By Will Thompson
A VHS copy of the 1993 “Super Mario Bros.” movie sold on eBay for a hair over $10,000 on April 24. There were 45 bids. The average “Super Marios Bros.” VHS goes for $20 to $30 on eBay. The price tag wasn’t the only unprecedented aspect of the sale. The sellers claimed the tape was graded by a professional collectible grading company, in the same way that other companies analyze the condition and rarity of baseball cards and comic books, seal them in a plastic box, and give them an overall numeric rating.
The seller in question seems rather dubious, and I’m betting they bid up their own item. There was nothing special about the tape. Regardless, VHS tapes, like most collectibles, have risen in popularity since the pandemic began. Tapes haven’t been mass produced by major movie studios since 2006, and the last VCR was made in 2016. While it may seem like thrift stores remain overrun with VHS tapes, that doesn’t change the fact it’s a dead format with no notable new supply. The age of mainstream VHS collectibility may be upon us.
Let’s start by talking about what tapes aren’t collectible: most of them. Especially Disney movies. Think, almost any movie released by a major studio at the time, including Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and so on.
Those “Black Diamond” Disney VHS tapes (with the diamond-shaped “The Classics” logo on the spine) aren’t actually worth that much, either. Go to your nearest thrift store and see if you can’t get your hands on one or 20. There reportedly are a handful of Disney VHS tapes that are worth more than maybe a buck, but you’re going to be eyeballing serial numbers and poring over cover art with a jeweler’s loupe. Oh, speaking of cover art, that infamous “The Little Mermaid” tape with the penis-shaped castle spire is worth about $10. The money is not in Disney.
While browsing the aisles of the long-gone video store, one would encounter racks of movies filled with graphic, salacious imagery: babes, blood, monsters, more babes and increasingly weird and specific ways to massacre people (see: chainsaws, leaf blowers, nail guns, microwaves). In short, exploitation movies of all kinds. Think “The Toxic Avenger” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” These are the tapes VHS collectors want; the gnarlier the cover art and the bigger the box, the better. If it looks like it would play at the drive-in your parents wouldn’t take you to circa 1975, it’s probably worth something. If it’s in one of the big boxes that early VHS were distributed in, it’s definitely worth something. Stores took to cutting these boxes down and putting them in plastic cases; so an intact big box from a movie distributor such as Wizard Video or Cannon Video can fetch some coin.
The VHS era also was a golden era for action movies. Copies of just about any Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme flick are plentiful on thrift store shelves, but collectors are after more oddball stuff. You know, the kind of movie that featured Gary Busey in a supporting role that would air on UHF stations at 1 p.m., after a Hooked on Phonics or hair bedazzler infomercial. When considering VHS collectibility, it’s best to look for the low budget and the weird. Horror movies of any kind and most cult movies are a safe bet, too.
The VHS era was a golden age for content distribution, thanks to an inexpensive home format being widely available for the first time ever. Distributors of all stripes sprang up, some of which are notable among tape collectors. Movies on labels such as Vestron, the aforementioned Cannon, Meda (which became Media), New World Video, Thorn/EMI and Lightning Video tend to be on collectors’ lists. Some collectors have a favorite distributor and will attempt to complete the company’s entire catalog.
Now we’re really in the weeds of collectability, and this is where things get extremely specific. Please note that I am not joking when I say that the following types of tapes can be collectible: wrestling (like WWF), fires in a fireplace, weird workout videos (examples: “Facercise” and “Dancin’ Grannies”), satanic panic/religious scare-tactic tapes tapes (like “Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ’N’ Roll,” a tape that graced every Christian bookstore video shelf I ever encountered), martial arts instruction (think “Rex Kwon Do” from “Napoleon Dynamite”), dance instruction tapes (think “D-Qwon’s Dance Grooves” from “Napoleon Dynamite”) and even pre-recorded tapes. Got a tape of “Predator” and “Total Recall” recorded straight off The Movie Channel around 1999 with commercials and all? It’s a time capsule, and someone wants it (including myself).
If you’re buying tapes, you need a VCR. The prices on those are going up, too, though they’re still floating around. Make sure to test out that VCR with a junky tape before buying one at a thrift shop (“Titanic” or “Jerry Maguire” are good options). It’s a major bonus to find one with the remote. You might also need an HDMI-to-RCA adapter so you can plug it into your HDTV, or, if you’re a purist, find yourself a CRT TV. When you’re all set, drop $20 on a copy of “Super Mario Bros.” No, really. Just pretend it’s a sequel to Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film “Brazil” and it makes for a great watch.
Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college and collects VHS. He lives in Lewiston and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.