My personal history of VHS movies: Snuff films and monkey brains and porn, oh my!
Wal-Mart has joined Target, Best Buy and Circuit City in the Kill VHS campaign. By the end of this year, you will no longer be able to buy VHS movies at Wally world.
Oh, I know. Hardly anyone buys VHS tapes anymore. But that's not the point. Once again, old age and mortality get together to mock me as another part of my youth gets thrown into oblivion.
Home VCRs were introduced in the U.S. in the late 1970's. They were big, cumbersome, heavy and quickly became all the rage. They were also - like most new technology - deemed to be dangerous. Our old friend Jack Valenti had this to say about VCRs:
The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.
So his hyperbolic idiocy is nothing new, then.
Anyhow, I don't remember exactly when we got our first VCR. My father, always with the need to be on the cutting edge of technology (whether he knows how to use that technology or not is a whole other matter), came home one day with this ginormous mechanical beast that, he claimed, could play movies. It had to be about 1979 - I distinctly remember buying Slap Shot for $75.99 at the local electronics store.
Soon after the VCR became a household item, smart entrepreneurs realized that the price of movies was prohibitive to most people and perhaps they would like to borrow these movies - for a small fee. And so, the video store was born.
One of the first video stores to pop up on Long Island was the Video Vault, which operated out of Modell's department store, turning the lobby into a makeshift retail outlet. And I was there. I stumbled into the job, through a friend of a friend who knew this guy Bruce who was opening the place. Knowing that I was into the current VHS movie craze, she gave Bruce my number and a couple of days later, I was helping him set up the store.
Membership was $99 a year. For that, you got two free rentals a month - everything after those freebies was something like five dollars per night. The stock wasn't huge at first. We carried more VHS titles than Beta (and that caused quite a few arguments with customers) and more porn than regular movie titles.
At first, the movies were kept in glass counter cases. Eventually, the stock grew and Bruce put shelves on the wall (behind the counter) to display the movies. The horror section nearly equaled the porn section after a few months.
Sure, we had a healthy selection of mainstream movies; after all, we were catering to a middle-class, family oriented community. But it just seemed like Bruce was more interested in getting the seamier side of VHS movies into the store.
My co-worker Lydia and I picked out a movie to take home each night. We'd go to one of our houses and watch - or sometimes we would stay in the store after closing and view a couple of flicks. Mostly we picked out horror movies - Bruce seemed to specialize in finding the most bizarre cult films available. He was the first to bring <Faces of Death to our little piece of suburbia. He was the first to offer what he claimed to be real snuff films for rental. Yes, snuff films. There was one movie where supposedly a girl was murdered and served for Thanksgiving dinner. We watched it a dozen times at least, studying the girl's face, her screams, the movement of the killers to figure out if it was real or not. We watched I Spit on Your Grave endlessly, rewinding and pausing key scenes. We carried dozens of slasher movies (how I wish I could remember the titles now) and often stayed up late at night - throngs of our friends would show up for the screenings - filling up on gore and beer.
I had already been a connoisseur of horror movies when I began working at Video Vault; giving me access to all these bloody, scary movies was like giving a junkie free crack. And if those movies were my crack, then the discovery of porn was my pure cocaine.
At first we didn't touch the porn movies except to rent them out to middle-class husbands who came in the store with their heads bowed, hands in pocket, whispering titles into our ears as if we weren't going to run home and tell our parents that the Little League coach was into bondage. We giggled a lot, made some rude jokes and then, inevitably, became curious.
We started with Debbie Does Dallas because it was the most familiar title. Lydia snuck it out of the store - we didn't want Bruce to think we were pervs because he was a perv and we didn't want to give him any perverted ideas about perverts being pervy together - and took it back to Lydia's house, whose parents were away on vacation.
I fell asleep 30 minutes in. Lydia was so bored, she read over her Literature of Western Civ notes instead. This was porn? Bad acting, horrible dialogue and totally unbelievable, corny sex scenes. Booooring. We figured that if people kept coming in for the porn titles, risking their reputations as pillars of the community, there had to be more to it. So we made careful notes of what the most popular porn titles were.
The next Friday we took home Behind the Green Door, starring Marilyn Chambers. The night after that, we watched Insatiable, also starring the lovely Marilyn. We discovered that porn is not teasing, jiggly cheerleaders. No, we found the good stuff. The next weekend I stuffed a copy of Bad Girls into my bag and headed over to my boyfriend's house. Lydia did the same. Bruce had unwittingly introduced us to worlds we didn't know existed. Working at Video Vault had been quite an education.
Eventually I watched every single movie in the store and I found a job elsewhere (not because I ran out of titles, but because I needed more money and Bruce was more stingy than he was pervy). More and more video stores were opening, anyhow and I feared that Video Vault would go the way of the Betamax soon. Our membership numbers were sagging. Business was so slow that I spent most of my days in the Modell's lobby playing Zaxxon and cursing Dirk of Dragon's Lair. Bruce refused to lower his prices, even though Lydia and I tried to knock some business sense into him, and he lost half his clients to stores that were now offering memberships for free. I fled the sinking ship.
Bruce was smarter than we gave him credit for, however. He knew what he was doing. A year later, Bruce had dumped all the movies and bought into the Super Mario craze. Video Vault had become a video game store and I was right there, standing in line for an NES as soon as they were available. As I handed my old boss the cash for the console, I realized that Bruce was my dealer and Video Vault was my crack den. The double addiction of horror and porn had given way to the pure heroin-like abuse of video games and Bruce was my supplier for all of them.
If I could remember his last name, I'd look him up and see what kind of technological crack he's dealing out now.