VIPCO THE UNTOLD STORY **** UK 2018 Dir: Jason Impey. 132 mins
Rarely seen on camera, Vipco impresario Michael Lee is the star of Jason Impey’s engaging documentary about the UK video industry’s “Wild West” period in the 1980s. Lee’s honest reflections easily overshadow some dullish contextual analysis by UK film academics, though those nostalgic for the period will enjoy writer James Simpson’s talk of eyeing up those gaudy VHS covers long before he was able to watch them and Kim Newman turning up (inevitably) to chat about the slightly squeezy boxes, not-so-great transfers and an “uncut” DRILLER KILLER missing around five minutes of talky stuff. Impey clearly has affection for this much-maligned company, without which Arrow Video and their contemporaries probably wouldn’t exist. He has assembled an impressive array of contributors, with Jay Slater sharing fun anecdotes about arguing with Lee over movie choices (“Mike you released THE NOSTRIL PICKER – this is in focus!”) and cover designs (that’s either a giant gerbil or big hamster on the sleeve of RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR). Graham Humphreys amusingly portrays Lee as a wheeler-dealer 70s car salesman as he reflects on creating Vipco covers with pre-provided images and designing logos that deliberately aped the Coca Cola font. Nigel Wingrove offers an insight into Vipco’s role in the evolution of sell-thru video, the then-novelty of owning films that fed into his own development of Redemption. It’s especially lovely to see Martin Myers, son of the late Miracle Pictures’ Michael, whose long connection with Lee dates back to their school days and whose efforts led to the theatrical release of ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS and proved instrumental in John Carpenter’s early success; Martin talks of how his dad only knew the killer in HALLOWEEN was named after him when he watched it himself.
The film follows Vipco’s lengthy run from its inception through to its misfired entrance into the DVD age, when the company looked increasingly anachronistic thanks to the non-existent remastering and Lee’s lack of belief in special features – there’s an amusing anecdote about how a commentary for ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH was abandoned midway. A sobering reminder of Lee’s appearance as Lord Buckethead at the General Election with Thatcher and Screaming Lord Sutch prompts a chuckle. Mostly, however, this is Lee’s show- a clearly fragile but charming VHS legend who evolved from selling foreigners illegally pirated movies to making net profits of over a million in his third year of running Vipco at the height of the video boom. If the second half suffers from repetition in some of its recollections, spending time with this gentleman is a joy, conjuring up images of him driving around in his Rolls’ Royce and spending much of his waking life in and around Victoria Casino. At the peak, he was advertising in TV Times, watching SHOGUN ASSASSIN fly off the shelves in HMV and living in a gorgeous house in Mill Hill with no mortgage. It’s dreadfully sad to hear him talk of (and clearly demonstrate) the impact of his son’s tragic death but entirely delightful to hear him bask in the glory of his past: “My favourite [thing] is just to make the money and go and play a game of cards”.
Review by Steven West