s Airport movies into a cinematic event. How many of you have spotted the VHS cover for Airplane over the years but haven’t seen the movie? Since Airplane became one of the first movies to soar to even bigger heights on home video, it ushered in a whole new generation of spoof comedies, from The Naked Gun and Hot Shots movies to the Scary Movie franchise and most recently Meet the Spartans. Surely you can’t be serious, you might be asking yourself. I am serious. Airplane was a gargantuan hit on VHS... and don’t call me Shirley.
The best thing about Terminator on VHS was that you could finally see it if you were too young to get into theaters. The Terminator was rated "R", which meant it knocked out a massive segment of the population, guys 14 to 16, who wanted to see it more than most adults. Nowadays, that’s the exact video game demo for all things Terminator. After debuting on VHS back in 1984, The Terminator became even more of a hit on home video, which paved the road of guaranteed success for the sequel simply because the younger fans were grown up and could finally get into “R” movies. Although Arnold Schwarzenegger already had both Conan movies under his acting belt, The Terminator launched him into the stratosphere as the #1 action star of the ‘80s. It was the movie you could talk about the entire way to school and then continue the conversation on the way back later in the day. If you hadn’t seen The Terminator on VHS, you weren’t cool. By the end of the ‘80s, since everyone had seen The Terminator a hundred times over, anyone who was still using the line "I’ll be back" deserved to be terminated on the spot.
The Breakfast Club
The ‘80s were all about teenage life and teen angst in some form or another, and there was no one better who tapped into the young hearts of the ‘80s generation than writer/director John Hughes. It definitely proved that we're all pretty bizarre but some of us are just better at hiding it. When the The Breakfast Club hit the home video market, it was a title that never left video store shelves until DVD kicked VHS into the streets. Unlike most movies of the ‘80s, which only deserved a one-off rental, The Breakfast Club was a must-own tape. The thought of four kids from different crowds forced to get to know each other in detention struck a nerve among ‘80s teens. It broke down the fake walls that every high school kid puts up just to survive the social heat. If you were having a bad time at school, you could always throw The Breakfast Club into the machine and get some perspective. You could probably pull a VHS tape of The Breakfast Club out of a bag and show it to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and it would still be cool... even on tape.
Few movies benefited from VHS and the home video explosion of the ‘80s in the same way as First Blood. Sure there a lot of movies that caught fire and became cult favorites, many serving up sequels, but few went on to spawn such huge blockbuster franchises from average theatrical releases. When the movie hit theaters in 1982, it wasn’t a blockbuster hit at all. In fact, by today’s standards, it would be seen as a relative failure since First Blood didn’t actually make money until its third week. What turned First Blood into the Rambo franchise was its amazing word-of-mouth. On VHS, First Blood became an underground hit, which created a huge groundswell of demand.
Although First Blood wasn’t a gargantuan hit when it hit theaters, great word-of-mouth struck twice three years later when Rambo: First Blood Part II nearly doubled its money in its second theatrical week, and went on to hit the $100 million mark in a month. If it weren’t for the success of First Blood on VHS and home video, it’s doubtful Sylvester Stallone would have been as huge an action star as he was in the ‘80s. Don’t believe me? Although Stallone was riding high from Rocky III at the same time, between First Blood and First Blood: Part II his only other film was Rhinestone. If you haven’t seen it, ask someone who grew up in the ‘80s how well that one performed. VHS didn’t help it at all.
-- Reg Seeton