The movie was a sequel to one of the original video nasties, so what better format for a stage show that pays it tribute? Comedy distributors Go Faster Stripe have released Rob Kemp’s cult musical-comedy The Elvis Dead – based on Evil Dead II – on VHS. I’ve got a copy, its chunky rectangular case a Proustian madeleine transporting me back to the 80s. Indelible memories of, er, endlessly rewinding and fast-forwarding things, and trying to press record at just the right moment to splice episodes 1 and 2 of the latest Dr Who.
If the VHS format is remembered for little else, it’s remembered for the video nasties panic at the start of that decade, when a nation trembled before the corrupting power of Zombie Holocaust, Eaten Alive! and Bambi Goes Crazy-Ape Bonkers with His Drill and Sex. (That last one courtesy of Vyvyan from The Young Ones.) Even if the panic abated by the time of Evil Dead II’s release in 1987, it’s a nice touch by the Cardiff outfit to offer Kemp’s show in retro video format – with a digital download simultaneously available. And it’s not a bolt from the blue. Earlier this year, in a bid to offset Covid-era losses, Monkey Barrel Comedy released standup sets by John Kearns, Olga Koch and Ari Eldjárn on vinyl LP.
Are we witnessing the first stirrings of comedy’s flight from modernity? You wouldn’t blame it: there’s little to love about 2020. But I’m not holding my breath for Jack Whitehall on reel-to-reel, or Rob Beckett on wax cylinder, any time soon. More likely, these old-format releases reflect the revival of vintage tech more widely, but also the ways in which comedy continues to branch out, and become marketable, to different audiences. Once the runt of the culture litter, it now has cachet and is collectable. It also has acts that appeal to the distinctive tastes of those who hoard vinyl, or get sentimental about watching horror movies on VHS or – even better – Betamax.
You can easily imagine a Venn diagram uniting vinyl collectors with fans of John Kearns’ comedy. There’s something old-fashioned about him: he’s forever being compared to Tony Hancock. There’s a nostalgic impulse behind the vinyl/VHS revival, with which Kearns’ work could chime. But he’s also a comic who rewards devotion. Your engagement with the character enriches with each passing show: the more you know him, the funnier you’ll find him. You can see why a fan who’s gone on that journey with Kearns might want to reflect it in an act of possession, and in a fetishistic object such as a vinyl LP.
Which is of a piece with some of the wider drivers behind vinyl’s re-emergence. In an age of virtual experiences, when everything hovers out of sight and out of reach in the cloud, we appreciate anew the pleasure of analogue tech and actual things. Even the least materialist of digital natives would experience a tinge of delight, surely, on receiving Kemp’s Elvis Dead through the post, in three dimensions, rather than via a download bar in the corner of their screen? Whatever the format, it’s certainly fun to revisit this cult 2017 hit, in which the West Midlander retells the cabin-in-the-woods gore-fest using the music of Elvis Presley, with adjusted lyrics. (“We’re caught in a trap / We can’t walk out / Because the trees would kill us, baby …”)
“It’s niche as fuck,” Kemp admits at one point in the recording, and there’s the rub. Audiences lovingly identify with their niches – and will willingly invest in totems, even on near-obsolete formats, to that identity. If you’re a horror-movie buff with a shelf of video nasties gathering dust, and a soft spot for DIY comedy, your Christmas list just got one item longer.
* Rob Kemp’s The Elvis Dead can be downloaded or ordered on VHS at Go Faster Stripe.