A Conversation About the Golden Era of VHS With Shea Serrano

·9-min read
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

In July, the writer Shea Serrano—author of The Rap Year Book, Basketball (and Other Things), and Movies (and Other Things)—shared a photo on Twitter that stopped me in my tracks. It was meant to show off his new speakers, which surrounded a turntable, but above it was a bookshelf covered in VHS tapes.

This shelf preoccupied me. In 2021, when VHS tapes are not staging a comeback (and good luck finding a VHS player), it was such a curious thing, and I had so many questions. Why did Shea, a man my age (40), have VHS tapes so prominently displayed? Did he watch them? Why these tapes? Thankfully, Shea was gracious enough to get on the phone with me one Friday afternoon in August and answer all my questions, which turned into a celebration of shitty movies from the golden era of VHS. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Photo credit: COURTESY OF SHEA SERRANO
Photo credit: COURTESY OF SHEA SERRANO

Where are we in this photo?

It's in my office.

Where did you get these tapes?

I bought them. When I lived in Houston, there was a thrift store by our house. I'd pop in on my way home from work and just see what they had. Thrift stores always have VHS tapes for sale, and they're like a quarter or five for a dollar. We moved to San Antonio, and it's the same thing. What you see in the photo is probably 25 percent of what I own.

Do you watch these tapes?

No.

How come?

I don't have a VCR.

Then why do you have all these tapes in your office?

I just like the way they look—they look cool on a bookshelf. Also, I was working on the Movies book at the time. So I was collecting all the movie stuff I could. I tried to find movies I liked or movies that are close to ones I liked.

When people come into your office, do they remark upon them?

Usually they look through them and say, "Oh, this is a good movie, or I can't believe you have this, this was a terrible movie. What are you thinking here?" That sort of thing. It's a fun little thing to chit chat about for a minute.

Do you have kids?

I do. I have three kids.

Do they look at the tapes and ask, "What the fuck are those?"

They have, yeah. Like I mentioned, they're in the office, and also in the office, I have a pool table. My oldest kids are twin 14-year-olds, and once a week they come to my office to play pool. It's a thing we can go do outside of the house without being around other people. We play pool and hang out and eat snacks or whatever. There was definitely a point when they asked, "What are these?” We had that whole conversation because they barely know DVDs or Blu-ray. They certainly didn't know anything about VHS.

Have you seen all of these movies?

Yes.

You've got Backstreet Boys All Access, and then you've got New Kids on the Block Hangin’ Tough Live. Which one is better?

The Backstreet Boys concert is better. I have two copies because I got so excited when I saw it that I didn't remember I already owned it, so I grabbed another one. This was stuff from when I was growing up. I was real young at the time of New Kids on the Block. I was in high school for Backstreet Boys, and they were everywhere. It was a whole thing. You grow nostalgic for that sort of stuff.

Next to Forrest Gump is what looks like an NBA tape. Is that right?

That's an NBA Jams bloopers video. Remember those?

Oh, hell yes.

The other NBA tape I have, if I'm not mistaken, is music videos; they have basketball highlights to them.

Do you remember when Sports Illustrated would have the roundup of the year in sports that they sent to subscribers.

Yeah.

There is one that kicked off with the Van Halen song, “Standing on Top of the World,” that I watched all the time. It was probably 1992, ’93. About once or twice a month I search for that on eBay. I have not been able to find a trace of it yet.

I love it.

You have Son-in-Law on your shelf; it's not even the best Pauly Shore movie.

I agree with you—it's not the best Pauly Shore movie, but it's a Pauly Shore movie. And when I was a kid, I thought it was the funniest thing.

What is the best Pauly Shore movie in your estimation?

It comes down to a matter of semantics because I don't know if you can call Encino Man a Pauly Shore movie. It's probably more a Brendan Frazier movie or a Sean Astin movie. But if you consider it a Pauly Shore movie, then that's the one. If not, then it has to be Bio-Dome, which is ridiculous. My favorite Pauly Shore appearance in a movie that isn’t a Pauly Shore movie is House Party 2.

I didn’t realize Pauly Shore was in House Party 2.

No, sorry, it's Class Act in 1992. He pops up in there. It's great.

Those Kid 'n Play movies were a very unique sub-genre of ‘90s films.

I can't wait to find the House Party movies on VHS.

You've also got Marked for Death, which isn’t the best Steven Seagal move.

You're probably right. But there's no best. It's just favorite, because they're all pretty much the same level of shitty.

I'm going to stop you right there. Under Siege. While there's definitely an element of shittiness to it, Under Siege rises above the other ones.

You know what? I think I might go Above the Law instead of Under Siege. Marked for Death is Steven Seagal doing the Steven Seagal thing. Under Siege was like, "Oh, we're going to put some real money behind this." Tommy Lee Jones is in that one. There are stars in that one. You know what I'm saying?

Photo credit: Ron Galella, Ltd. - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ron Galella, Ltd. - Getty Images

I do. There was a brief period when I’d go into a video store and if Steven Seagal’s name was on a VHS box, I would rent it. Didn’t matter what it was.

He turned into a total psycho later on in life, but at that particular time, he was really making a run at the action movie hero title. He never got there, but he was in pursuit.

Let’s talk about Beverly Hills Cop II. Which do you prefer between the original or the sequel?

I like II better. You forget how slow the original Beverly Hills Cop is. It takes so long before any action happens. And there's only two action set pieces in it. Beverly Hills Cop II just moves quicker.

That’s a defensible position. I prefer the original, but II is solid.

It's under appreciated. It's directed by Tony Scott. When you went to watch Beverly Hills Cop II, you knew what you were getting. When I watched this, I was like 10 or 11 years old, and I was just really pumped to see that Axel Foley was back. Sequels weren't really the main thing back then. If you have a sequel, it was crazy. When Die Hard 2 showed up, we lost our fucking minds even though it was terrible.

Of all of the movies on your shelf that we can in this picture, which one is your favourite?

That's a tough one. There's a top four: The Matrix, Fast and Furious, Mortal Kombat, and Best of the Best.

I am embarrassed to say, I don't know what Best of the Best is.

Oh man, you've got to watch Best of the Best. They just put it on Netflix. It's so fucking good. You're going to love it. I promise you, you're going to love it. Just watch it today. The final match—you're going to cry. I promise you, you're going to cry.

Eric Roberts is in this? Incredible.

Dude, he's so good. This is his best performance ever. You're going to love it. I'm so jealous that you get to watch it for the first time.

So number three on your list was Mortal Kombat. Interesting.

Mortal Kombat is one of my early movie-theatre memories. I was 13, maybe 14-years-old. I went with my two cousins. It starts with the flames coming up around the logo and the guy screaming, "Mortal Kombat." And when that part happened, I wanted to stand up, say the pledge of allegiance, and salute. I was so engrossed in that movie. It's not that great of a movie, but it's still pretty good for a video game movie.

I love this story.

Everybody who loves movies has a version of this story, where they saw something on screen and it just fucking imprinted itself onto the brain. What is yours?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. Vanilla Ice was in it—

Yes.

And I had to pee so bad in that movie. That movie probably came out 30 years ago, so I was 10 years old. I remember thinking, "I will pee my pants in this theatre before I will get up and miss a second of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II."

That's perfect. I have this rap book coming out in October, and there's a whole section in there about the Vanilla Ice moment in that movie. I'm also 40, so I was in love with Vanilla Ice and the Ninja Turtles. I had no idea he was going to be in the movie. It happens in the last couple of minutes. To be watching this movie and about to get to the big fight—the turtles bust through the nightclub and Vanilla Ice is there. Are kidding me? And Vanilla Ice doesn't freak out. He's like, "Whoa, whoa. What's that?" The Ninja Turtles start fighting and Vanilla Ice is like, "I'm going to fucking freestyle rap this," and now they're fighting while he's rapping. Are you kidding me?

Incredible.

I was right there with you. We probably were in the same movie theatre.

I was the kid squirming, just could not wait for it to be over, but didn't want it to end.

That's a good one. That's such a good one.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s the interview. Thank you for indulging me.

I appreciate you, homie.

Serrano’s next book is Hip Hop (and Other Things), out 26 October. You can pre-order it here. Meanwhile, I have not watched Best of the Best yet.

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