Tales from the Video Store
This week we are delighted to introduce a new voice to the blog. Lee Adams is a ‘Brit abroad’ with a young family in the Czech Republic and a penchant for a horror movie or two.
We start by checking out his movie watching resumé in “Tales From the Video Store”!
Tales From The Video Store
The 1980's was a great decade to be a latch-key kid with access to your dad's video club card. With the local store’s scant regard for I.D., school holidays were a fiesta of video nasties, violent thrillers, schlocky sci-fi, raunchy comedies and - for those who dared reach up to the top shelf - blue movies.
During term time, the playground buzzed with talk of the latest movie rentals. At our school, watching an 18-rated movie awarded you rock star status. The cool kids held court over the VHS frustrated with tales of Freddy Krueger's ghoulish kills, ED-209's boardroom bloodbath or the exploding head scene from “Scanners”.
I was somewhere between the two groups.
My parents were pretty relaxed about what I watched - as long as there wasn't too much sex and nudity. Luckily, they had good taste in films too. I gravitated towards horror movies, although I was always terrified watching them. I'm still chicken now, even though it's my favourite genre. The problem is, I'm just really nervy - I'll jump out of my skin during a Rom Com if Julia Roberts answers a door too quickly. I saw John Carpenter's “The Thing” when I was about nine and that set the upper-scare-limit for me.
Of course, having well-meaning liberal parents also has its disadvantages. One night I came downstairs to find my mum sitting in the dark watching “Threads”, Mick Jackson's traumatising drama about the aftermath of a nuclear strike on the UK. If ever there was one film you needed to watch with the lights on, it was “Threads”. Instead of sending me back to bed, my cool mum let me sit with her in the dark and watch it.
The result? A year spent cowering under the bed covers every night waiting for the nukes to fall.
That was the eighties though and it is crazy now to think that we really did live in fear of nuclear annihilation. Our family even discussed what to do if the sirens went off. My instructions were to make it back to my nan's as fast as I could. My parents planned to meet us there so we could get incinerated together as a nuclear family.
Despite the trauma of “Threads”, film has always been important to me. My earliest movie memory is sitting on the rug in front of the TV, bawling my eyes out as Lon Chaney's Phantom was first unmasked, revealing that ghastly face. I must have been around four years old. I was also scared witless by Mr Hyde lurking around the back streets of London, and the Invisible Man laughing crazily as he removed his bandages - that cheery stuff always seemed to be on telly at around four o'clock in the afternoon when I was little.
As I got older, my parents would rent and record old monster movies for me. My favourites were the 1933 “King Kong” and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”.
I loved atomic era flicks with their bug-eyed monsters, deadly rays, giant insects, rocket ships, screaming heroines / square-jawed heroes, mutant creatures, mad scientists, flying saucers and robots run-amok. I just couldn't get enough. No matter how wooden the acting, how naff the special effects or how sparkly the spacesuits. I was hooked.
Once I was old enough to bike round to the video shop by myself, I was in heaven. It was the golden era of VHS rental and I was instantly in love with the images on the video boxes. I could spend hours looking at the cover art and the small stills on the back. Studying those video boxes was often more fun than watching the movies themselves.
Our local video rental store was actually the local corner shop. They always had two or three posters for the latest releases in the front window. The video section was in the back room, with the meat counter on one side and a wall of VHS tapes on the other. The shop owner was a nice old boy called John (because almost all older people were called John back then) and he would save the posters for me. Thanks to him, my bedroom was covered with video shop movie posters.
Obviously, it was largely horror movie posters that caught my attention, with brilliant artwork and striking images to fire the imagination. I loved the poster for “Poltergeist” with the little girl pressing her hands to the TV screen, all alone in the darkness - "They're here". I remember that “The Howling” had a hot female werewolf clawing her way through the cover, while “Fright Night” showed a vampire cloud swirling over a family home on a moonlit night.
“House” had a disembodied, decomposing hand ringing a doorbell, while “Link” featured an evil chimp dressed in coattails eyeballing the onlooker by the light of a match.
But, my absolute favourite poster was not a horror movie at all - but it still took pride of place on my wall - “Big Trouble in Little China”. It promised everything a nine-year-old boy could want from a movie - mystery, action and adventure, a cool looking guy with a big gun and a knife, a beautiful woman, an evil sorcerer, gunfights and magic. It was one of the few occasions when the movie delivered exactly what the poster art promised. It sums up the magic of renting movies and remains a favourite to this day.
My love affair with video rental continued into the ‘90s and I started hitting the cinema too. The first film I saw at the Ipswich Odeon without my parents was “Turner and Hooch”, starring Tom Hanks and a big slobbery dog.
In to my teens, I got more serious about how I consumed movies and I bought my first proper film magazine- the “Trainspotting” edition of ‘Empire’. That movie, along with “Pulp Fiction” and “Seven”, made me understand that there was someone behind the camera making decisions that affected the way the film turned out on screen. I remember the thrill of watching “Pulp Fiction” for the first time at the cinema (Honey Bunny and Pumpkin holding up the diner and ‘Misirlou’ kicking in) and even before the opening credits rolled, I couldn’t wait to see it again.
Of course, VHS gradually gave way to DVD and BLOCKBUSTER eventually wiped out most of the independent video stores. Times change, but I always feel lucky that I was a kid in the ‘80s. Despite the omnipresent fear of nuclear annihilation, it was great growing up in the first fully rewindable decade, and being a teen in the ‘90s just compounded my cinematic obsession.
Now I'm in my forties with children of my own, and I eke out a living writing about movies. My tastes have broadened over the years, but those video store days still influence who I am as a movie buff and a film critic. No matter what title I'm writing about, I try to approach it with the enthusiasm of the nine-year-old me stood in front of a wall of VHS boxes with a sweaty pound coin in one hand and my dad's video card in the other.
Incidentally, I recently picked up a blu-ray copy of “Big Trouble in Little China” and it was like seeing the movie again for the first time. After years of suffering crappy pan-and-scan video copies, I was knocked back by how great it looks - it might just be the best looking of the John Carpenter and Dean Cundey collaborations.
I watched it with my six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, and you know what? They loved every second of it. It seems they have good taste in films too. Perhaps it runs in the family.
Welcome Lee! We look forward to reading more in the coming weeks.
We are off to dig out an old VHS player from the loft...
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.