The fading wonder of video rental shops

Feature Ryan Lambie 18 Jan 2013 - 07:34

As horror movie V/H/S arrives in UK cinemas, Ryan thinks back to an era of browsing the shelves of video rental stores...

How times have changed. That was my overriding thought this week, as two events coincidentally occurred which served as a reminder of just how much the way we consume movies has altered over the past decade. The first was the announcement that Blockbuster, once the world’s biggest chain of movie rental stores, has gone into administration in the UK. Fittingly, perhaps, the news broke on the day that the promoters behind the found-footage horror anthology V/H/S staged an evening designed to invoke memories of hiring videotapes from shops.

With a small gallery in Shoreditch decked out to look like a genre video dungeon, its shelves festooned with titles ranging from Ninja Assassin to Night Of The Comet, you could immediately sense the nostalgia among visitors - fond yet fading memories of perusing row upon row of movies, some familiar, others utterly obscure. It was like the late 80s all over again.

In the small town where I grew up in the mid-to-late 80s, there was little for youngsters to do other than play football or hang around at the bus stop and stare at the pigeons. Imagine the excitement, then, when the place got its first video rental store. A little independent outfit with the curious name Scanners, it suddenly opened up a portal into a universe of unexpected delights.

Aside from all the usual mainsteam releases, the shelves offered a wealth of the weird and the tantalising. Martial arts films starring Michael Dudikoff and Chuck Norris. Forbidden low-budget horror flicks, some of them old enough to have those post-BBFC, post-video nasty media flap 18-rating stickers applied. There were bawdy frat-house comedies. Obscure Hong Kong features. And at the back, like a wall of flesh-coloured naughtiness, an entire wall of softcore porn tapes.

Readers of a certain age will no doubt have similar memories of their own - those huge VHS rental boxes, the films you’d never heard of which always seemed to be arranged on the shelves nearest your feet, the frustration of getting to the shop on a Saturday evening and discovering that the film you wanted had already been rented - or the thrill that one copy was still left in the shop, probably because it was hidden behind a copy of Pretty Woman.

The proprietor of my video store looked a bit like Mokey out of Fraggle Rock, in that she always appeared to be mildly concerned about something but unsure what to do about it. In retrospect, this was probably because she had what was effectively an overview of the entire town’s psyche - the 80s equivalent of knowing everyone’s internet browser history.

She alone knew that the town vicar rented out an adult video every week - one of those Electric Blue titles, probably - or that Dave the carpenter had a worrying fixation on Death Wish sequels, or that her next door neighbour was constantly hiring out the Care Bears movie even though he didn’t have any children.

The owner of Scanners was a friendly sort, though, and had a maternal interest in her customers’ viewing habits. She’d warn you if she thought the lurid cover of a horror movie gave a false impression of the contents within, or if a cheap knock-off of a better-known picture wasn’t worth the price of a rental (“Don’t rent Munchies if you’re looking for another Gremlins,” she’d say, “it’s rubbish, love”).

At other times, she’d cannily advise customers to rent a movie rather than watch it on telly - when ITV proudly advertised that Lethal Weapon was to premiere that weekend, the video shop lady told everyone to borrow a copy from her instead, since the version on telly would be “Cut to bloody ribbons”.

For many, the humble video shop provided a gateway to a life-long movie obsession. Those shelves, full of the new and old, the obvious and the obscure, the worthy and the absurd, actively encouraged visitors to be omnivorous in their film-watching appetites. There were often midweek offers where you could rent two or three movies for the price of one, which made it absolutely worth risking a bit of spare change on things you’d never heard of - poverty-row Terminator homage Eve Of Destruction, perhaps, or one of those undersea horror movies that surfaced at the same time as The Abyss.

Video shops were fun to wander around, to drink in the lurid cover art and read the inflated marketing patter on the reverse of each box. Bargain bins harboured further strange delights. Seventies kung-fu movies with names like The Eight Masters or The Snuff Bottle Connection were often only a few pence to buy - which kickstarted a brief yet earnest personal fascination with martial arts movies.

It would be wrong to say that things were better in the 80s and 90s than they are now, because they weren’t; the top-loading video recorder I grew up with was like some sort of giant mechanical god, in that I became resigned to sacrificing a tape now and again to its mangling inner workings. The quality of rented videos was sometimes shoddy at best, too, often requiring a constant fiddle with the tracking to get rid of a fuzzy band of static flowing across the middle of the screen. It wasn’t entirely uncommon to get home and discover that you’d been given a different video from the one you’d expected, or that someone else’s evil video recorder had mangled the tape and its owner hadn’t bothered to tell the proprietor. Then there was that cardinal sin of video rental ettiquette - not rewinding the tape after viewing.

We’re now so used to having entertainment of every kind readily available - movies, books, games, music - that the notion of heading out into the freezing cold to borrow something as cumbersome as a videotape (or later, a DVD) probably seems rather quaint. In the face of on-demand services like Netflix, Blockbuster simply couldn’t compete; its chain of brightly-lit, rather impersonal shops had long since put smaller video shops like Scanners out of action, and now, it too finds itself outgunned by new companies which offer an even greater range of choice, and even more convenience.

Few will mourn the passing of the video rental shop, because for many of us, they fell out of common usage years ago. Ultimately, they offered a flawed means of distributing films when compared to modern solutions, but for those of us lucky enough to have lived near a great one, those quiet hours spent browsing their dusty shelves will linger in the memory long after the last ex-rental tape has been played for the last time.

Oh, and I'm sure the vicar has fond Electric Blue memories, too.

V/H/S is out in UK cinemas today, and comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 28th January.

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Every video store seemed to have a set of different different movies too. I remember having a week off and touring six stores and collecting six films every day of ancient creaking horror to watch every day for the whole week before returning them all and garnering another set for the next day. Such classics none of which I have ever felt the urge to watch again in 20 years. Oasis of the Zombies, Slumber Party Massacre, Children of the Corn, Demons, Monkey Shines. Ahh the memories, they rarely make them with that kind of atmosphere now, even the cheap tv movies don't seem to have the dread and weariness of the 80s horror show. Sigh! Happy days :)

I still think the rental shop is better than anything today. Sure, they're less convenient but they carry a far greater variety than Netflix or its ilk.

Still have fond memories of browsing video shelves as a child. And I'm only 25. Surely there must be other people as young as me that lament the loss of rental shops.

I used to manage a video rental shop in the 90s. I was there before DVD. I also fondly remember the Timecodes we'd get ahead of a film's VHS release, and the range of obscure titles. I watched Mystery Science Theatre 3000 this way, as well as Bio Dome, Joe's Apartment, and Suspect Device.
I also remember renting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 20 times upon its UK VHS rental release on 26 March 1990 (I still have an issue of the Video shop's magazine with the release date on it), and my joy at getting Ex-Rental tapes, as it meant I had them earlier than most. I also enjoyed the free posters the shop's would give away after the film's release (and still own a few, including the Last Crusade's poster which has a tie-in with Ringos crisps for the IJ Fan Club).
And I remember the adult section, with its collection of Electric Blue titles (where the term 'blueys' comes from). There was an old guy who'd rent 2 titles a day in the store I managed in North Baddesley.
I still go to my local Blockbuster, as I enjoy the interaction with the staff, as well as perusing each cover. It isn't the same to just blog, and you could get a film you were in the mood for at that time, instead of waiting for it to arrive in the post. You could go along with mates and spend a while discussing which film, and that was fun in itself. There should be room for both old school and new school in this world, but unfortunately with the economy the way it is, this just isn't the case.

Horror VHS covers and poster in video shops used to scare the living daylights out of me as a kid while browsing for a kid friendly sci-fi or cartoon - notable perpetrators were Cannibal Holocaust, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Shriek of the Mutilated.

Very apt that there is an ad for Netflix by the side of this article, as though mocking the death of the video story with undisguised glee. A carrion eating vulture ready to pick over the decaying flesh of an outdated economic model. Oh, and by the way go and watch Night of the comet, fantastic film!

Best Video Store memory for me was in 1989 when Die Hard first came out on VHS. On the weekend after it came out I went down to Anne's Videos in Corby with my mate Mez and my mum (because we needed her to get the 18 cert out) and we joined a long queue of people waiting for one of the shops 40 copies to be returned. After about an hour of a slow dribble of people coming in to return their tapes we finally got our copy and it felt the best day ever!

And then we took it home and watched it... to a couple of 14 year olds it was a momentous occasion!

I remember browsing SanJac (then ritz, then blockbuster!) videos as a kid and being fixated on the covers for American Werewolf in London, Driller Killer (with a shot on the back of a bearded guy being drilled, how was that allowed?) and another I forget the name of which showed images of green flesh eating worm things coming out of the shower head onto a semi naked filly. Those images are still burned into my mind today. RIP Rental Shop and your novel QuikDrop facility!

Archway Video on Archway Road - still there 30 years on!

I was JUST about to say that as well! My mate lived just up from there so we always used to head in after school on a Friday and come out with about 3 or 4 films.

Ahhhh, good times.

I remember my local, called Startimes had two halves. One VHS, one Betamax. I used to go down with a school friend of mine and spend half the time arguing the old VHS vs Beta debate. Happy times.

PS. Betamax was superior but it lost out due to porn. Fact.

I remember as a kid in the early nineties, I used to spend a lot of time looking at video cover art/photography and reading the blurb at the back. When I was that age, my mum would have never have let me watch half of these films but I loved looking at them and wondering what sort of film they must be like. Horror films tended to have the best imagery with the 1993 Body Snatchers having a women coming out of an alien skin, Maniac Cop had a large faceless sinister cop, Hellraiser with Pinhead and The Thing with this outline of a person and a glowing head. It's strange that I've seen all these movies, with an exception to The Thing they weren't as good as I thought they'd be but they got my imagination going in a way that School never did.

Myth. There was ample porn on both Beta and VHS. It mostly lost out to recording time and the cost of machines and tapes.

My first job in high school was working at a video store in the late-'80s. Sadly, like Randall in Clerks, it was a shitty video store. Still, good memories.

Sadly £3.75 per rental cannot compete with with £6 per month Netflix

wouldn't be the Scanners in Thrapston would it?

This was beautiful.
The last video rental store in my town just closed down months ago. For cult movie fans, there simply won't be a digital equivalent to wasting valuable daylight hours wandering the isles, learning about movies that fell between your TV and cinemas, looking at the unnerving or titillating box covers and reading the taglines (my favorite was from Blood Salvage: If Jake Can't Fix It... It's Been Dead Too Long.)
If you were lucky or knew the right people, this is also where you scored promotional posters or standees, further cementing your nerd credentials.

Good article, brings back great memories of watching 18's when parents used to go out friday's and saturdays back in the 80's. Hiding behind sofas and then nightmares when finally got to bed.....ahh good times :)

Used to love going to the video shop back in the'80's as a kid. Originally we had a Video 2000 (double sided video tapes!) if anyone remembers them. As the only rental shop in the area only seemed to have cartoons or horror films, so began my love of animation and horror films. I remember watching films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Scanners and The Evil Dead with my big sister while my parents were out on a Saturday night. Also loved April Fools Day which is shown in the pic at the top of this page. I used to watch at least two videos a week as a young teenager and would spend hours in the video shop picking out which film 'looked' the best.

Yes, the spirit of every local indie video rental shop that Blockbuster steamrollered is having a good old chuckle this week.

You know...I have not been into Blockbuster since 1999. Thats how long it is since I was in there. AND NOT BECAUSE OF PIRACY! Ok?????? Before all the crusaders start blaming me for the closure of Blockbuster as well as HMV ...

Why have I not been in for so long? Simple...it reminds me too much of my ex wife! Heheheh. We spent hours in there in the mid nineties, arguing about what film to watch. She would get some girlie crap chick flick and I would rent the latest decent box office film, and we would go home. I had to sit through the crap chick flick...then we watched the proper movie second. Heehheheheh ye gods...what was the name of that film with the mannequin? The one where a shop window dummy comes to life and helps people? It was not a horror film, but some weird magical girls movie...I had to sit through the sequel too...that had some weird old bloke playing the Count of some bizarre european country as the bad guy, and he was helped by two body builders that looked and talked like Arnold Schwarzenegger..weird film..there was also a camp black guy running around that worked in the store...what the heck was the name of these films?
Anyroad up good and bad memories...watching DvDs gradually take over the shelf space from video....And watching the news the other day about Blockbuster going under I was struck by two things...
One was how run down and dingy most of the shops looked and the other was watching people go to the quick drop slot and post the movie back.... How dated it all looked....
In ten years we will all be sitting here going...remember Bluray??? How dated has that become......

Strongest Blockbuster memory for me, too. Granted, I was a kid, so I went looking for those kind-of on purpose. Some nice rental memories though, it was at BB's that I first saw trailers for Pan's Labyrinth and The Host!

If you are lucky enough to have a local, independent video store in your area, please do everyone a favor and give it a rent sometime. We're lucky enough to have one really good indie/weird-centric video store in my town, and I make it a point to rent there regularly if only to keep something like that in business.

I used to rent VHS movies all the time. Before the large chains like Blockbuster took off, I used to go to this place called "Movie Rentals". Yep, not a very imaginative name but thats exactly what it was. And yes at this time you had the choice of Beta or VHS. You could tell even then that Beta was losing the battle because any new popular movie wasn't available in VHS and yet there would always be a copy in Beta to rent. I stopped renting movies once DVD came about. And thats because half the time I would get a DVD that was damaged and when I DVD is damaged it becomes un-watchable. At least with VHS if there was a "bad spot" on the tape you only had a few seconds to a few minutes of a garbled picture.

My Crap film club is in dire straights! We would go to Blockbuster and look for the most obscure potentially brilliant/awful films imaginable. It was on a night like this we discovered the classic 'Aussie Park Boys'. Anyone else seen it/basked in its glory?

I'm only 25 but this article gave me a lot I could relate to. Every Friday I used to go to my grans house (she would let me watch any film I wanted, even horror) I'd pop down to the local Corner shop with her where at the back they stacked the video rentals.
The biggest crime was never rewinding and as a kid I remember always sticking to that rule.
Before I was born my dad being a bit of a Del Boy baught a van and purchased a load of knock off video tapes that he would drive about the town renting them to people.
Life seemed so much simpler back then.

Great article! When I was a kid in the 80's I used to swipe some change off of my Mom's dresser and walked up to the store in my little community. They had a movie section and I would just take my time and loved looking at all the covers. Most of the time the movies would not live up to the images on the boxes, but what a happy memory, just looking at all that cover art.
And boy oh boy was that great when you actually got the movie that you wanted when you went in to get.
Good times.

Oh... and am I the only one that just loved the way vhs tapes smelled? Is that weird?

Den of Geek never fails.

There used to be a little video shop near me when I was a kid called locally, Fred's, as it was owned by a man called Fred, obviously, who rented movies for £1 a night. It was incredible, he'd have brand new blockbusters all the way down to those b-movies with one famous person in. You had to bring them back the next day at 6pm, so if there was none available, you knew when to go and wait!

But now, years on, its not there, but me and my friend still name films we remember getting from there, and list them as Fred's Classics! They were never the best films, but still classics in our eyes. Here are some of them:

Chill Factor - starring Cuba Gooding Jr and Skeet Ulrich

Red Planet - Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss

The One - Jet Li

Replicant - Jean Claude Van-Damme

Ghost of Mars - Ice Cube

Awesome article.... I miss the days of the humble Video Shop. Mr Video on Lucius Street in Torquay... Had the strangest smell lol and Munchies wasn't rubbish :P (on a side note... I had the misfortune of working at Blockbusters when Titanic came out our store got 1000 which I had to tag and sticker three times on each tape.)

No and Yes... :D

I've gone all melancholy reading this cracking article,now I know how my parents felt when they told us stories of their youth.Gone but never forgotten,a Golden Age of movie delights allowed into your front room,played on a video machine that was only marginally smaller than your bloody TV.

"what was the name of that film with the mannequin?"

Any film starring Keanu Reeves.

Marchesi in Carshalton High Street always brings a smile to my face. Waiting 3 1/2 weeks for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (They only had 1 copy!) or discovering films like TRANCERS, HYSTERICAL etc...

Does anyone remember a late night TV show called Vidz, which was hosted by two Welsh guys and reviewed the most oscure titles released on VHS. It was on in the late 90s. Back in the days when late night TV was a treasure trove of good and bad shows, like Nash Bridges, Renegade, Box Office America, Twilight Zone, etc.
Good times.

I feel bad for the people who lost their jobs but I can't
shed a tear for Blockbuster. It heralded the closure of most of the independent
video stores of my youth. There was always something magical about the independent
stores, they seemed to have unique smells and strange individuals behind the
counter who actually seemed to care about what you rented. The one around
the corner from me used to give out movie posters when they'd finished with
them, I covered my room with the things. For some reason I decided to put up a
poster from the 1990 horror The Guardian which resulted in many sleepless
nights...

Indeed! I am sick of hearing that myth! Still crops up even in main stream media! The 60 minute record time killed Beta followed by the machine and tape costs. If you recorded a film on BETA forget it on the BBC as there was no commercial break to flip the tape. If you had to leave the machine then you were bang out of luck!

I remember getting videos out for my Mum, she liked horror films so several times I would go to a shop on Regent's Rd in Morecambe. They never asked my age and gave me any film as long as I had money, said it was for an adult and it wasn't porn. I remember looking at films and saw what I thought was a black/white old horror. It was called Young Frankenstein, must be a horror film I thought! Fond memories...

Without local rental shops we wouldn't have the likes of Tarantino working today. I hope they carry on going.

No sympathy for Blockbuster though. I stopped using them a decade ago when a manager there kept putting on 'late' fees for films brought back on time. He was eventually found out and fired but they refused to give me any form of apology despite being one of their best customers. They said I should have contested every late fee. So f*** them in the ear.

i remember it well, only one of them was welsh though, his name was nige. he went on to be one of the presenters on channel 5s knock off top gear clone show. the other guy, steph, was scottish. don't know what he does now.

Is that the one with the rapey tree?

The first ever film we rented from the video store to play on our brand new Betamax video recorder was Star Wars. I instantly loved it. Sometime after that I saw Return of the Jedi in the cinema and it felt like I had to wait for an absolute age for The Empire Strikes Back to get released on video, so I could fill in the missing pieces. The day that I finally saw it there sat on the shelf was probably my favorite video store moment, ever.

We used to have a video VAN come round our way, which was awesome. Run by a husband and wife, it was basically a white transit with rows of videos on each side in the back. It pulled up, all the kids from the neighbourhood hopped in, and we had the tape for a week. I fondly recall renting 'Best of the Best' and loving it. Our local paper shop had a couple of racks in the window, and I begged my mum to rent me Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey from there, which she did (bless). I think the thing I miss most about the old video shops are the HUGE cases and mostly hand painted / drawn covers, especially on some of the old horror titles. Some used to scare the crap out of me.

I'm in Canada and I already do miss the video rental stores, here's why:

(1) Data caps: Unless I'm willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a generous internet package, I can easily go right over my monthly internet cap, if I were an avid streamer of video etc. Most ISPs in Canada seem to be very stingy with data caps.

(2) Netflix: the selection in Canada is lackluster. Forget new releases; they're simply not available.

(3) Social: I actually enjoyed browsing the aisles of video stores. It's an opportunity to interact with people. On a side note: this is something the younger generation is sorely lacking due to their obsessive compulsive behavior with regards to 'social media' and all the popular electronics: tablets/phones/mp3 players. Of course, that's a much larger topic.

(4) Netflix, cable/satellite providers do not have many classic movies that larger video stores had/have.

There are 2 dedicated video stores left in my city of over 400,000 people, as well as a handful of convenience stores that carry spotty selections.

I will say there is one saving grace for new releases, cable/satellite television providers in Canada do carry them. Fees range from $6-$8 for a movie rental period of 48 hrs. That's a fair price once you factor in driving to / from a video store, twice.

So, for older movies, at least in my neck of the woods, you either rent it from the few remaining video stores, or buy it from Walmart/Amazon etc.

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