Book Review: Portable Grindhouse by Jacques Boyreau

Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of The VHS Box

It has been said that I live in the past. That my obsession with my childhood heroes, comics and pop music from the eighties shows a lack of maturity, and an inability to grow up…

… but enough about my wife’s opinions of me.

I have to say though that I agree with her 100%: I love nostalgia. I am easily swayed by a bad movie if it has a character or situation that had something to do with my younger days… in other words, I am the guy who likes Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull, the ‘new’ Star Wars films and George Romero’s new dead trilogy. Some of the best books I have bought in the last 24 months have been ‘The Best of Smash Hits by Mark Frith (all about the legendary pop music mag of the eighties), Not Quite Hollywood by Paul Harris (a solid, if somewhat thin accompaniment to the hit film), Just Can’t Get Enough by Mathew Robinson and Jensen Karp ( a look at some of the coolest toys from the eighties) and this book: Portable Grindhouse by Jacques Boyreau, a look at the lost art of the VHS box.

Immediately, before I go into the contents of the book, I must state my utter admiration for the design of the book. Remember those old cardboard video boxes that sell through video cassettes came in? My movie collection actually started with a copy of Bloodbath at the House of Death, and I cherished that cardboard boxed film until I watched it so many times that I completely wore the bastard out. This book actually comes packaged in a slightly larger version of one of those boxes, and for those of us who haven’t seen one in a while; you will be wiped out by the wave of reminiscence that will wash over you.

So why is this book designed in such a fashion? Well, as the name may suggest it is a celebration of the VHS box, and its artwork, which was occasionally (usually?) of dubious quality. The introduction gives us both a look at the author’s discovery of the VHS, and then actually goes into the history of the format, and why so many people still love it.

The body of the book is a joy to behold: each double page features a look at the front and spine of a video box on one page (in a ¾ view), and a close up of the back, which gives either a synopsis of the film, or a look at other films released by the same company. For those of VHS age, or new collectors of the format, the distribution names will be familiar: All Seasons Entertainment, Media, Trans World Entertainment… the list goes on.

The films celebrated are mainly genre stuff, like My Bloody Valentine, Stunt Rock or The Tool Box Murders, and some more obscure titles like The Porno Killer, Midnight Intruders or Alien Massacre. There are some non genre stuff as well, all weird in their own way, like Roger Raglin Best Kept Secrets (a video bow-hunting manual), Gary Coleman: For Safety’s Sake (a guide to being safe in your home, hosted by Gary Coleman, with his assistants Jack and Jill Example, and Nurse Helpquick) and Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World (an animated feature which steals directly from Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space.

This book is the paper version of those trailer mix-tapes you used to be able to get, and are occasionally available on DVD (like All Monsters Attack). It’s not essential for your collection, but you will find yourself revisiting it often, and showing anyone who remembers these types of VHS Boxes.

My only problem with this book is that it feels as though the spine could crack if it is not treated with some degree of care: this is NOT a book you can open up on a flat surface without doing exactly that. Love this book, but be VERY careful with it. I will admit that this book would have gotten 5 stars if I could be confident of its resilience against repeated readings.

This tome is published by Fantagraphics Books, a company of whom I am a great fan as they have published some fantastic comic collections in the past. While it is not the be all and end all of VHS covers collections, it is a wonderful look at the cardboard box art of yesteryear. Let’s hope Boyreau can find his way clear to do more books of this type!

This really is the perfect book for the movie fan: light on text, heavy on image.

Verdict: ****