Wednesday, May 12, 2010

From VHS to Netflix: My journey with horror rentals.

Because I'm not a youngster, I have had the privilege in my lifetime to remember with great fondness a time when VHS was king. When actually spending time in a video store - choosing your evening's entertainment - was the norm, instead of just a few clicks online and you're set.

But hey, doesn't it sound infinitely better to just hang out at home, maybe even in your pajamas in bed perhaps, and pick through Netflix's insane collection of DVDs? And have them delivered right to your damn door?

Not so fast.

When I was a young kid (and I'm again showing my age here), there were no video stores. At least not around me. Growing up in the early 80's and watching horror meant hanging out at home on a Saturday afternoon in front of your television, or staying up late for Chiller Theater. If you were lucky (and I was), your parents would have Showtime (and mine did) and you could sneak a look at Friday the 13th or something equally as iconic when the folks were out doing whatever it was adults did back then when they left their too-young children at home alone.
(Damn them for leaving me alone to see When a Stranger Calls. I'm still scarred from that one.)

But then!
To my amazement, my parents got with the trend and bought a VCR. Now that doesn't mean I immediately was able to have access to all the great horror there was out there in the world. Nope. There were no video rental stores anywhere near my small town. So alas, I was forced to tape record movies from late-night Showtime and regular TV for future viewing. I imagine this is how I originally got to see The Exorcist and Jaws for the first time. Remember the times when we used to actually have to record movies and TV? Instead of just setting the DVR and hoping to hell your show doesn't run over.

Wonder how many landfills have old VCRs underneath all that other crap? Shame.

Soon though, right about the same time I had friends old enough to drive, a video rental place popped up about ten miles from home. Yes, all those out there who were lucky enough to have a place right down the street from you - rejoice. I was stuck getting a ride to the nearest place.
Vickie's Video was the hangout, and to me it was a huge playground of thrills.

This was back in the day when what you paid for rentals was decided by what you rented as well as how long you were going to keep it. For instance, a newer movie was more expensive than an old has-been, and you'd pay more if you couldn't bring it back the next day and intended to keep it the weekend. Vickie's color coded the VHS boxes with little colored dot stickers. I mean, this is way back when they actually had the tapes inside the original boxes on the shelves - when people were honest. I'm pretty sure Fulci's The Gates of Hell (a.k.a. City of the Living Dead) would've have a big bad red dot. Ah, the old days.

My partner in crime for renting videos was almost always my uncle Shawn. No no, not that kind of uncle! My father has a little brother the same age as me, so we grew up together and our love of horror was shared. So we'd head off to Vickie's on a Friday night and once there, immediately gravitate towards the back (no, not the back-back with all the pornos) - where all the nasty horror was kept. The store must have felt that horror, as a genre, was a dirty secret. But it sure didn't hold them back from getting all the great classics as well as the horrifically bad ones as well.

Like I've heard many say they also did, we would always pick the films with the most graphic or bloody covers. Reading the description on the back wasn't as important as seeing someone holding a head in their hand, disgusting zombies, or goopy fluids pouring out of some orifice. Hence, my first experience with Lucio Fulci's Gates ....And with the frighteningly awful Faces of Death series.

From this store, I rented my first Dario Argento film, which I'm almost 100% sure was Deep Red - because of its gruesome cover. Suspiria no doubt sat right beside it, but like I said, covers were everything. Draw the eye to the gore and I'm sold. I also saw such classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original of course), The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Fulci's New York Ripper - all due to their offensive cover art.

As time went by and I became completely desensitized by age 17, I found it increasingly difficult to find anything that truly disturbed me. But I kept going to the video store... trying to find new releases that would stupefy me into near-orgasmic submissive catatonia.

Maybe I was lured by the smell of popcorn and the bad aftershave all the teenage boys wore to try to attract girls. How'd that really work out for ya, guys?

By the time I got older, went to college, and eventually got married, Vickie's Video was really feeling the hurt. The anguish of the death of the VHS tape hit them hard. Sure, they moved on to DVD...but so did everyone else. Blockbuster stores began to pop up everywhere and eventually the big chain stores like Wal-Mart started offering DVDs at fairly reasonable prices. I remember a time when a store like K-Mart would sell a VHS movie, a new release - for like $80.00! That is hilarious at this point, at a time when the bargain bin prices for decent DVDs are $5.00 and sometimes even less. Eventually, Vickie's closed. Much to my chagrin, I think there is a phone store there now. But of course.

During the 90's, my hubby's best friend opened a video store - he had VHS at first, but then began the smooth transition to DVD. He had all the regular video store provisions - videos of course - but also chips, candy, popcorn, soda - everything to make you sick right along with that copy of Dead Alive. It was great while it lasted - something like ten years or so. We were never without a rental, though at the same time, I did start to purchase DVDs like crazy. Over the years, I had managed to accumulate a fairly huge amount of VHS horror. So when the DVD attacked and eventually slaughtered VHS, I was paranoid that Suspiria would never be available in any other format! I had to buy it on DVD like, now! All I can say is that I hope to hell DVD's stick around awhile, because my horror collection of those is ridiculous.

What it all comes down to is this: Netflix.
When my hubby's buddy started losing his ass with his video store, it closed. As most mom & pop video stores have done in recent years. Hell, even the big chain rental place about ten miles from my home has now closed. Which means the nearest video rental place to me is over 20 miles away, in a large town I never go to for anything else. Not too convenient.

Hence, in the time period between my local video store closing and me getting a Netflix subscription, I was addicted not only to Wal-Mart's low DVD prices, but to I still get DVDs from both sources (most likely from Amazon cause their prices cannot be beat) but the day I clicked on JOIN on the Netflix site was my re-awakening. To all the movies I can watch in a month - two out at a time - for the low low price of 13 bucks a month. New release rentals from Blockbuster are near 5 dollars each. That, my friends, is insane. I'm sorry, but my cash flow can't meet that demand. Nor would it want to.

Of course someone is going to rattle my chain by saying that's still cheaper to go to Blockbuster and rent than it is going to the movies. Hmm... well, not for me. The huge multiplex that I currently frequent sells tickets for $4.50 each for the first show of the day, any day of the week. And I'm off on thursdays, and weekends. So it still costs me less than 5 bucks to see the latest horror offering. That being said, there is no theater closer than twenty miles away, and I wouldn't go to that movie house anymore if you paid me, it's so run-down. So I have to travel 37 miles to nearly Pittsburgh to see a film. So yeah, if you add in gas money, I'm spending more than 5 dollars a flick. But I honestly don't go that often.

At the same time, I'm saving big bucks with Netflix. If I watch but three movies a month, I am already saving money compared to paying 5$ a piece at Blockbuster. And I don't have to leave my damn house. Take yesterday for instance, it rained cats & dogs and it was frickin' cold! Did I have to go out in a downpour to get a DVD for the night? No. Because my savvy self knows when to send back movies to Netflix in order to get a brand new release on its first day out.
Good or bad, I had Legion (released yesterday) in my DVD player last night.

Netflix is my savior as well. I have watched hoards of truly awful movies from them which I thankfully did NOT have to purchase on a whim just to see. Take Borderline Cult for instance. It sits at the very top of my HOLY-SHIT-THIS-IS-PURE-CRAP list, and I didn't have to endure the humiliation of 1) renting that piece of dreck or 2) PAYING for it either.

If I watch ten horror films, chances are I'll eventually purchase (once they hit the bargain bin) only one of them. Which I guess means it goes without saying that I've been watching a whole lot of crap.
But now Netflix even has Watch Instantly capabilities. I don't have a Wii, but you can now watch it via that, and of course through your computer - which I do quite often. And there's no additional fee on your bill to do it. So I've actually been watching tons more horror than I ever did before, and that's a good thing, right?

So is Netflix killing the video business? Hell people, it's dead. Died an ugly death quite some time ago. The fact that 2009's House of the Devil is available on VHS doesn't mean the golden age of VHS is making a comeback, it simply means that production company knows a great marketing campaign. It's cool as hell to have a kickback to 80's horror culture available in its originally intended format - but does that mean I'm going to forsake the DVD in favor of the VHS? Hell no. The quality of DVD (and certainly of Blu-Ray) runs rings around the old style, let's face it.

But the days of VHS remain special memory for me. They are one of the mainstays of my youth. There was nothing I liked better than getting a pizza and sitting down with Romero's Day of the Dead or Kubrick's The Shining.
Those really were the good ol' days. And I miss them.

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Scare Sarah said...

Not a youngster? Wash your mouth out!

Yeah, something about those big boxed VHS'... good ol' days

Will Errickson said...

I had no idea HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was released on VHS in an old-school clamshell case. Clever bastards!

Great post--I had very much the similar experience growing up at the same time, although I was fortunate enough to have a videostore in my hometown. The dusty case for Fulci's ZOMBIE will forever be ingrained in my memory because of it...

William Malmborg said...

Great write up.

I do love how easily I can get titles that are hard to find, especially since the video stores around me always had poor horror selections -- what can I say, I live in the freaking church capitol of the world thanks to Wheaton College and they don't like horror around here (my town is even an answer in Trivial Pursuit about churches, ugh). However, when it comes to displaying my proudly owned horror collection I think VHS looks so much better on the shelf than DVDs.

I also have so many fond memories of going to the video stores late at night with my little brother, driving all over town in search of the perfect horror movie to watch while our parents were out of town, something that would scare the crap out of us. The journey was half the fun.

Matt said...

Great post - one that many of us can identify with. I may be slightly more of a youngster than you (though I'm not sure - I'm 26), but I had these same experiences growing up.

I used to comb through the local video store's horror section for the one movie that was going to scare the crap out of me. Fortunately, my video store was a 5 minute walk from my house. I remember Sleepaway Camp's ending unexpectedly doing that to me when I was about 12.

But like your store, mine eventually folded and I'm sure all of those great tapes are lying broken amidst rusting beer cans and car parts. It's sad, but it's a universal thing that happened throughout the country.

We are rapidly approaching the death of physical media, especially with Netflix and other video-streaming sources offering DVD quality video. It will be some time before they will be able to stream full HD quality, but we can be certain it will happen.

Enjoy the DVD era while you can and back up those babies before they end up in a trash bin somewhere. Future generations will look at them like we look at the 8-track. But with the ability to digitize their content, they can remain valuable.

I'm babbling now. Keep up the good posts!

Franco Macabro said...

What great post, very nostalgic. I too saw the transition from having to tape movies from HBO (which I did on a constant basis!) to discovering VHS and the fact that I could rent my favorite movies and take them home with me. That was a glorious day! I remember the first movie I saw on VHS was Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I was reluctant to switch from VHS to DVD, because I had a collection of VHS's. But to my luck, some poor schmoe offered to buy my whole movie collection, which I sold to him quite happily.

I still havent made the transition to Blue Ray, simply because I dont want to support it. It seems like a cheap scam to get more money from me since to me, Blue Ray is the same damn thing as DVD, only pricier.

But oh well, such is life, we wont be able to stop change. Ive noticed that Blue Ray isnt getting the warm welcome that big corporations expected, people are still buying dvds. They are so cheap now, and you can enjoy your movies just fine on dvd.

But I have seen local video clubs starting to favor Blue Rays in their stores. Blue Rays are taking over my local video shop, and it reminded me of the days when BlockBuster started switching from VHS to DVD. Only time will tell if DVDs will disappear or not.

And will I want to switch to Blue Ray if 10 years down the road they will invalidate my whole Blue Ray collection by bringing in yet another freaking format?

Matt-suzaka said...

Fantastic write-up, and I think you may have encapsulated almost exactly my timeline with video stores right on up to Netflix. I'm 33, so I grew up and watched the awesome rise and eventually sad death of video stores, and my memories of them and the horror movies they held are quite fond.

But I totally agree that things like Netflix and places like Amazon are much better replacements for the price and equals true value as well as more movies to watch, especially with the birth of watch instantly.

Christine Hadden said...

Sarah: Okay, "young-ish?" :)

Will: The House of the Devil movie can be bought as a set with both the DVD and the VHS in one package. Imagine! I'm not sure my VCR could take the surprise.

William: You have my sympathy for putting up with all the church-going bible thumpers...but I know what you mean - the church I went to as a kid thought Halloween (the actual holiday, not the movie) was EVIL. Go figure.

Matt: Yep, you're a youngster :)
And I hope I'm dead before the total death of DVD - I can't afford to replace all my stuff with yet another format - yikes.

TFC: I haven't went with Blu-Ray either, and find it impossible to believe it could be THAT much better than my DVDs. I'm happy enough to save the money I'd spend buying the Blu-Rays... kind of seems like a scam to me.

Matt H.: Man, I've watched a shitload of really crappy movies on Netflix Instant Watch - or should I say I've turned off a shitload? Nice thing about it is you don't feel as guilty for not finishing a movie if it's just one click and bye bye!
And god, is like my hero. I know it's ruined the sales of media in stores and such, but you just can't beat it.

the jaded viewer said...

Great post.I too rented VHS tapes for the covers. I mean the plot descriptions were there but the covers were everything.

Ahh memories.

Budd said...

excellent post-any thoughts on redbox?

Christine Hadden said...

Jaded: Those old covers were awesome. Fulci's Zombie was one I remember grabbing up and exclaiming "this one!"...

Budd: I didn't mention redbox simply because I have Netflix and don't need it. But I have a few friends who have used it and say it's pretty convenient. But again, you do have to leave your house to get one - and the closest redbox to me is 15 miles away...

Tower Farm said...

Am right there with you...I've watched VHS go from the glory days of the mom-and-pop video store stocked with oversized boxes to scouring phone books looking for ANYWHERE that still has them in stock. Time flies...

James Gracey said...

Thank you SO much for this excellent, thought provoking post Christine. I kind of felt a little sad reading it - I too lament the days spent in video shops (I used to work in one) gazing at lurid, graphic covers full of red-dripping chainsaws and big-bosomed, screaming ladies. I also enjoy nothing more than dimming the lights, munching on pizza, sipping wine and letting some horror DVD I've just rented ('cause I still totally rent DVDs from a little store around the corner from where I live), lull me out of my reality and back into that time when we took such things for granted. Great post. Keep up the sterling work my friend.

Christine Hadden said...

Billy: Ha! Some of those cases were HUGE, weren't they? Like the bigger the case the better the film. Ah, not so much:)

James: You seriously must be my brother from another mother or something. Pizza, wine, and horror - we're cut from the same cloth. Damn those 4000 miles ;o)

Jason said...

Ah good memories. There was a time in highschool, I had 3 friends working at video stores so whenever I wanted to rent a free movie I just had to figure out who was working where.

Whats sad now is that most of the video stores I grew up going to have closed. Not only the Blockbusters and the Hollywood Video but the mom and pop stores. Those were the best.

Jenny Spencer said...

That was an enjoyable article! Video stores have always been magical places to me.

Growing up, I lived in a rural area and the nearest one was 20-30 minutes away. Most of the horror films I saw back then were edited versions from tv. We didn't have cable so I relied on video stores for my horror fix.

Although I wasn't allowed to rent the gory stuff (especially slasher films), looking at the boxes gave me a special thrill & satisfied my need for forbidden gore until I was "old enough" (or able to watch it at a friend's house).

In the early 90s, I worked at a small mom & pop video store. That was like a dream come true! A lot of the "good" horror titles had disappeared from customers not returning them but it was a glorious feeling to be surrounded by VHS tapes.

It is sad that many titles haven't been converted to DVD. One in particular, which reminds me of the glory of 80s-era video stores, is Terror On Tape. It's basically a clip-athon of scenes from Continental Video horror titles, but it features a horror-themed video store (run by Cameron Mitchell!). The clips are shown by Mitchell to customers who come in. Not only did the film introduce me to many gory delights (Nightmare, Deadly Spawn) but the "Shoppe of Horrors Video Store" is such a cool idea. Sure, it looks a bit cheesy now but what fun! I found the tape on ebay (oversized box) but it will never see the light of day on DVD since the rights to each of the films has changed. Such a shame! That film changed my life (and put Nightmare on my Top 5 list of slasher films)! It taught me that there are hidden gems out there - low-budget, semi-obscure titles with lots of gore - hidden among the crap. Finding those gems has become my life's mission since then.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and memories in this article. Videos stores may soon be a thing of the past, but I will always fondly remember them.