My earliest memory of a video store must have been from 1985 or not long after this. Back then, my family didn’t own a VCR, but we could rent one from the local “Video Paradise” video store. The VCR, I remember, was small and, I think, came in a briefcase-like contraption. Along with the VCR, we rented Back to the Future and this, incidentally, was the movie that taught me my first cuss. There’s a scene where Biff says, “I’m gonna get that sonafabitch,” and “sonafabitch” became my very first cuss. At three or four years old, I went around my house saying, “I’m gonna get that sonafabitch,” or maybe I only did it once and was promptly reprimanded by my mother. All I know is “sonafabitch” was my first cuss word ever. Incidentally, the S-word was my second cuss word and I also learned that one from a video rental, this time Like Father, Like Son with Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore. I have no recollection of when I learned the F-word. It was likely from a video rental, though. I do remember when I learned “bastard” and that was from Die Hard.
Later into the 80s, my family purchased our own VCR machine, which was nice, because having to rent one every weekend was a real drag. The VCR was Toshiba-brand, very large, with many complex buttons, most of which were rarely used, or at least it seemed like that at the time. During this period—the late 1980s—pretty much all we rented at the video store were ACTION movies. In fact, I had no idea that there were any other choices. We would basically walk into Video Paradise and proceed immediately to the ACTION section, which was in the back, just to the right of the New Releases. Video box art was key and I would pretty much rent anything that looked action-packed. If it had fire-ball-like explosions and/or a greasy, jacked up Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover? Or Sylvester Stallone? It would be rented, no questions asked.
With one exception: Terminator.
Terminator was the one video we never, EVER rented. And this is because it was known as the only movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger was the “Bad guy”. And I guess, as a kid, I had no interest in watching a movie where Arnold was the bad guy. Only the good guy. So I treated Terminator kind of like how Pee-wee Herman treats the snakes when he’s saving all the animals from a pet store fire in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. He keeps going back in to save animal after animal but sneers at the snakes each time. Finally, once there are no more animals left to save, he grabs the snakes and runs the hell out of there before the whole place burns down. To me, Terminator was the snake. I’d sneer at it every time I went into the ACTION section at the video store. But, eventually, I rented every single ACTION movie there was to rent and, soon, Terminator was all there was left, so I reluctantly rented it (and loved it).
By the way, you may be wondering…hmmm…I was five…six…seven years old…and able to watch rated-R ACTION movies? The answer to that question is YES, without a problem, actually. My parents had no issue with me watching Rambo, Commando, Cobra, Delta Force, Marked for Death, Predator, Running Man, Kickboxer, guns, explosions and everything violence. The only problem was when there was a sex scene, at which time I would have to close my eyes and my dad would fast-forward until the sex was over. So sex was a no-no, but violence? Well, the more, the merrier!
How did I turn out? Well, I can’t say I’m a model citizen, but I’m not violent, that’s for sure…at least…not yet muahahahahahahahahaha aaaaaaaaa-hahahahahahahahahahaha ooooooo-hoooooohoooooohooooooo eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-heeeeeeeeeeeee-heeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeeeeeee!
Out of all the ACTION movies I rented, Rambo First Blood Part 2 was probably both my favorite and the one I rented the most. In fact, I was damn-near obsessed with the movie, so much that I fantasized I was John Rambo on almost a daily basis. I got the Rambo action figures from Kay Bee Toys, the red bandana, even a plastic toy version of his bad-ass knife (which, if I remember correctly, I purchased at a Christmas Tree Shop down on Cape Cod). In the schoolyard, I made machine gun noises with my mouth, ran around and pretended I was doing Rambo missions. I preferred doing this over playing with other kids. Today, teachers probably would have thought I was “on the spectrum,” but autism wasn’t as big of a thing back in the 1980s, so I somehow got away with this, at least for a little while. I did eventually get a bad conduct grade on my 1st grade report card, for “not playing well with others.” This was mainly because I preferred playing in my imaginary world of Rambo.
Once the 1990s came around, I expanded my horizons and rented movies that weren’t ACTION. At this time, I rode my Giant “Attraction” mountain bike down to Video Paradise all during summer vacation and rented movies like Ransom, True Lies, Conair, Face Off, Bad Boys etc. I would then stay up late, watch these movies, and feel like I was accomplishing something with my life. By nature, I seem to have an obsessive-compulsive personality, so I got it into my head that I needed to watch pretty much every New Release that came out. I thought this would somehow make me a better or smarter person, kind of like how you think when you’re trying to beat a video game. You know, you convince yourself that beating Mario Bros. actually matters. What you realize in the end is that you haven’t really accomplished anything, nor have you improved yourself in any way. I probably would have been better off reading a book. But, alas, I digress.
Later into the 1990s, I made the switch from Video Paradise to Massive Video as my go-to video rental place. This was partly because Video Paradise went out of business (at this time, the evil franchise known as Blockbuster Video was killing off the mom and pop video stores left and right) but also because Massive Video had better deals. You could literally rent two non-new-releases for just a dollar. As for new releases, you could rent one for a few dollars and then get a non-new-release absolutely free. Bottom line: you could rent A LOT of videos from Massive for not a whole lot of money.
I had my driver’s license by this point in my life, so I hit up Massive all the time, especially during the summer when there was no school. I had also acquired a small 13” Sylvania television with the VCR built right into it and that became my own personal “home movie theater” for several years. I was particularly drawn to movies made by Miramax during this time because they were making all the unique indies. Movies like Trainspotting come to mind. Pulp Fiction as well. Say what you will about Harvey Weinstein, but he was responsible for many good movies in the mid-to-late 90s. Artisan was releasing a lot of great movies, too (like Blair Witch Project).
Massive Video also notoriously had the “adult video” closet that was commonplace in mom and pop video stores of that era. There was rarely anybody in this closet, but I do remember two occasions when there was a “john” (for lack of a better word) perusing the adult videos. On one occasion, there was a 50-year-old gentleman in the closet who eventually exited and then, upon checking out at the front desk, another customer (a woman) was walking into the store and she recognized him. It turns out he was the coach of her son’s soccer team! The poor guy was hoping to rent a couple adult vids with discretion and anonymity, but fate had other ideas. Boy how embarrassed he was!
On another occasion, my friends were in the store and I think we may have even been shooting the breeze with the video store clerk. I have no recollection of what we were talking about, but, whatever the subject matter was, we suddenly hear a noise and a guy comes out of the adult video closet, looking very rascally in the face. Then, he says to us, with incredible enthusiasm, “Yeah, that was in this month’s MAXIM!” The magazine, that is. So, whatever it was we were talking about, was apparently discussed or featured in the most recent issue of Maxim magazine. That guy would know, apparently.
By 2004, mom and pop video stores were a dying breed, as Blockbuster had officially monopolized the video rental market. Sadly, the mom and pops all began closing, one after the other. Before they closed, however, they had crazy liquidation sales. Like a bunch of jackals, my friends and I hit up many of these stores and walked away with dozens of videos that we acquired for pennies on the dollar. I personally walked away with a very eclectic collection of videos, including Todd Solondz’s From the Dollhouse, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, the hilarious Airplane 2, an indie film called Chuck and Buck (one of the most uncomfortable movies of all time), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first and best 1990 version) and even the French Film The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
A photo I took of Massive Video, right before it closed forever.
Only a few years after Blockbuster became king, Netflix rose to power. This not only marked the end of Blockbuster but it also marked the end of the video store era in general. A few video stores do exist here and there, mostly as ironic establishments in hipster neighborhoods, but for the most part, video stores are extinct and it’s unlikely that they will ever experience a revival. Streaming is probably here to stay for the unforeseeable future and it’s hard to imagine anything better unless mankind experiences some sort of apocalyptic disruption to the power grid, like a solar storm, where we lose Internet capabilities and are forced to go analog again. But, wait, if the power grid were to fry out on us, we wouldn’t even have the power to run the analog devices, right? Unless we used gasoline-powered generators. Yes, that would be the only way. Hmmm…
Anyway, yes, the video store era is likely a bygone era. But, before it gets forgotten forever, I wanted to memorialize it somehow. My novel WEIRD MONSTER, originally written as a screenplay back in 2007 and later turned into a novel (or what-I-call a “screen novel”) ten years later, is my attempt to memorialize it. The book is, among other things, a long love letter to the video store era, the VHS era, and the VCR era. It captures everything from the smell of video stores (plastic cases and, occasionally, stale popcorn) to the excitement of a new release coming out (after waiting forever for it to come out on video), to the magnetic-tape-sensing-security-gate-thingy that welcomed you when you entered the video store (or whatever the name of that thing was), to the movies playing on multiple TVs throughout the store…the buzzing fluorescent lights on the ceiling…the puke-colored, bubble-gum-stained carpeting…the clamshell video cases...and, yes, even the adult video closets.
Video stores were like a little fantasy land you could escape to at the end of your rough week of reality. They were warm in the winters. Cool in the summers. An all-around fun time. They will be so very missed.