Friday, July 15, 2011

VHS Memories part one

At some point in 1985, my father brought home our first VCR, along with two rented VHS tapes. The thing was a top loading monster with a remote control attatched by a wire (!!!!) and a ton of little nobs for fine tuning that I never touched. The two rented titles were Purple Rain for the parents, The Smurfs and the Magic Flute for me and my sis. In a round about way, this is how I learned about sex as a concept, as before Purple Rain, I thought the only reason why little kids like myself couldn't watch a movie would be because of it's scary content. And since we all dug Prince (at least casually, my sister was only two at the time), I couldn't figure out why we were banished from the viewing. How could a Prince movie be scary? Well, Graffiti Bridge aside, I think something had to be explained to me...I guess it was the concept of "Adult Situations," if not the act of sex itself. I was seven, and I would get some full on exposure to sexy stuff after watching a rented copy of Police Academy with my friend Pat's family only (I think) a few weeks later. Awesome.
Never a family for home taping (yet), we, like so many Americans, got caught up in video-rental-fever. Honestly, I don't know how we were able to afford the VCR in the first place, but I was happy to be right in the mix with the rich kids for once. For these early years, our rental joint was also our corner store. The Little Store, named after it's cramped-assness. In fact, The Little Store was/is so small that there were no videos on display, only a 3 ring binder with a print out of the titles. If memory serves, there was no genre division, purely alphabetical. I'm pretty sure they squeezed a small deli in the 12x12 space in addition to the corner store stuff and the vids. A few of the big releases would have their boxes on display behind the counter. I stared endlessly, fearfully at box for Poltergeist. Transfixed, concentrating, worrying. I have the vaguest memories of seeing the trailers for said film on television and being absolutely scared out of my wits. The idea of a TV (my best friend, essentially) sucking in a little kid was essentially the root of me anxiously running away from horror movies (or anything tense or grim) until I was nine or ten years old. This may not seem like a big deal since I was so young, but it seemed that anything my peers talked about horror movies, and it also tranferred over to any movie that could possible be "scary." Totally tried to talk my way out of seeing the Goonies in the theater. "because it has skeletons in it." What a pussy. Good thing I was convinced.
I don't really recall my parents rental choices, but I'm sure that I just rented Empire Strikes Back, and Superman I and II over and over again. I never really bothered with Star Wars too much as I loved Empire with a burning passion...still do.
My pal Pat's family went to a store one town over in Salem called Video Voyage. I'm not sure if it was convenient for them in some other way, or there was no other video rental spot in our town of Marblehead, but the selection at Video Voyage seemed way more impressive. Going with the three brothers and a babysitter to pick out a movie was my first time in a Video Store proper, and it was pretty cool. I didn't venture into the horror section, I think not out of fear, but just cuz I didn't know such a thing could exist yet. So yeah, the boxes were on display and I was a tad overwhelmed and just let Michael and Pat and the babysitter deliberate (Darby was too little to do much arguing). The choices were Jaws, First Blood, and Altman's Popeye, all three of which they had seen, I had seen none. Michael had quite a lisp and now anytime I think of First Blood all I can here in my head is this kid a couple years older than me emphatically repeating "First Bwood! Wet's went First Bwood! C'mon wet's get First Bwood!"
Jaws was the selection and I honestly can't believe I stuck around for that ten minutes before I snuck out of there basement TV room and walked home. Normally I would have not even been in the same room with a scary movie, but I'm pretty sure the promise of a naked girl in the opening moments kept me around. After relishing that voyeuristic shower scene in Police Academy, I was a 7 year old horndog. A bonerless horndog, who still didn't know what sex was, but still, I wanted to see naked girls as much as possible. My Dad rented me Revenge of the Nerds when I was home sick with the chicken pox in second grade....what a guy....naked girls on hidden camera and under pie plates...I was in heaven.
Soon we got cable (with Showtime!) and the renting subsided for a little bit. The Little Store's selection may have lost it's appeal and there were a couple of store bought videos that started the kid-vid library. One of those Golden Book cheapo talking story book ones, and some Berenstein Bears thing, but damn.....cable. I watched a LOT of cable. With the diminishing rental action a lot of my "repeated VCR" viewing needs were met by my Aunt, Uncle and cousin, who were serious home-tapers and filled blank GE tapes with 3 movies apiece taped off of HBO on their GE brand VCR. Me and cousin Mike spent tons of time together, and a bunch of that time revolved around watching his parents' tapes. Watching many scenes over and over and over. I must have seen the girl get sucked out of the chimney in Weird Sciene 500 times. This practice, and that particular VCR lasted until the mid 90's.
At home though, it was mostly cable. A sort of sequel to the mistaking a sexy movie for a scary movie came one night when Bachelor Party was about to be on Showtime (I can still see that "Up Next" title card in my head) and my dad shooshing me off to bed. I was convinced that his veracity in getting me to bed had to do with HOW SCARY this movie must be...and cuz Bachelor really sounded like Butcher...but anywayssss.
Around this time I became really good friends with a rather well off kid named....well, I probably shouldn't use his real name, but it's just too good, and I won't say anything slanderous, so I'm just gonna do it. His name was/is Barron Butler. Him and his new-agey mother lived down the street in a rather modern 4 story house. I gotta tell ya, I grew up in a rather ritzy town called Marblehead, renowned for lots of things, but primarly for it's snootiness and it's yachting culture. My dad grew up there when the town was only half ritzy, the other half being more of a fishing community. So I got to grow up thinking I was poor, when I most certainly was not. Being friends with Barron and his endlessly generous mother really exposed me a lot of the "finer things in life" I must say. One of these things was a camcorder with a top loading VCR component that Barron often had set up in his room! In case you didn't know, most camcorders up until the late 80s required hauling a small VCR on a strap in addition to the actual camera part.
Mary (Barron's mother) would take us another Video Voyage to rent tapes for us to watch all the time. This is how I saw The Karate Kid and Ghostbusters (was too scared to see this in the theater...sigh) and many more showings up Superman. I think on these visits to VV, I started to maybe glance around with an eye out for the horror section. Though I was still scared to death of even the IDEA of horror movies, they were starting to intrigue me more and more....from a distance. This video store was also the first I ever saw that rented video games; NES, but at this point I still just had Atari. This was 1986.
In 1987, the house we lived in was sold without us knowing, and we had 30 days to get out. The only real option was moving into my Grandparents' tiny house in blighted Lynn, two towns over. Lynn is a very different place than Marblehead, and since I was unable to make annnnnnnnnny friends in this new city, I had even more time to watch TV. Since most of our lives were still back in Marblehead, my Dad did a lot of driving back and forth, and right in the middle of the route was Photographics. Photographics was my introduction to the kind of video store that would in some respects, rule the rest of my life and dreams. This place had built itself around the BOOM that was home video rental. The impression I got was that Photographics had a lot of capital and used it to buy every tape they could, regardless of what it was. And what that meant was a huge horror section. This was the first time I ventured into the dark mysteries of the mom and pop video store...well, ventured is probably too strong a word. More like skirted the borders of the land of big boxes with grotesque covers. I had heard of the controversy of the "santa slasher movie," but instead of weird murmurs, here was the thing itself. Silent Night, Deadly Night, with Santa's axe wielding arm descending a chimney...yikes....way scarier to me than the movie ended up being. And why was the box so goddamned big? But what fucked me up even more was ANOTHER Christmas horror movie, Terror in Toyland that I had never heard any parents scoff about.
In fact, I had never heard anyone say much about any of these movies. Well, the titles I could make out as I quickly walked passed. One odd thing about Photographics was that it was the only videostore I ever went to where the boxes had velco on the back and the shelves had cloth backing that it stuck to. Me and sis usually ended up choosing the one dollar "Disney World tour video" tapes. My dad did rent me Fast Times at Ridgemont High one time, even though I didn't ask. I think he just wanted to watch it himself. I think he let me watch some of it at least. But I had a LOT of my T&A desires fulfilled with our continued subscription to Showtime...thank god.
Around this time I saw my old music teacher from Marblehead looking for a movie. I went up to Mr. Sano and asked him what he was doing, and he responded by saying that he was having friends over and needed a good movie. I recommended Secret of My Success without knowing anything about it outside of the commercial and the video for the Night Ranger song of the same name. Always trying to impress the elders with how sophisticated I was...He said he had already seen it and liked it. Mr. Sano had bright orange hair, was probably in his early 50's and all the kids said he wore a wig to conceal his green hair.
After 9 long months in Lynn, we found an apartment in Marblehead closer to the downtown area, giving the more independent me of 1988 access to two video stores. I don't know if Videoscope and Video Attractions were new at the time, but I didn't know about them until now, and I was fucking psyched. I was mostly so excited cuz both places rented NES games, but there was something about VA that started to haunt me. Both stores were wayyyy smaller than Photographics and thus had a much smaller library. This meant I was a lot less intimidated by size of the horror section at VA and I got my bravery up enough to look at some of the boxes up close. The shelf with the 30 odd horror movies was set way in the back hidden by other shelves, and considering the low foot traffic I was afforded a lot of privacy to confront my fears. I had just recently seen my first ever horror movie, Maximum Overdrive on Showtime, and there was no turning back, even if I was still terrified. It still is one of my all time faves, and I thank god I started with something gory but silly, to ease me into this stuff. Watching this scene in my Grammy's rec-room basement is perhaps the moment I really fell in love with horror movies:
I became fast friends with my new neighbor Ian, who was two years younger than me and a big fan of horror movies, so I knew I had to get over this fear pretty quickly. This consisted mostly of getting his babysitter to rent the Nightmare on Elm Street series for us at Videoscope.
One of the things that really increased the appeal of renting R rated movies from these two stores were that they were both run by two different middle aged pills who openly disapproved of our tasteless selections. In our favor we not only had the of-age babysitter renting for us, we also had permission from Ian's mother to rent R rated movies. This didn't stop these women at both stores from calling his mom to express disgust...heh, heh, heh. Ian's Mom, to her vast credit, really stuck by her guns in these situations. Maybe it was a little weird at the time that a nine year old got carte blanche with movie stuff, but this eleven year old wasn't complaining. I gotta say, that I don't think we'd get away with renting R rated sex comedies or whatever, but for whatever reason, my too young horndog side subsided for a bunch of years. Yes, the years that constitute puberty...I don't know what the fuck was wrong with me, but I was much more interested in Hip Hop, Metal, Horror Movies, Star Wars and Cartoons to care about sex...hmmm.
But even with me and Ian (and his little, little brother Eric) watching the mainstream cannon of R-rated horror and action movies for the next couple of years, some of those video boxes at Video Attractions still freaked me the fuck out. Because nobody had heard of these movies, and because the artwork looked so amateurish, this had to be the "really hard stuff," right? Although some of the movies that I was looking at might have had crueler or gorier stuff going on, it was more of a "hard" degree of scariness or creepiness that I was imagining. Truth of Dare: A Critical Madeness was one such video box. How could an embossed cover with a razor blade and dripping blood and a back cover featuring a chainsawed little leaguer be anything but the scariest movie ever? Of course, having seen this flick in later years, I saw how utterly unscary the movie is. Crazy and gory? IN HEAPS. Scary? Last word I'd use to describe it.
I never rented it back then because I was too frightened, but moreso I didn't want access to a world I was not ready for. In my estimation, there was perhaps evil, or spiritual darkness in these videos, and though I know better about the movies themselves, I still link places like Video Attrractions with that sort of feeling. I still dream about it occasionally, actually. But in my more spooked younger mind such unspeakable things should not be let out in such an unassuming little store. It was a well lit glorified cabin with shelves, not a place where the dark spirits of the universe could safely exist!
And this is what was push/pull. this was what kept me going back to rental places and studying movies I would never rent. I wanted the darkness, but I was too protective of the keeping of appearances. Though I relished pissing off the owner-women when renting something they found tasteless, I didn't want to be seen tip toeing into a world that was unsafe or tasteless in MY opinion. I knew I was not ready, I wonder if those ladies ever picked up those same boxes and looked a little too closely and freaked themselves out? Kinda funny how the me and the store ladies are going on the same basic misinformation when deciding on the merits of these films.
The first time that I really dipped my toe in that nameless evil pool was a few years later when me and my only friend from school dared to rent Last House on the Left from Videoscope. This was the mostly uncut version released in the 80's with the image of the woman lying in the huge hand. By this time I had started reading Fangoria (which of course mostly dealt with the gore effects of contemporary films) any other scant info on horror movies I could find. I was a BIG Wes Craven fan at this point (Shocker was another favorite rental for sleepover parties), so one of the films I ended up reading about was LHOTL. And fucking christ, I knew I was doing something bad when I rented that. Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a similar "bad" feel, but at least that had the name recognition and less grungy sequels.
LHOTL was secret, and honestly I don't think the pill at Videoscope would have rented this one out had she known what the fuck she had in her own fucking store. One of the few things that made renting this rape-revenge classic was I Spit on Your Grave staring at us from the shelf above. That had to be much worse, as it had "MUST BE 18 to RENT ID REQUIRED" prominently scrawled on that big-box-cut-down-to-clamshell case. I had also read that scathing "zero star" review that Roger Ebert had in his Movie Home Companion. If I Spit on Your Grave was so deplorable that you needed ID, then Last House on the Left must be sorta acceptable right? I mean, this was Wes Craven, who, at the time, was sort of respected for Serpent and the Rainbow...remember this was long before horror films became a widely regarded genre. If a horror movie was going to be liked by "regular people" it just got rebranded a thriller.
So yeah, we take this movie home, and I cannot express how it made me feel. Well I can't express it without using a long list of adjectives: fascination, disgust, self loathing, hilarity, fear, exhilaration, but still that doesn't quite cover it. This is really the first movie(and now amongst maybe only 4) that really bothered me after I finished watching it. Scarred me, I guess you could say. In a good way, even if a big part of me didn't want to accept that I could ENJOY being so disturbed. But I guess this is what I had been dancing around ever since I saw those Poltergeist commercials: that there were these things out there designed to terrify you, and people LIKED it! What I didn't understand at the time, since I saw no horror films for so long, was that these movies rarely even came close to what my little kid self would imagine as far as the sadistic element goes. When I finally saw Poltergeist, I thought it was "cool" and maybe a little scary, but nothing like the images I concocted when the movie was described to me. So essentially, Last House on the Left was the first crack in the dam, and now I was searching for things movies that were gonna match that feeling.
Where was I gonna find it though? Even though Video Attractions had a few years left in them after I saw Last House, I still too self conscious to try and rent Truth or Dare, or the few other nasty titles, though I would go to rent more normal movies there on occasion. Incidentally, in addition to the horror, there was also a porn room which no one was ever in, probably cuz no one would want to rent X-rated movies from that fucking lady. You really have to wonder about these people who open up stores where they try to profit from stuff they public anyway.
The solution lay in Photographics, which was one town over but still bikeable and overstuffed with sleazy vids. Even better they had a "rent 5 movies for 5 days for 5 bucks" deal, which really sealed it for me, considering the lack of easy access to the place. This was my early high school education...forget friends, parties or girls, it was stacks of horror movies, punk rock and Star Wars....I guess not really that different from before, but having STACKS of movies made a big difference...especially since they were weird titles not available in Marblehead.
Around this time however, a defector from Video Attractions opened up Chet's Video. Chet was a cool guy and had a little bit more of an arty sensibility than his old employer. This meant that when Reservoir Dogs came out, I rented it from him.....and all the stuff that came in it's wake. Of course a lot of it was god awful, but damn, so happy that my dad gave Chet the go-ahead to rent Bad Lieutenant at age 14.
After a couple of years of this intensive movie watching, I finally found myself a girlfriend, and our rather intense relationship kind of put the movie obsession on hold for a while. I got most of my kicks reading Film Threat (a magazine that in retrospect could only have seemed okay to an idiot-know-it-all 16 year old like myself) and the few books on horror films I managed to find. The Overlook Encyclopedia of Horror really blew my mind apart and started me on the path of reading tons about movies I could never hope to see, cuz they were obscure Italian gore films or whatever. Little did I know what was in store for me once I hit college.
...and that's part 2......