Who doesn’t like streaming a movie from the comfort of their home? While that may seem like a good thing, director Thomas Edward Seymour’s documentary VHS Massacre Too explores the decline of the exploitation film and physical media in the Netflix era and the impact that is having on film preservation. The doc is one of the best defenses of physical media and independent film that you’re likely to encounter
In some ways, VHS Massacre Too is more focused than its predecessor, VHS Massacre (2016), which also looked at the decline of physical media but was often overly nostalgic in its execution. Seymour’s sequel, which recently screened at the Charlotte Film Festival, brings back some of the names from the first doc, including Troma Entertainment founder Lloyd Kaufman and film critic Joe Bob Briggs, but the sequel does a better job laying out specific reasons why physical media and independent cinema have declined and why it’s important to maintain them. The result is a lean documentary that will make you think about how you’re consuming media and the impact of our viewing habits.
In the opening minutes, Briggs and others give a brief overview of the exploitation film and even dig into film history, including the Hays Code, to discuss the role of censorship throughout cinema. This overview is informative without ever wandering into the weeds. Briggs also reminds viewers that while films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are considered genre classics now, the film faced such controversy upon its release that drive-ins were essentially the only way to see it.
From there, the doc explores various reasons that physical media has declined, and as a result, the exploitation film along with it. One of the main culprits the doc blames is Blockbuster. Even if physical media collectors have fond memories of browsing their local Blockbuster and scanning VHS covers, Briggs and others note how Blockbuster is partially responsible for the decline of independent cinema and the death of the direct to video market. The doc points out how the once all-powerful chain killed several mom and pop video stores, which were more likely to stock indie films, specifically horror and exploitation, because it was cheaper for them to do so. Blockbuster, meanwhile, stocked their shelves with new releases from bigger studios because they had partnerships with those companies.
Additionally, the doc spends a lot of time looking at the impact of streaming services. In this case, the consequences have become even more profound than the impact of Blockbuster on the video market. In interviews with indie filmmakers like Debbie Rochon and independent film company heads like Kaufman and J.R. Bookwalter (Tempe), the impact of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime comes into sharp focus. Kaufman states that even if a Troma film is viewed over 500,000 times online, he makes very little money. Meanwhile, due to the algorithms of streaming services and the ever changing rules, it’s not likely an indie film will stay on a streaming service for long, and if it does, it’s often buried beneath piles of content from major studios. “We’re not in control of our destinies, they are,” Bookwalter says, after admitting his indie film company is essentially finished.
Ironically, for a while, Netflix, when it primarily shipped DVDs, was supportive of indie films. Bookwalter points out that the company wanted content. However, when they launched the streaming service, they were far less likely to promote independent cinema and instead cut deals with the bigger studios to feature their content.
Overall, the doc presents a rather grim portrait of independent cinema. Kaufman says that the indie film industry is “squashed” and notes how even the word independent has been co-opted by bigger studios. Yet, he does propose solutions. He calls for bigger companies to be broken up so we don’t have monopolies. The doc ends with a note that viewers should also support net neutrality rules, which were overturned in 2017 by the Republican-led FCC. Yet, administrations come and go, and it’s possible the negative changes can be undone by a future administration, especially if citizens voice a desire for such changes.
If I have one gripe about the first VHS Massacre, it’s that it tried to tackle too much for a single documentary. The sequel, however, it's more focused in its intent. It adequately explores the causes of independent cinema’s decline and how that impacts film history and preservation. Yet, it doesn’t leave viewers feeling powerless. As already stated, it lays out actions film fans can take, and it sees the collector’s market, specifically within the horror community, as a lifeline.
While VHS Massacre Too focuses mostly on exploitation and horror films, the doc should interest anyone interested in film history or media studies. It’s a fascinating and sad look at the decline of physical media and the exploitation film. It shows what we’ve sacrificed and lost in order to que up a film on Netflix from the comfort of our living room.
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