- Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File-Sharing by Caetlin Benson-Allott
What happens to the film spectator when the ontological status of motion pictures changes? In the recent past, the experiential, economic, and existential dimensions of film as medium have been unquestionably altered by the appearance and eventual economic dominance of various video delivery platforms. Caetlin Benson-Allott’s Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File-Sharing pursues a historical approach based deeply in textual analysis to trace the impacts of such video technologies on the [End Page 171] movies.1 The term movies is used intentionally, both here and by Benson-Allott, to make clear that the concern of her study is not film, “because it is not about celluloid, projection, or the cinema.”2 Rather, it is about how even content that is often first packaged and sold as film comes to circulate through video-enabled environs and how the contours of those texts show symptoms of this condition.
Rather than emerging in a vacuum, Benson-Allott points out that her focus on video takes part in a rising current of scholarship that considers the relationship of video platforms to cinema. She labels this subfield “new video studies,” though she rightly takes pains to yoke her particular study more closely to the spirit, if not the specific theoretical models, of apparatus and screen theory in its delineation of the ways movies construct or imagine a spectatorial subject.3 However, rather than simply updating theory to account for a single differently configured apparatus, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens traces the seemingly continual instability of the apparatus. True to its title, it does this through the lens of “low-genre movies,” particularly horror, as such movies were clear benefactors of the initial emergence of video as a home viewing technology.4 Furthermore, as sites where social anxieties surrounding new technologies are often mined as material for an existential dread that fuels their narratives, many of the horror movies that Benson-Allott uses as case studies feature video or video-related technologies as prominent, and mostly unsettling, presences. Both in story and technique, they offer windows onto the ways that motion pictures, the field of cultural activity most directly affected by the presence of various video platforms, reflect and refract such anxieties. At times this manifests overtly, as in the cases of Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983) and The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002), and in other instances more obliquely, as in the Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth, 2007) double feature Planet Terror and Death Proof.
Offering both overt and oblique engagements with video, George Romero’s zombie cycle (1968–2010) is the analytical object of Benson-Allott’s first chapter, where she reveals how these movies illustrate the shifting of the spectatorial position over a forty-year period.5 In making this move, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens begins with a deft comparative analysis, which provides an almost-longitudinal look at how the apparatuses of exhibition presumed by a writer-director and his distributors result in shifting formal attributes even when looking across a series of movies based in similar premises. This actually has Benson-Allott looking back further than the mid-1970s home video moment to chronicle how two specific earlier variations of the cinema, drive-ins or grindhouses and multiplexes, are manifest in how the first two entries, Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968) and Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978), respectively construct their spectators. From these earlier filmic moments, she traces the shifts in color, staging, framing, and even diegetic representations of media exhibition [End Page 172] and distribution that exist across the series.6 The most overt presence of video among these is Diary of the Dead (George Romero, 2007), a project that Romero described, in his promotional discourse even if not in earnest, as having initially been envisioned as a multiplatform video series distributed via the Internet rather than the...