Being just old enough to remember when the first home VHS (Video Home System, to differentiate itself from the competing Beta format) machines hit the market, I've always been fascinated with them and even in the 80s I speculated that there would be an appreciation of their history in the future. Adjust Your Tracking was first released in 2013 amongst a few other documentaries dealing mainly with VHS nostalgia and collecting. For its tenth anniversary, it's been reissued on Blu-ray (although it doesn't exactly take full advantage of the format's quality) with literally a ton of extras. Recommended
Legend has it that Dan Kinem, being a life-long movie fan, loved collecting DVDs as that format rose to power in the late 1990s but soon realized that there were plenty of movies that never made it to the format and could only be viewed and collected at home on VHS tape. While DVD had taken over the market studios had stopped releasing new movies on VHS, video rental stores started selling off and in some cases threw their VHS tapes in dumpsters, and consumers even started to get rid of their VCRs, but even though many obscure movies had been released on DVD there were still plenty that didn't. Dan realized that if you really loved movies and wanted access to as many as possible, you still had to have VHS in your home theater setup (it never disappeared from mine) and started seeking out the best (and possibly worst) titles that remained exclusive to the format, starting a website called VHShitfest to document them. Dan met fellow film student Levi Peretic at college in Pennsylvania and the two set out first to make a short YouTube video about collecting those titles, but found that there was enough material out there for a feature that became Adjust Your Tracking, named of course for the typical instructions in VCR manuals for what to do if your screen was filled with video noise (of course ever since I first laid hands on one, I've always instinctively set the tracking properly for the tape being played.)
Adjust Your Tracking opens with a brief bit of history of home VCRs but this isn't really its main point- the biggest point in home video history it emphasizes is the rise of video rental stores. As early movies on both VHS and Beta retailed for over $50, it wasn't practical for most to simply buy up movies the way they did when DVD came along. Instead they'd head to the video store and pay a few bucks to rent a tape for a day. Those stores attracted customers mostly with new movies that had just left theaters, but in order to fill shelf space there was also an explosion of more off-beat fare which for many was the real joy of renting. Of course most stores had X-rated adult movies which you'd otherwise have to venture into unsavory parts of town to see as well as horror and exploitation films that few theaters would even touch and sold themselves as pushing the limits of gore, violence, and general scariness that gave little kids nightmares just seeing their cover boxes. This is the main thing celebrated here.
The documentary runs far too short at 80 minutes, but packs in enough insights for the veterans to appreciate and for the more novice viewers ideas of what they ought to be watching. Although I appreciate just about all types of movies, I have to admit that the lesser-known, lower-budget, and often lower-quality films are many times just plain more fun than anything else. (This of course was not a good argument when bugging my parents to relent and buy a machine to play all of this.) I'm far from the only one who feels this way as you'll see here. Culled from countless hours of digitally-shot video footage from a trip clear across the country and back, we meet a number of old and young folks who show off their huge collections of tapes, reminisce about renting tapes in the early years, and talk about recent experiences hunting them down.
One title in particular that is considered a holy grail for many is Tales from the Quadead Zone, a very low-budget gore-fest shot on videotape in the 80s which has recently sold for several hundred dollars on eBay. I don't remember that one, but certainly do remember Faces of Death which is the other big title mentioned here. That was a documentary dealing with different ways to die which became an urban legend in that scenes of people being eaten by alligators or executed in an electric chair were real, and the box on video stores shelves literally DARED people to rent it. News reports even mentioned concerned parents trying to get video stores to remove this title and kids being psychologically scarred from watching it. But once the internet came along it was proven once and for all that Faces of Death was in fact entirely fake. Dan and Levi pay a visit to the director of this notorious title and see the nice home that it's bought for him and his wife.
Another big name who appears here is Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment, which has brought us countless low-budget exploitation films including The Toxic Avenger, another 80s video store staple. There are others who you might not know as well but will certainly remember after viewing, such as writer Zack Carlson who speaks while buried in a ball pit he keeps in his home, and Bradley Creanzo who has re-created a video rental store in his basement with hundreds of tapes on shelves organized by genre as they would have been authentically and even keeps a huge Blockbuster Video gumball machine on location. We also visit a few actual video rental stores that at least survived into the year 2013 (a year after the last Blockbuster stores had closed their doors) and hear their owners tell of their determination to keep going even with competition from rent-by-mail or streaming services.
I've always felt that this documentary is much too short, but this two-disc Blu-ray release makes up for that with the extensive extras which I'll get to later. Another main criticism I've had of this and many of the other VHS-related documentaries that have come out is that it focuses mainly on horror titles. These, of course, are an important part of many people's early experiences with home video, but I would have liked to have also had time spent on other material that's mainly only available now on obsolete formats such as music videos, teen sex comedies, children's titles and often unintentionally hilarious "how-to" tapes which were supposed to be a big part of home video but were mainly bought and watched by niche audiences.
Readers of a site called "Hi-Def Digest" just might be scoffing at all of this, but the main points of collecting VHS in this century are explained. The first and most important is that there are many obscure titles that might never be released in any more current format. In some cases the negatives for some movies might be lost forever making a 4K release impossible, and a VHS tape in good condition may be the best these movies will ever look. A more debatable reason for VHS is briefly touched upon and may be more controversial- it's argued that low-budget exploitation movies are more suited to a lower-quality format, and those that have been issued on Blu-ray simply look too good. I'll agree that many Blu-ray transfers of older movies have made them look better than they originally did in theaters, and better than they had been intended to look in some cases. One weird thrill I get out of watching older transfers on modern equipment though is how primitive many of them are, and though I'm certainly glad that pan and scan has become a thing of the past I now sometimes watch those transfers just for laughs.
This brings me to one thing this documentary and even its massive extras seem to ignore - they don't really show these people actually WATCHING their collections. Some of them have small TVs in the background, which I hope aren't their main viewing devices. In one extra (if you don't mind me jumping that far ahead here) someone demonstrates a CED videodisc player and says that people are amazed he has a working one, playing I Spit on Your Grave (one of the odder titles on that format which tried to appeal mostly to mainstream audiences, who made it the 8-track tape of video formats) on a basic mono player and a CRT TV. If they had visited me, they would've seen me play my complete CED collection on a pristine stereo player with proper A/V outputs upconverted to 4K through my receiver. Of course, I've seen some who watch old formats on modern TVs with the picture stretched to widescreen, as that's what most TVs default to and they have no clue that anything is wrong. But I've always been a stickler for quality, having watched things with at least 2-channel stereo since 1985, upgrading to Dolby Surround in 1989 and 5.1 in 1998. And as much as this documentary focuses on VHS, it doesn't even mention the short-lived "D-Theater" format which brought about 90 movies onto VHS tape in digital high-definition with 5.1 audio a couple years before HD-DVD and Blu-ray were introduced. (And yes, my system includes a machine for that along with all but two of the movies released for it.)
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Adjust Your Tracking gets devoured in the big Blu-ray rewinder for a two-disc release from VHSHitfest and OCN Distribution. The discs come home in a clear plastic two-disc case and if you ordered through Vinegar Syndrome you pick up an exclusive slipcover.
Again, this is a tough title to cover on a site called "High-Def Digest", and not just because of its subject. It was originally released on standard DVD with no Blu-ray, but that wasn't a huge loss because this documentary's master actually WAS a VHS tape. It had been shot on digital video but was then recorded onto VHS and that served as its master, with the inherent low picture quality taking center stage. On top of that, there was some additional degradation such as intentional lines that often appear on damaged tapes, and there are also many compression artifacts which of course you'd never see on purely analog video. As one who regularly watches VHS and other analog formats on a 4K screen upscaled through a receiver, I can say most VHS tapes don't actually look as bad as this intentionally does, but I'll go along with the joke. The Blu-ray is encoded at 60fps but the footage was shot in 30 or 24, and there's no discernible quality difference from the DVD. I definitely wouldn't advise re-buying this for any increase in picture quality, but the extras are a whole 'nother story which I'll get to below.
While the picture quality was intentionally degraded, the same wasn't done with the sound. It would have been funny to hear Hi-Fi tracking noise or linear tape hiss, but the 2-channel audio mix for the most part is clean (it's encoded in 2-channel DTS-HD MA and flagged to output as PCM with secondary audio even though none is included on the disc.) Those who speak on camera are easy to hear and a stereo music score of electronic tunes accompanies most of it.
The extras on this release are what earn this Blu-ray release a high score. The original DVD release was a bit of a cheat as it was on 2 discs but both were 1-sided and single-layer, so all of it really could have fit on just one. Both Blu-ray discs here are dual-layered however and have about ten hours' worth of extras altogether, not even counting the three commentary tracks with the main documentary. (The first two with the directors and producers were taken from the DVD, with the third being newly recorded for this release. The track with directors Dan Kinem and Levi Peretic is a lot of fun but they don't seem to be paying attention to what's onscreen, instead telling stories about their adventures making this film. The second track with Josh Schafer and Matt Desiderio is rather poorly recorded and at one point one of them forgets that they're even recording a commentary track!) All but two extras from the DVD are included here, and some were shot in hi-def and unlike the main feature do benefit from being on Blu-ray.
Disc 1 has two trailers which you may have seen on YouTube, then there's a Deleted Scenes section which given the movie's short running time could have been included more to begin with. These include "Everything is Terrible" and their quest to accumulate a literal mountain of Jerry Maguire tapes- it's a ridiculously common title found in almost any thrift store because Blockbuster employees were forced to ask EVERY customer to pre-order it prior to its release. We then get more time with the director of Faces of Death and visit the legendary Scarecrow Video in Seattle which is the largest video store on the planet. It's worth noting here that these extras seem to be taken from the digital files and not subjected to the analog-ifying of the main documentary, giving them much improved picture quality.
We then get a section of "Short Films" showcasing Chester Turner, director of Tales From the Quadead Zone and his utter amazement of its having fans decades later, then look at the last days of two east coast video stores. "Behind the Scenes" has a short promotional piece (new to this Blu-ray), a drive through Northern California on the tour visiting a Bigfoot monument, and two live Q&As at theater screenings. Next is a whopping 3 hours and 11 minutes of extended interviews, appearing to be the unedited interviews that were excerpted. Some but not all of these were on the older DVD. Finally there's a neat easter egg found by hitting Right on the main menu and highlighting the TV screen- this will play the entire soundtrack album as the movie's poster and artist and song titles are displayed on the screen. There is a point where the audio goes silent for a couple seconds, I've verified this is in the master and not a disc or equipment defect so don't panic when you hear that.
Disc 2 has a new conversation with Dan and Levi where they lament that VHS tapes aren't as easy to find anymore and aren't cheap either, with titles they picked up for a few bucks now going for several hundred on Ebay. Then there's a visit to a 2012 VHS convention and screening of amateur movies at a theater in Stroudsburgh, PA. About 90 minutes of "Collector Updates" revisit many who appeared in the original doc and again many remark that the market today isn't the same. A sad update is that Bradley Creanzo's video-store basement was flooded and several tapes on the lower shelves were lost. Next is a still gallery (though it plays as a slide show and isn't chaptered, making it difficult to search for a favorite picture) showing photos of production, various stops on the trip including Disneyland, and some posters and cover art including the original DVD insert (this Blu-ray has no insert.)
"Tapes! Tapes! Tapes!" is another gigantic extra running 3 hours and 49 minutes, where several of the guests get to extensively show us the crown jewels of their collections. Finally there's about 75 minutes of "Video Store Tours" which range from simple walkthroughs of stores the filmmakers stopped at to full-on tours with the owners as they explain how they've arranged everything. All end with onscreen updates of whether or not they're still in business at the time of this disc's printing.
The two brief Easter Eggs that were on the DVD are found here also, again by highlighting the TV on the main menu screen and also the VCR under it when pressing Down. These are just random bits of silliness cut together from outtakes. Two extras from the DVD are excluded here- the segment on "Cut Boxes" where collectors discuss how many rental stores would cut the cardboard tape sleeves to fit in sturdier plastic library cases (at the prices most tapes sold for, they should have come that way in the first place but it seems packaging got more minimal as the years went on) and another about Redbox, the last way to rent movies physically in most areas now but is universally despised by those who appeared here.
Annoyingly, both discs start out with an unskippable intro consisting of the classic FBI warning with tape wear effects added and a "VHShitfest" logo before you can reach the menus.
The back cover lists the following as the most prominent extras:
Adjust Your Tracking was a lot of fun in its first DVD appearance, and the mountain of extras added in this Blu-ray release make it even more so. Of course with me in particular they're just preaching to the choir, but it's always good to be reminded of the more far-out stuff that was available for rent back in the golden age of video stores and that is now sought after by collectors. While it's not the definitive documentary on home video that I keep hoping someone will make (and invite me to contribute to) it'll still put a smile on your face if you've never gotten rid of your VHS tapes and perhaps maybe even make some people re-consider throwing out theirs. Laserdisc remains my analog format of choice however and has for the past 30 years, its quality certainly holds up better on modern equipment than any other and still has its share of odd titles that haven't been available since. Recommended