Let's assume you've never had much interest in getting a VCR. You don't watch a lot of TV (just a little PBS) and in your opinion Hollywood hasn't made a decent movie since Cary Grant retired.

Now some friend or relative has complicated your life by giving you a VCR. Of course, you receive it graciously, but with a measure of trepidation and annoyance as well.Let's say you decide to keep it, just to spare the giver's feelings. Certainly you don't imagine using the thing. Until, that is, you learn PBS is going to have a Cary Grant film festival.

If that describes your situation as a VCR ignoramus, fear not. Although operating the device is not quite as effortless as turning on the TV set, it is easier than driving a car. Once you've grasped a few basics, you'll find it a great convenience, as have 65 million U.S. families before you.

Here, then, is an introduction to successful VCR-ing, written with the beginner in mind:

- Hook it up. Admittedly, this can be a chore, but you'll have to do it only once. The manual will help. Essentially, you remove the antenna or cable-input line from the back of the TV and attach it instead to the VCR. Then you attach the VCR to the TV by means of the short cable packed with the VCR.

- Read and save the instruction manual. You may not understand everything the first time through, but that's OK.

- Keep track of the remote control unit. This device used to be redundant, containing the same controls as on the front of the VCR. But many of today's basic VCRs have only a few buttons on their faces, and are operated primarily from the remote.

- Try all the functions. Do this as soon as you've installed the VCR. Set the clock; fast forward through a tape and rewind it; check out the special effects, such as slow motion and freeze frame; experiment with timed recordings. The object is make sure as soon as you can that everything works. This way, if a malfunction is discovered, you can have it repaired while the warranty is in effect. VCR labor charges can be very costly, and some labor warranties expire after 90 days of ownership.

- Rent a movie on videocassette. Again, you're looking for malfunctions. Some VCR flaws don't become apparent until you try to play back a tape made on a different machine.

- Use special-effects modes sparingly. Non-normal play exerts extra wear on the machine. For example, if your viewing is momentarily interrupted, it's better to stop a tape entirely than to go into freeze frame.

- Keep a supply of several blank tapes. If you don't have any extras, an emergency will surely arise that will force you to choose between forgoing a new recording or taping over something you haven't watched yet.

- Use the audio-video outputs for the best picture. If your TV is the type with audio-video jacks, you can connect the VCR to them instead of the antenna terminal. The necessary cables are sometimes included with the VCR, or you can buy a pair for less than $5. The clearer picture is worth the expense.

There's much more to the mechanics of VCRs, but anyone content with basic viewing and home taping will quickly realize that making a video library is as easy as making coffee. The VCR is in its 15th year, and for all its high-tech reputation, most folks use it as casually as any other appliance.


Q: Some videotapes I made from TV five and six years ago look fuzzier than I remember them. Since I haven't played them much, why should they be worn-out-looking?

A: There are many possible reasons, including improper storage of tapes in an area of high magnetism (near loudspeakers, for instance). Or it may be just the effects of age. The magnetic particles that make up the image tend to lose their magnetism over extended periods, so the picture becomes less clear.

Q: I just got a VCR as a gift. It's very nice, but I have noticed that anything I record off TV is fuzzier than if I watched it live. Is something wrong with my machine?

A: If it's still under warranty (some are as brief as 90 days), you might want to have a repair technician check it out. But in general, the taped image is slightly inferior to a good-quality broadcast signal. This condition is inherent in home VCRs, and most viewers tolerate it, if they notice it at all. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)


CIRCUITRY MAN - The basic elements in this low-brow, high-tech science fiction yarn are culled from the graveyard of cliches: Los Angeles of the next century is an underground city since pollution has all but depleted the air supply. Lori (Dana Wheeler Nicholson), a no-nonsense gal, has stolen a suitcase full of microchips, which are worth more than gold. She's pursued by Plughead (Vernon Wells), a mutant with outlets on his skull that allow him to plug into everything from a car engine to another person's psyche. He's like a deranged appliance. The special effects are sometimes impressive, but the acting is patently pedestrian. 85 minutes. Rated R. RCA/Columbia. - Mike Pearson (Scripps Howard)

PROJECT: ALIEN - There seems to be a trend emerging in the marketing of videos - at least in the marketing of B-movie videos: proclaim them to be as many things as you can think of. This one is billed as a "sexy sci-fi thriller with a sense of humor." A plane goes boom immediately after the pilot reports seeing unindentified flashing lights and a search yields no trace. Two competing journalists travel to the Norwegian crash site and discover an alarming tableau of mutant disease, cattle mutilations and a UFO sightings. Charles Durning's Col. Clancy orders the crash site restricted and the "silencing" of the two reporters when their digging threatens to reveal a government coverup. Vidmark. - Tom Maurstad (Dallas Morning News)

OVEREXPOSED - Among the trademarks of cheesy exploitation king Roger Corman are hilariously deadpan dialogue and stylishly quirky characters. Sometimes they are runaways or topless dancers, but in this instance they are the cast and crew of a soap opera. An actress (Catherine Oxenberg), haunted by nightmares and a mysterious, vaguely sinister past, is stalked by a psychopath with a cryptic reason for wanting to kill her in some bizarre, ritualized way, though he chooses to kill a lot of her friends first. Corman has so finely honed his formula that anyone who has followed his recent productions will not only know what's going to happen and why, but what it is going to look like. Of course, that's part of the fun. MGM/UA. - Tom Maurstad (Dallas Morning News)