Thursday, February 28, 2008

I've Got It All On Video

Video stores were the backbone of my adolescence during the ‘80s, allowing me to indulge my love of horror movies in ways that I never imagined. And watching these stores and the VHS format vanish from the face of the earth in the wake of DVDs and Netflix makes me feel like my past is in the process of being gobbled up by those hell-spawned Pac-Man things from Stephen King’s The Langoliers.

My stepdad didn’t buy us our first VCR until ’86 but for several years before that he’d rent a player for the house for two weeks during the Christmas holidays and to remember having just those two short weeks in an entire year (!) to see whatever videos I desperately wanted to see (Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Deep Red, Zombie) is mind-blowing to me now. Of course, once we finally had a VCR of our own I was in horror heaven.

Thanks to the home video boom, there were several mom and pop outfits near my parent’s house to choose from (none of which cared if under-aged kids rented R or unrated films) and I spent many months exhausting each store’s back catalog of horror titles – experiencing ‘80s favorites like Cannibal Holocaust, Make Them Die Slowly, Dr. Butcher M.D., The Evil Dead, Burial Ground, Gates of Hell, Razorback, From Beyond, Scarecrows, Xtro, and Alone in the Dark for the first time.

Years later, when I started working at a video store myself post-college (where else would someone with a liberal arts degree get a job?), I felt like I had lucked into the ideal occupation (what can I say – I have low aspirations!). I worked for a locally owned and operated video chain called The Movie Shops and even though the home video industry had already peaked by the mid-‘90s, the market was still strong enough that I didn’t see an end to my dream gig in sight.

But by the late ‘90s, I knew all too well by our sluggish sales that the rental industry was eroding. It was discouraging to see it happen but even if the small guys that I was aligned with went under, I didn’t think that video stores themselves were going to dry up and blow away. After all, people still would want to watch movies at home and to buy new release VHS tapes was cost prohibitive except in rare cases when a title would be priced to own on street date. Call me naïve but I thought VHS was sacrosanct.

At the time, though, besides my job at the video store I also worked at a local Media Play outlet and one day, a small section on the back wall of the video section was opened up for a new product called DVDs. When I first heard about the coming of DVDs, I scoffed – believing that they’d never push laserdiscs aside in the hearts of collectors (as Kevin Smith famously kickstarted his Clerks laserdisc audio commentary: “Fuck DVD!”) and that they wouldn’t encroach on VHS as the general public wouldn’t feel the need to upgrade their collections to a whole new format (as I reasoned – “who’s going to buy all their movies over again after spending so much time and money on VHS?”).

But affordability and convenience can’t be ignored and soon that little DVD rack on the Media Play back wall (I wish I could remember what titles were on it – but I think that Lost in Space and the John Travolta film Michael were two of them) started to evolve, causing the store’s fairly sizable laserdisc selection to steadily diminish. And once that process started, it wasn’t long before laserdiscs had been permanently kicked to the curb.

Maybe because I never owned a laserdisc player it didn’t hit me so hard to see the format phased out (although I always loved the hardcore love of movies that it represented). But somehow the overtaking of laser by DVD still didn’t foretell the death knell of VHS to me. I thought that three had been a crowd but now with laser gone, that DVD and VHS could peacefully co-exist. But that wasn’t meant to be (in case you haven’t noticed, I’m something of a slow-on-the-uptake, can’t-see-shit-in-front-of-my-face kind of guy). Now here we are less then ten years later and there’s a generation of kids about to enter their early teens for which movies have always been available – and preferable – on shiny silver discs.

But from day one, there was an appealing vibe of archeology attached to VHS that DVD has never shared. The horror sections of the stores I went to as a teenager always occupied cramped back corners and I vividly recall being crouched behind shelves, pouring over every lurid title (Spasms! Hospital Massacre! Incubus!). And perhaps because their shape evoked books, VHS carried a subliminal romantic quality for me as well (and many of the mom and pop establishments I used to go to had wooden shelving, lending an additional library-like feel to their stores).

Of course I expect I’ll be nostalgic for DVD one day too – once the day comes when no one buys physical copies of movies anymore, when people just download all their media. Some might say that next step is an improvement – taking the unnecessary clutter out of movie collecting. But why would anyone collect anything if they didn’t like a little bit of clutter in their lives?

Looking around the newly converted DVD-only rental selection of one of my local “video stores” several weeks ago and seeing the remnants of their once-proud VHS past stacked in discount sales bins, I couldn’t help but think of how excited I was twenty five years ago when my stepdad hooked up that first rented VCR to our 18 inch TV and introduced us to the magic of VHS (“Look, you can stop it anytime you want!”). As soon as I saw that first videotape cue up, I knew that my already movie-obsessed life had taken a profound turn.

And as I stood in this now disc-only store thinking about how it was possible that video could have vanished, I looked at the young employee behind the counter and it dawned on me that this kid hadn’t even been born when the store he was now working in was first opened. And then I realized with DVD-worthy clarity, “Oh, yeah – that’s how. I’m old.”

I used to think that being part of the last generation to remember a time before home video made me feel old. But now it’s not the fact that I remember a time before home video, it’s that I’m now part of a generation who can say they shopped (and worked) at video stores before they became extinct.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cabin Fever

My first exposure to Sam Raimi's demonic debut The Evil Dead came through an article filed by Stephen King for Twilight Zone Magazine for its November 1982 issue. Having attended the Cannes Film Festival earlier that year on behalf of his collaboration with George Romero, Creepshow, King had seen The Evil Dead at a screening and wanted to share his discovery with stateside fans. King's TZ article was an excited love letter to what he would be widely quoted as calling "the most ferociously original horror movie of the year".

I encountered this issue of TZ at the local Stop & Shop supermarket where my mother did our weekly grocery shopping and when my mother came around to retrieve me from the magazine racks en route to the checkout, I begged her to purchase the issue. As TZ didn't have the same graphic pics that kept her from approving Fangoria, it was an easy sell. Once I got it home, I kept returning to that issue over the subsequent weeks and re-reading King's article, intently studying the grainy b&w pics that accompanied it (TZ ran few color photos and except for the middle pages, it was never printed on glossy paper). At the time, The Evil Dead hadn't been purchased for distribution in the U.S. and as King himself stated in his article: "Take a look at the accompanying stills, dear reader, because most of the large American film distribution nets have already passed on Raimi's independently financed film".

Eventually Fangoria kicked in its own Evil Dead coverage, finally providing glossy color stills revealing the truly putrescent sights of dissolving Deadites, and in time its U.S. distribution was secured (although my ability to see the unrated release as a thirteen-year-old horror fan was another matter) but for awhile my only connection to The Evil Dead was through King's three page article and the handful of stills that ran with it (including the famous publicity photo seen above of a blood-soaked Ash holding a chainsaw over his head as skeletal hands clutch towards him).

When I finally did see The Evil Dead on video at a much later date, I wasn't disappointed. Everything King said on behalf of the film was true as far as I was concerned - I was cowering in my seat during the entire running time. And several years later when I saw the first trailer for Evil Dead II in front of Witchboard, I was all in for another round of nerve-shredding terror. How far would Raimi take it this time, I wondered? But when I finally saw Raimi's sequel at a midnight showing on its opening weekend, I loved it but I was also taken aback - I had NO idea going in that this was going to be funny (yes, this was back in the pre-internet days when it was so much easier to be surprised by movies). I thought Raimi had made a great movie, but on the way out of the theater that night I had some explaining to do to the friend I went with who I had promised we'd be seeing a balls-to-the-wall horror film (things went much better for Alan and I when we saw Hellraiser together later that year).

Since then, and since most newer fans of the Evil Dead series have watched the series in backwards succession on video - discovering Army of Darkness first, then going back to II and then the original, the horrific impact of that first film has been lost to time. But the current comic book adaptation of the original, by writer Mark Verheiden and artist John Bolton (and published by Dynamite Entertainment) is a corrective swing of the pendulum back towards making The Evil Dead what King called "a black rainbow of horror".

Only two issues (out of four) have been released so far with Ash and Scotty currently in the midst of keeping their possessed girlfriends at bay but I can say that from page one, this has been an impressive adaptation. While Verheiden gives later-day fans some of the smart-Ash quips they've come to expect, it isn't a campy retelling and Bolton's vivid artwork (check above for the cover to issue 1) takes me back to looking with fascination at those stills in Twilight Zone Magazine so many years ago. It serves as a welcome reminder that all you really need to scare the shit out of an audience is to send some kids into the woods, put 'em in a cabin and let the demons loose.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Never Question Your Own Taste

Looking at the cover of the upcoming Fangoria, I realized what a constant source of stupid, childish, grin-inducing pleasure it's been for me over the last twenty-five years or so to discover how gross each new Fango cover will be. While Rue Morgue is a horror mag that your girlfriend or significant other can catch you reading and there won't be any outraged words or disgusted sighs on their part (or even a "what did you waste your money on now?"), Fango is another matter. If I happen to leave Rue Morgue lying out in plain sight, my wife won't blink an eye. Hell, I could bring it to the dinner table if I wanted. But if she spots a Fango with a cover like the one above, a "how can you read that shit?" comment is guaranteed. And when she asks, I think she honestly wants an answer that makes sense - after all, I am raising our child with her. But really, what kind of question is that? As soon as you start to question your own taste, you're ruined.