The Surprising Story Behind the World’s Rarest VHS Tape

A new documentary sheds light on the retro-obsessed world of VHS-tape collectors

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Dorling Kindersley via Getty Images

A tip for those doing a little bit of not-actually-spring-anymore spring cleaning: Don’t throw out those old movies on VHS. Though the home-video format might seem (long) dead, the collectors’ market is very much alive.

That fact is made abundantly clear in the documentary Adjust Your Tracking, which is touring the country’s theaters this summer. Directed by first-time filmmakers Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic, students at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, the movie takes a look at the culture of VHS collecting—an area with which Kinem, 22, has a firsthand familiarity. He’s been collecting tapes for about three years and estimates that the active-collector community, those who participate in the online world of VHS lovers, is about 10,000 strong. “I started seeing things that were hinting at a VHS resurgence and I knew that now was the time to get in on this and document this,” he says of the decision to make the movie.

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Some of those hints were more obvious than others—a 2012 VHS retrospective at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; a trend story in the New York Times—but there’s plenty in the film that might shock those who think VHS tapes aren’t even worthy of a garage sale.

Case in point: Tales from the Quadead Zone.

It’s a 1987 horror movie, just over an hour long and released straight t0 video, from the director of the equally-obscure Black Devil Doll from Hell. And, on May 12, 2011, a copy of the video sold for nearly $700 on eBay after an intense bidding war among collectors. It’s not the biggest VHS sale price in history, but it remains the “holy grail” for VHS collectors. (There’s some debate over the current record-holder. A copy of Halloween went for more than $13,000 this past June but Kinem describes the Halloween sale as “a fluke” and calls into question both the value of the tape—pointing out that this particular version is neither the first or rarest video example of the John Carpenter-directed horror classic—and, indeed, whether any money actually changed hands.) If another copy of Tales from the Quadead Zone went up for auction, Kinem estimates it could easily draw about $2,000.

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Adjust Your Tracking

Courtesy Dan Kinem

But why? Anyone can find old VHS tapes for a few bucks, maybe less if a store is going out of business. (That’s where many collectors find their treasure troves, at failing rental shops.)

For one thing, schlocky horror and exploitation films stand little chance of ever being transferred to DVD or Blu-ray; the VHS copies are often the last surviving evidence that the film existed. And, while duplicating VHS tapes is a common practice, the original box art—even rarer than the movies themselves—is the equivalent of the original dust jacket on a rare book, amping up the value. Plus, while nobody argues that VHS is technically better than its descendants, the way a vinyl collector might make a quality-based case for their audio medium of choice, their crackly look is perfect for both nostalgia and covering up the deficiencies of low-budget special effects.

Tales from the Quadead Zone has all of the elements—and the added benefit of collector interest.

“It kind of defines everything cool and interesting and amazing about VHS: it’s this movie that was shot on VHS, it was distributed by the filmmaker himself on VHS, it didn’t come out on DVD and it’s as obscure as it gets,” says Kinem, who estimates that 100 copies of Tales were made, total, and that most have been lost. “I know that if one does pop up again it’s going to skyrocket. Personally I’ll be putting a huge bid in—and I’ll probably still lose. All the collectors that got in post that [$700] auction look back to that and are like, well, that’s the tape I need if I’m going to have a great collection.”

As for Adjust Your Tracking, Kinem says he and Peretic hope to release the film for home viewing soon—and as for the format, you should be able to guess.