I didn’t come to love movies in the theater. After the first memorable experience I had in the theater (seeing “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”), I was hooked and couldn’t wait to go back. But, it was at home, like so many kids who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where the love story between film and me began.
Sometimes I describe my dad as an early adopter, but in retrospect I think he was a bit of a collector/hoarder of new technology. When most people were waiting for VHS (or Betamax) to drop to a somewhat affordable price, my dad brought home the RCA Video Disc Player. Here is a fun commercial for the device:
Now that isn’t a Laser Disc player. That’s an actual analog home video player, not all that different than vinyl records. The discs could only hold an hour’s worth of a movie on each side, so either the discs had to be edited or they had to be put on multiple discs. I still remember walking around my house with the double disc set of “The Ten Commandments,” holding them like the title tablets. Sometimes there was a title card to flip the disc at the halfway point of movie, sometimes the film just stopped mid-scene.
The video discs weren’t available at many stores, so often I had to hunt for them with my dad, who would take me in the backroom of electronic stores (this was before Best Buy or even when other department stores started carrying tech products), where either a haphazard display space was made, or there would be a sort of swap meet with other cinephiles, trading and selling their favorite movies on the off chance you happened to have a copy of the second disc of “The Godfather.”
My mind goes straight back to those places if I get a whiff of ozone bouncing off of a concrete floor. Or if I come across a really interesting DVD stand at a flea market.
Eventually, the home video wars were won, for a time, with VHS beating both the limited Video Disc and the superior Betamax. The portability and affordability of VHS created a whole new industry, home video, and soon every film release was sold in stores months after it left the theater, creating a whole secondary market for film exhibition.
It didn’t take long for trips to the video rental store (another new phenomenon made possible because of VHS), to become a favorite activity of mine. When my dad and I went to electronic stores to scavenge, buy or barter Video Discs, it was sometimes a bit of a dark and dingy experience, but our video rental store, Video Stop on Hobson Road off of East State, was bright and filled with covers on the video tape boxes jammed with images and colors.
And there were the cardboard displays. They were so cool. So many kids I grew up with did not become acquainted with Freddy Krueger from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films, our parents would never allow us to watch them, but we learned about him from the larger than life displays in the horror section of the rental store. I’m pretty sure the stories we made up in our heads were far scarier than the movies turned out to be.
Recently on the public radio magazine show “Here & Now,” a film historian was describing a program at the Yale University library where a massive archival project is underway of VHS tapes. Are they archiving forgotten silent films or something from the French New Wave only available in VHS? Heck, no. They are preserving grindhouse horror and exploitation films with titles like “Cellar Dweller” and “Shock ‘Em Dead.” You can hear the story and learn about the project here:
Horror films typified the VHS format, and also gave rise to the new distribution system – straight to video. Grabbing attention with scandalous cover that had off kilter fonts and bold colors, the video rental store was the last stop for many of these straight to video films. These were movies that many artists had poured their soul and creativity into, spending countless hours in production, and were not given a chance in theaters because of marketability concerns or budget restraints.
But they found new life in the video rental stores. I remember being at Delmar Video, which is still in operation in Fort Wayne, and stopping cold in my pre-kindergarten tracks at a huge display that mimicked the cover of the horror film “Ghoulies,” complete with an enormous toilet and the ghoulie sticking its head out. It was both shocking and funny, and I am sure that one image has embedded itself into my psyche and planted the seed that would eventually turn into my sense of humor.
Even though the home video market as a whole is waning, and the video rental store is all but extinct, it always makes me smile when I see how all the ways it stills has an impact on other film lovers.
Just look at the poster for the critically lauded horror film “It Follows,” which Cinema Center is opening at 11:59pm tonight.
It's perfect. This is just the kind of poster that would be up at the register at Video Stop, or there would be a mini postcard size version given to customers with their receipt. Sure the film itself was influenced by great horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it also evokes that feeling of joyous discovery, looking at something that you might not understand and are probably too young to see, and to want to take it home even more because of that. VHS gave me that feeling, and I am forever trying to recapture it. At least I can look at this poster and delight in the fact that it appears David Robert Mitchell, the director of “It Follows,” is doing the same thing.
Jonah Crismore is Cinema Center’s executive director and battles an addiction to physical media.