New technologies often lead directly to the death of old technologies, and that's what happened with VHS. It changed home viewing habits forever, and then itself was killed off by DVD. It was a slow death that finally ended last fall, when the last major supplier of VHS tapes quit the business.
That might be that -- out with the old, in with the new, and all that rubbish -- except when VHS died, it might have taken an untold number of innocent victims along with it to the grave. "Hundreds of important and critically acclaimed films [are] no longer readily accessible for home viewing," reports Anthony Kaufman at Moving Image Source. "In the wake of video-store shutdowns across the country, and a move toward DVD-only subscription services modeled after Netflix and digital download initiatives, the non-digitized movie is becoming an endangered species. The death of VHS has long been foretold ... But the industry appears to have overlooked the films themselves."
If the only movies you watch are recent blockbusters, then this is a non-issue. But if your tastes extend to the margins, to the lesser-known, less-heralded titles by noted filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tourneur, and Robert Bresson, or if you've ever been curious about discovering "important little-known American auteurs" like Lew Landers and André De Toth -- cited by Dave Kehr of the New York Times in the article -- it's sobering to think that so many films are "vanishing into the ether," as Kehr says. "They're just gone from the conversation and that's unfortunate. The younger critics haven't seen this stuff, but how could they?"
Call it the "VHS Dead List," the flip side of the DVD wish list, where movie buffs express their yearning to see what they've rarely or never seen.
Jeff Anderson compiled a great list for Cinematical last year, and readers chimed in with a host of additional suggestions. Turner Classic Movies has an ongoing poll of the top 200 most requested films not on DVD. Glenn Erickson (AKA DVD Savant) has a recently revised, yet still incredibly long list of hundreds of titles.
The positive side is that some of the wish list items from past years have been released on DVD (Erickson notes dozens) and that other titles are available via online downloading or streaming services (Scott Weinberg discovered some hidden gems on Netflix).
VHS helped kill off repertory theaters, where I was fortunate enough to watch many classics on the big screen, where they belong. But now it looks like many more films will never be available to see on the small screen. As those films disappear, so does a valuable part of our film culture.