VHS Rental Memories: The Good, The Bad, and The Schlocky
This morning, I saw in the newspaper an article that discusses how the future of movie distribution largely belongs to the digital, on-demand format and how this shift in distribution will change how people select and view movies. This isn't the first article I've read about this subject, and it won't be the last. In fact, I'm a big fan of any distribution service that allows me to watch films that I want to see (regardless of the films' lacking popularity) when it best suits my busy schedule.
Because I grew up in a time when you had to wait for movies to show at your local theater or search for older and obscure movies on late-night TV broadcasts, I can't help but to think that something is lost in the process of making movies available at the touch of a button. If you're a fan of horror movies like I am, then you know that it's not just the films that keep the fandom going; it's also the stuff that surrounds the movies that give them their appeal and stoke the imaginations of both veteran and virgin viewers alike. I'm talking about stuff like books, toys, model kits, comic books, bubblegum cards and video games, as well as the places where these items are found--libraries, newsstands, toy stores, book stores, and hobby shops. These things not only satiated my interest in the films that were currently playing in theaters and the monsters that populated those films, but they also provoked my curiosity of other films and monsters that I never heard of before.
I've posted before about the books I've read as a kid that introduced me to the weird and wonderful world of movie monsters (see here and here). This post is devoted to another kind of fantastic place where I learned about many obscure horror movies: local video stores. In a previous post, I waxed nostalgic about VHS cover art; in this post, I'll talk about the unique horrors that VHS rental stores exposed to my fragile young mind, horrors that I didn't completely understand until I reached adulthood and decided to give them a second look. Read on...
To be fair, renting a movie title online is much easier than going to a location outside of your home to find and retrieve a title. Yet I believe that there's something to be said about devoting spaces and places to particular kinds of media exhibition. In the case of video stores, much of the cover art displayed there made a lasting impression on me, as well as on other horror fans; how digital distribution can replace that kind of experience remains unknown. (Then again, perhaps it never will.)
When the video rental stores first opened, my adolescent brain did not comprehend that some of the smaller video companies were trying to break into the rental market by purchasing the distribution rights of obscure, low-budget movies--both domestic and foreign--and making them available to mom-and-pop video places through low-priced package deals. (For smaller, stand-alone rental stores, these package deals made sense: It was a quick and easy way to fill shelf space without having to rely on more expensive mainstream titles.) As the result of this practice, I wound up discovering all sorts of titles that I never heard of before--and might not have heard of by any other means. Of the new horror titles I discovered via VHS rental stores, I've divided them into four categories: No-Budget Filmmakers, Oldies But Not Goodies, Eurotrash, and Giallo. See the sections below for more details about each category.
It's impossible to be a horror movie fan and not know who Roger Corman is. Not only has he helmed his own share of well-known horror movies, but he also launched the careers of many other filmmakers. On the other hand, if you weren't lucky enough to have your career launched by Corman, then you could always try to be like Corman by directing and/or producing a series of cheapjack horror films.
Of course, VHS rental stores carried plenty of offerings from the Corman-esque Troma Entertainment, which has since gone on to become its own brand name thanks to the exposure it got in the 80s and 90s through the video rental industry and showings on late-night cable television. No, the Corman wannabes that I'm talking about are of a more obscure variety--in my case, our stores featured flicks by Bill Rebane, Earl Owensby and Fred Olen Ray.
Bill Rebane is largely known for The Giant Spider Invasion, the big bug dud where he tried to disguise Volkswagen Beetles as huge arachnids to keep his budget small. We didn't have that title, though--instead, we had Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake, his no-budget Creature From the Black Lagoon rip-off.
Earl Owensby is an exploitation flick producer/actor who is known in some circles as "the redneck Roger Corman" and "Dixie DeMille". Even though his biggest claim to fame was his involvement with James Cameron's The Abyss (Owensby owned the abandoned nuclear plant where Cameron shot his film), his own cinematic output is not nearly as impressive. (Then again, Owensby tried his hand at 3D filmmaking a few years before Cameron did, so he has that.) Our stores carried Owensby's A Day of Judgment and Wolfman.
Fred Olen Ray did loads of low-budget horror and sci-fi during the 80s and 90s, and it has been said that his films rarely cost more than $500,000 to produce. Of his work, we had Alien Dead, Alienator, Deep Space, and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.
Oldies But Not Goodies
Given the number of older horror films that read about before the VHS rental business started, I was hoping that the new trend would allow me to see more classic horror movies--movies that I regarded at that time as that were release before 1970. The way I saw it, why bother renting out films older than that if they weren't any good?
Unfortunately, our local stores only carried a handful horror and sci-fi classics, including The Fly, Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, and Night of the Living Dead. Yet what we lacked in older classic movies, we made up for in older crappy movies: Castle of Evil (1966), Equinox (released theatrically in 1970, but originally shot in 1967), The Flesh Eaters (1964), The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackal (1969) and The Time Travelers (1964). These films have their own quirky appeal, but it was a disappointment at the time if you preferred to see work by folks such as Val Lewton, Ray Harryhausen, Jack Arnold and Christopher Lee instead.
There were a ton of cheap, trashy American-made horror films from the 70s and 80s available at our video stores, but I had no idea at the time that we also had quite a few cheap, trashy European-made horror films as well, such as these fine gems:
Charles Band should be on this list as a Roger Corman wannabe but like Troma, he was able to use the VHS rental business to successfully hype his own movie production studio, Full Moon Features (a company that he's still hyping to this very day). No, Band's placement on this list really belongs in the Eurotrash category because without Band's other video company, Wizard Video, made it possible for American audiences to see films by the grand maestro of Eurotrash himself, Jesús "Jess" Franco, with this selection of titles:
Of the categories listed here, Giallo is an actual subcategory of horror. Even though Giallo films existed long before the American subgenre of slasher films, everyone in the 80s was too busy watching the exploits of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Meyers and their countless imitators to pay much attention to the Giallo titles that made it to American video rental stores.
I didn't discover the joys of Giallo until I was in college, but it turned out that our video stores had quite a few Giallo titles in stock. Come to think of it, between the Eurotrash and Giallo titles, the horror section in one of our local video stores might as well have been labeled as the foreign film section as well. They even had Dario Argento's classic Deep Red, although it was under the title Deep Red Hatchet Murders and it had a cover that was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't seen the film.
There were other Giallo titles on our video store shelves (mostly from Band's Wizard Video), some of which you can see below. Many of these films are currently available on DVD under their original release titles.