We live in an age of constant media access, of Netflix, Youtube, and an unprecedented shift towards “extreme” content. It is easy to forget that once, media access was seen as monstrous, a creeping poison in the form of “Video Nasties”. (1) Whether malignant or innocuous, VHS moved media into the home, and inexorably changed the face of spectatorship. At least, this is Caetlin Benson-Allott’s claim in her book Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens. In the opening chapter, she draws a link between VHS and the opening credits of the 1980 film Friday the 13th, where the title card appears to crash through a glass plane, the shards spinning out menacingly towards the viewer. Although it is hardly the first time a title sequence has broken the fourth wall, this act explicitly positions the film as a televisual work, designed to threaten the hermetic nature of the home viewer’s TV-set. This moment, she writes, is emblematic of the massive shift in film spectatorship towards VHS and the home-video viewer. The broken glass is a historical marker of puncture, of a new dynamic between film and viewer that hits you where you live. As such, it is an apt introduction to Benson-Allott’s book, which aims to expound and analyse VHS spectatorship.
Benson-Allott creates a taxonomy of the shift towards the VHS spectator by analysing the blood-drenched and blowsy B-Movies of Hollywood. The genre is well-suited to VHS analysis, given that its entry to the medium sparked the “Video Nasties” furore. The book’s major propositions indicate a potential reason as to why such a public outcry occurred in the first place: the increased (and perhaps uneasy) intimacy that comes with “home video”.
Benson-Allott’s primary thesis is that VHS constructs a spectator distinct from that of the cinematic apparatus. She reaches this conclusion through both an extended engagement with psychoanalytic theory and a study of the industrial context of VHS. The book is explicitly oppositional, as Benson-Allott aims to forge a new theory of the VHS platform. Subsequently, she rejects the classical cinematic spectator, as expounded by Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry. Her line of reasoning is that “apparatus theory” (which dictated that the spectator beholds an image projected from behind, as if it were a mechanical extension of the unconscious (2)) must be discarded in the face of new technology. Like the shadow-gazers of Plato’s cave, the spectators in Metz and Baudry’s theory are prisoners to the images projected before them, lacking any autonomy beyond the choice to keep watching. In the time of the remote control, such an account becomes tenuous. Benson-Allott demonstrates that VHS has an entirely different symbolic relationship to the spectator, due to its user interface. The television screen sits in front of the viewer, a stimulus that they are empowered to control through pausing, rewinding, redubbing and pirate duplication.
Benson-Allott’s analysis of B-movies makes for an interesting addition to the field of “platform studies”. By virtue of their being artistic afterthoughts, B-movies lay bare the technological, political and cultural conditions of their production. Their low-brow aesthetics allow the author to pinpoint the moment when filmmakers began treating their work as VHS products. In the earlier chapters of Killer Tapes, she outlines two aspects of films where this can be explicitly observed. First, she draws out the changing stylistic choices of George Romero in his Living Dead franchise. If “style is the flesh of the work,” (p. 26) then in the increasingly graphic flesh of the zombie film, Benson-Allott sees a quintessential move towards the home viewer. She cites the shallow focus and hyper-saturated colours in Land of the Dead (George Romero, 2005) as an aesthetic suited for, and specifically relevant to VHS technology. These choices, Benson-Allott argues, are designed to respond to the limitations and distractions that surround home-theatre. Simply put, the oversaturated reds and muted blues suit a LCD television better than a celluloid screen. Romero’s films also, she points out, continue the tradition of shattered glass and encroaching monsters of Friday the 13th.
Benson-Allott draws out this analysis to point towards a second, subtler shift in the dynamics of spectatorship. The adaptations to a video aesthetic indicate a relationship between the video-spectator and the screen that is more intimate and personal than their cinematic counterpart. Indeed, throughout Killer Tapes, the author drives towards the potential for intersubjectivity between text and spectator in VHS, one of the few formats which is capable of responding to the viewer’s demands. Video stops, shifts and rewinds at your command. The videotape’s operation is an interplay between body and technology, reminiscent of the “prosthetic-as-intersubjective-soft-cyborg-technology”, an idea derived from Vivian Sobchack. (3) Analysing Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), Benson-Allott draws on Sobchack to demonstrate how vision, when mediated through technology like VHS, also teaches us to see technologically. Video becomes an extension of the body, as well as encroaching on its territory. Consequently, Benson-Allott asserts that VHS, by being an intersubjective and responsive platform, poses a psychological threat to the sovereignty of the body (pp. 95-96).
By the author’s reckoning, VHS became one of the most widely accessed soft-cyborg technologies. Videodrome’s body-horror does not stem from mutilation but from subsumption, the fear that video and the spectator will become a single techno-flesh. Through considered textual analysis, she outlines how the intersubjective intimacy of video may spur viewers into anxiety over the sovereignty of their skin (p. 80). However, it should be noted that the book is not entirely devoted to psychoanalytic discourse, and in the second half of the work, Benson-Allott nimbly changes tack to address the political context of VHS spectatorship.
On an industrial level, Benson-Allot explores how VHS is a democratised medium (pp. 107-111). In the films she considers, VHS liberates the characters by being an omniscient beacon of truth. She argues that VHS is often (and particularly in the B-movie) used to support and provide justice or reveal plot points to the characters, as in The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002). Indeed, the plots of many a thriller (including The Ring) hinge on conveniently placed CCTV cameras, and the character’s access to the videotapes they produce. Benson-Allott suggests that it is precisely this democratising, equalising aspect of VHS that made the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) so queasy about the format’s prospective success.
Benson-Allott’s work truly hits its stride when considering the MPAA’s displeasure over the rise of VHS, and the technology’s later “abjection”. She points out that Friday the 13th’s opening sequence also marks the beginning of a narrative trend in Hollywood B-cinema – namely, the video as a threat to the body – and argues that this was an explicit manoeuvre by the MPAA, in an effort to render VHS abject (p. 103). The MPAA played up the newfound intimacy between spectator and screen while also depicting the technology itself as monstrous; a subtext that is made text in The Ring. However, Benson-Allott also takes time to carefully outline that the MPAA was playing up an already held concern over the threat that VHS posed, as can be seen in both Videodrome and the “Video Nasties” debates. The VHS market has historically represented a political front, a source of Hollywood’s cultural colonialism. Subsequently, she argues, it became a political battleground for control.
Ultimately, with VHS it is the spectator who is in control, and it is this control, Benson-Allott points out, that has always been the top priority and domain of the MPAA. Throughout the book, she builds a significant body of evidence towards the MPAA’s borderline antagonistic attitude towards the home video market, drawing notably on interviews with then-president Jack Valenti (p. 103). The idea that the MPAA’s protectionist doctrine is ultimately an insidious attempt at economic monopoly has already been considered in a number of works. (4) Benson-Allott, however, is one of the few writers to closely analyse the texts that “Hollywood” was producing at the time of this conflict. The Ring and Dawn of the Dead are revealed through close reading to be morality tales, designed to demonise the home video viewer for their capacity to control the text. Her work on The Ring in particular, where the act of illicitly copying and sharing video becomes an act of murder, marshals evidence of the MPAA’s anxiety over VHS. Piracy looms as a dark spectre over home video, a signal that the increased intimacy between text and spectator (and the threat that such intimacy poses) goes both ways. As Benson-Allott sees it, while the spectator may fear that the boundaries of their body are being invaded by technology, the filmmaking community must also fear for its own sovereignty.
In the wake of phenomenological and cognitive theory, it must be said that platform studies, too, seems to have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps, as Benson-Allott suggests, this is because technology is evolving so rapidly that scholars are scrambling for a passing moment of relevance (p. 9). Subsequently, she argues, VHS is usually addressed as a mid-point in the teleology from cinema to computerized media or video games (p. 11). Her frustration stems from the fact that this doesn’t take the full interactivity of video into account, and ignores the decade in which it was aprimary source of media. Benson-Allott urges theorists to pay heed to these changes, as they have resonance for the present-day relationship between spectator and screen.
Current scholars in the field should note that Killer Tapes is fundamentally a historical work. Although it was released last year, it is a text grounded in VHS and DVD, and does not examine digital streaming and online platforms of video sharing. Rather than consider the possible future of the digital spectator, Benson-Allott focuses on a specific moment in the history of motion pictures. This does not detract from her argument; it does, however, position the book as one that examines a past model of spectatorship. This said, implications for the future of home video can still be seen in her analysis. The meteoric increase in digital streaming – both illicit and legitimate – is dismantling Hollywood’s previous distribution system, just as Valenti had feared. One of the treats of reading this book is the feeling of déjà vu one gets while learning of the film industry’s antagonism towards VHS. Each statement unearthed by Benson-Allott sounds identical to the modern discourse over online piracy. Unfortunately, she declines to draw out this connection, a move which locks her subject matter into a temporally delineated discourse.
It would be easy to criticise the book for the anachronism of its subject matter. Indeed, the author largely writes in the present tense, as if in ignorance of the recent and significant changes to at-home viewing (such as the rise of Netflix). And yet, Benson-Allottt unambiguously adopts a historicist approach. While her text is somewhat insular with respect to psychoanalytic film theory, work such as this is fundamental to platform studies. Furthermore, Benson-Allott’s book is all the more valuable in light of the scholarly neglect of VHS as a format.
The book’s unusual blend of industrial history and psychoanalytic theory is buoyed by Benson-Allott’s irreverent tone. Readers would not be blamed for giggling at the psychosexual undercurrent she proffers when outlining the MPAA’s attacks on VHS. The notion that the predominantly male organisation seems to align VHS with feminine sexuality – revealed in gems like Valenti’s comment that he wished to “plug the analogue hole” (p. 103) – is further supported by the author’s analysis of The Ring. It also makes Benson-Allott’s work very, very funny. Many academic writers today eschew humour in favour of an assumed position of authority. Benson-Allott’s work possesses the logical clarity and rigorous industrial research to support her ideas, which allows her to grant herself the freedom to enjoy her subject. Moreover, her textual analysis is rich with small details, the sum of which makes her account quite compelling. As a result, the book is a delight to read, both scholarly and entertaining. Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens is Benson-Allott’s first monograph. I hope it will not be her last.
Caetlin Benson-Allott, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing by (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
1. For more information about the Video Nasty debates, interested readers should consider James Kendrick’s “A Nasty Situation: Social Panics, Transnationalism, and the Video Nasty”, in Steffen Hantke (ed.), Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), pp. 153-72.
2. Cf. Richard Allen, “Psychoanalytic Film Theory” in Toby Miller and Robert Stam (eds.), A Companion to Film Theory, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 129.
3. Cf. Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
4. Cf. David Luckenbill, “Creativity, Conflict, and Control: Film Industry Campaigns to Shape Video Policy”, in Joel Best (ed.), Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishing, 1995), pp. 287-312; and Garth Jowett, “Moral Responsibility and Commercial Entertainment: Social Control in the United States Film Industry, 1907–1968”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 10, no. 1 (1990): 3-31.