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The VCR Era

VCRI got my first VCR in 1985. It stood for Video Cassette Recorder and it was the shit. For you kids unfamiliar with said device, it was the playback machine of the gods, the must-have item for movie fiends and TV babies, like myself at the time. A format called VHS was the newly-crowned champion of the early home entertainment wars, after battling and handily trouncing a format called Beta for market dominance, and market dominance meant prime real estate in the insatiable consumerist soul. Tap into that, you could just hook a hose to every wallet and purse across the land and flip the suck switch anytime friendly aliens, pop-dancing zombies, or robots from the future released new adventures. Ka-ching. Overnight, it seemed everyone had a VCR and consequently, everyone began building home libraries of their favourite stuff. Or just stuff, it didn’t matter. When it comes to new technology with ever-evolving and expanding product, a vacuum is created. And that vacuum must be filled. Feed the beast, yuppies, feed the beast. A new release? Who cares if it sucked, we must own it! Buy! Consume! Gobble, gobble, gobble, burp, exhale, and repeat. It would be another decade before DVD came along, unseating the mighty videotape in our hearts, much like the CD did to vinyl records before that. And still, as with those old albums, there are purists lurking among us in 2012, with their stacks of VHS tapes filling entire rooms from floor-to-ceiling. I think I even have a couple somewhere, and that’s saying something, because I save very few material things.

Everything you always wanted to know about sex David ReubenAt twelve years old, my taste was pretty eclectic, for my area and certainly for my peer group. I knew maybe one or two other kids who were into the type of stuff that I enjoyed. While most kids were flipping for Michael Jordan’s antics, I was absorbing classic horror, cult cinema, pro wrestling, comic books, and sitcoms like The Young Ones, faster than a double-ply paper towel. Hell, I even followed Days of our Lives for a brief time, because there was a dude with an eye-patch and I loved Escape From New York so figured eh, why not? Then, along with millions of housewives, I became hooked until an intervention freed me. You can’t listen to Appetite for Destruction and watch soaps, man, something’s gotta give. I also read books by the truckload. You name it, I read it. The first book that I recall making an impression on me was an old paperback copy of the popular Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask. I discovered it stashed in the back of the kitchen tool drawer as a toddler and snuck looks whenever privacy allowed. I was a master at opening that metal drawer just right, muffling the squeak it emitted if you simply yanked it open. Hey, call the guidance counsellor if you don’t like it, I wanted to know and I was afraid to ask, so fuck it, there’s a book. Plus, the illustrated women inside had great tits. Or that’s how I remember it, anyway. I had a vivid imagination and might’ve been conceptualising off the written word, but I remember pictures. Point being, I loved tits. I didn’t know what to do about it at the time, but I knew I liked them. I must’ve read that book cover-to-cover three times by the time I was five. Now that I think about it, some adults could probably stand to take a look at it today, so go find yourself a copy. I believe it’s still in print. And if you see anything eye-opening in there, you’ve got some catching up to do, friend. Put the book down, get out there and enjoy. Tell ’em BC sent ya. Just don’t tell ’em where I live, thanks.

When downloading meant taking a dump truck to the landfill

Where were we? Right, the mid-80s. Once the VCR was hooked up, it was time to own some tapes. Where to start? Remember, these were the days before everything and its sequels, spin-offs, uncut versions, director’s cuts, remakes, and remakes of remakes were omni-available in a myriad of formats and downloads. In 1985, downloading meant you were either taking a dump truck to the landfill, chugging your last drink before heading to the next bar, or in a bad way on the toilet. I’ll take number two, thanks. I mean, as in, the second selection, not–you know what I mean. One day, while trawling the nearby department store, I hit pay dirt. On the video shelf, inexplicably sandwiched between Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the melodrama Terms of Endearment, sat a film featuring my favourite genre duo of yesteryear – my favourite of all time, actually – Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing. It was a little Spanish film called Horror Express, and it would be the first VHS tape I’d own. It still holds a place for me as one of the best of their many colourful pairings. Incidentally, when DVD hit retail stores in ’96, Horror Express was one of six initial titles delivered to Tower Records Hollywood, where I lingered for a couple years as resident snarky clerk. Big Hollywood shows like Tim Burton’s Batman and Lethal Weapon were in that first wave too, making that Spanish bullion an odd shelf-mate, to say the least. The Horror Express distribution pattern has been quite impressive, if not relentless, since its 1972 release. No matter the format, or how remote the shop location, or how small the selection, if movies are available it always seems to be in stock. I’m whistling the theme music right now, it’s fuckin’ ingrained. Haven’t seen it, you say? Minimise this screen and stroll down to your corner store, it’s probably right there next to the peanuts for $4.99. Enjoy.

Horror ExpressIt’s tough to illustrate how novel this all was back then, before we were all up in the interweb and whatnot, but being able to own your favourite programmes and watch anything you wanted at any time was rocking my boat, big time. As a little kid, I’d put my boombox to the television and hit record on my favourite cartoons, recording just the audio. I remember getting pissed-off once, when a friend knocked on the door right in the middle of my taping GI Joe after school. I made him sit in silence for the final ten minutes, then bitched him out for ruining my recording. From that point on, he’d quietly peer in the window to make sure the boombox wasn’t in front of the TV. I could be a difficult little kid, but I just devoured the stuff I was into. At 3 years old, I’d get scissors and cut the descriptions for Wild Wild West and Batman reruns from the TV Guide and assemble scrapbooks that broke down every episode that aired, including visuals when I could get them. By the time it began expanding and refining, I was uber-ready for home entertainment. Naturally, when a friend of the family who had not one, but two VCR’s, offered to dub some movies, I was excited. Being both inquisitive and selective, I didn’t jump at the chance to get just any free stuff, thrilled as I was at the prospect. “Exactly what movies are we talking about?” I asked. “Anything,” came the reply. “We have every movie you can think of, just name it!” Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And no sooner had they gotten ready to make the movie kid’s day by offering him his pick of any film he wanted, than I came back with a list of films I’d been reading about in the horror history books at the library. Taste the Blood of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Skull, The Creeping Flesh, The Beast Must Die! were just some of the highlights. Insert blank stare here. They’d never even heard of any of those movies, much less owned copies. Smiles faded. “We have Rambo…”

Back when Freddy was scary

Ingrid PittAnd that, dear reader, is how it went with the majority of my creative interests and pursuits as I barrelled through a childhood in the suburbs, a land not exactly known for variety or spice of life. But hey, we had VCR’s. I eventually requested any of their horror titles, and while I still chomped at the bit for I, Monster or The Vampire Lovers (Ingrid Pitt, fuckin’ swoon), I ended up settling for Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’d seen Last House on the Left on cable and knew the guy was a sick fuck, so it was probably worth a look. Alas no Cushing, but when Amanda Weiss is screaming her head off while being slashed to ribbons on the ceiling not long into the film, I knew we’d gotten some good stuff. This was back when the Freddy Krueger character was new, mysterious, and scary – not the fuckin’ stand-up comic he’d soon become. I hated seeing that happen, and it set the stage for the cheer-the-villain ethic that, in my opinion, ruined the balance of a great deal of storytelling. Sure, Craven jacked his template from Carpenter’s Halloween, but every filmmaker who’s done a slasher in the last 35 years has stolen something from JC, whether they cop to it or not. (writer’s note: Thank you, John. Keep rockin’, brother.) Elm Street was still a great movie in its own right, and it illustrated yet another benefit of the home video era, in that we were being exposed to material we’d have otherwise missed because we were too young to buy a ticket, or any number of other snags that could arise when you had to go out and find something. It was right in your living room, just a click away. Sure, some of the wonder and naive mystery was gone, but our universe will always find new ways to open our eyes and send chills up our spine. What we don’t see is always scarier than what we do, and no matter how much hi-def fun we surround ourselves with, no matter how loud we crank the volume, the sun will always go down, the TV’s will always turn off, and the dark will always be there. Waiting.

Shhh. Did you hear something?


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