Why genre fans can’t afford to abandon physical media just yet

Genre movie fans used to need a lot of videotape

For quite a few years, being a lover of genre films and television meant being a hoarder.

If you were anything like me, you accumulated teetering stacks of VHS tapes – both the pre-recorded kind and those that were filed with off-air recordings of films that had been on TV.

If your collecting days go back further than that, you may have owned movies on Super 8 or 16mm film. And you might have been into laserdiscs, before all these formats were superseded by DVD and Blu-ray.

Today, it seems the screen-watching world is on the verge of abandoning physical media altogether.

Here in Britain, HMV, the last national retailer of music and video, recently came close to closing down. Most of its stores have now been rescued by the Canadian company Sunrise, but it seems likely that DVD and Blu-ray will occupy less shelf space, as the focus shifts to the fashion for vinyl records. More and more people have taken up streaming, with subscriptions to the likes of Netflix costing less per month than buying a single Blu-ray.

Despite all the years I’ve spent accumulating movies on various formats, the prospect of a world free of physical media sounds appealing to me in many ways. But I think genre fans will be worse off if we make that leap too soon.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf never made it beyond VHS

My first reservation is this: When we all go digital, who gets to decide what’s made available?

When previous home entertainment formats came and went, so did certain movies. Some films that had been on television never made it to home video. Some titles that were on VHS did not reach DVD, either because of rights issues or lack of demand. You won’t find I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Dream Demon on DVD, for example. They have been uploaded to YouTube, but if they should be removed, those of us who kept our off-air TV recordings will glad.

Those of us who grew up the analogue age learned something else: A film was not necessarily exactly the same each time you saw it.

As a fan of Hammer films and British horror generally, I noticed how films could change between screenings. The nudity in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth was present in some TV transmissions but missing from others, even late at night. On TV, Vincent Price’s Dr Phibes crooned ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ at the end of Dr Phibes Rises Again, but on the VHS version the song was replaced with synthesizer music. Scream and Scream Again had David Whitaker’s whole score replaced for home video, making an off-air recording essential. Witchfinder General  (The Conqueror Worm   in the US)  seemed to be slightly different each time I watched it, and I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen it complete.

Availability of prints, censorship decisions in different territories and cuts made for reasons nobody can quite explain could all  mean  a film was slightly different between viewings.

Witchfinder General seemed to be different every time

Of course, you would hope that digital releases of films will be the most complete possible, but there is no guarantee of that. If tapes and discs disappeared overnight, hardly anyone would have access to the original Star Wars trilogy in its original form. And which Blade Runner will exist in the digital future? Personally, I’m glad I still have the DVD set containing theatrical cut, European cut, work print, director’s cut and Final Cut.

I’ve written before about the relatively small selection of genre movies which services such as Netlfix provide. And the titles that are available can be changed at the whim of the platform, potentially consigning movies to digital oblivion.

Nostalgic as I sometimes am about collecting films in the analogue age, I would find it liberating to go completely digital. We are tantalisingly close to an entertainment world which we might once have imagined – one in which you walk in to your living room, say “Play 2001: A Space Odyssey” and sit down to watch it on your home cinema.

But I don’t think genre fans – or film lovers of any kind – can afford to leap feet-first into the digital realm just yet.

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