Lost forever — the video shop

Rob takes a fond look back at the video shop experience...

*sniff* [VHS video cassette]

As a kid of the 1980s and never really liking sport, climbing trees, or going out, for that matter, one of the biggest pleasures in life was the video shop. They have, over the past decade become something of a rarity, with only Blockbuster really still having a presence on the high street. However, back in the ’80s there were so many independent video shops that you were spoilt for choice.

Thinking back to my little market town in the English Midlands where I grew up, there must have been at least six, and this was a suburban town, a drowsy historical place just north of Birmingham, so how could such a place sustain so many video rental places?

Well, think back; the ’80s was a much more barren time for entertainment. Multiplex cinemas were just beginning to arrive, Sky had only just started and nobody really had it, multi-channel television was new, slightly dodgy (see KYTV) and had not got the polished form of delivery it has today.

Technology too was a huge stumbling block; the internet was something that the occasional 386 user would have as a gimmick while the rest of the teen population was battling over whether the Atari ST or Amiga was better; there was no way that a film, or a trailer even could have been downloaded via a 56k modem. The ’80s was a time without torrents, iPlayer or QuickTime and seems now, with such easy access to technology, aeons ago.

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So, with no other forms of entertainment, the video shop reigned supreme. Video rental shops were cheap, easy to get to and had a simple set of rules (bring back before six) and if you could stand the fact that they had a tendency to smell of cigarette smoke, a local video store provided film-hungry teens, like myself, a whole Aladdin’s cave of fun.

Straight-to-video releases of the time introduced me to distribution companies such as Palace, Medusa and Orion, all companies that produced films, but films that were just not good enough for cinematic release.

The video shop was a place to find hidden gems, to see what magazines like Fangoria or Starburst were talking about. There were no internet chat-rooms, very few reviews and anything out of the ordinary, underground or obscure was game.

It was here in the video shop that budget didn’t matter and that imagination reigned supreme. From films like Sword and the Sorcerer and Deathstalker and their ilk (with those amazing Frank Frazetta-like covers, trying so very hard to cash in on the celluloid success of Conan but in no way living up to what the lush artwork promised), to being introduced to the world of George Romero and his zombies, the video shop had it all.

If you wanted action and adventure, instead of fantasy, picking up something like Robocop was essential, but if you couldn’t get your hands on such in-demand new releases of the time, the lower-budget versions with the same story were always available to pick up. ‘Classics’ such as Chopping Mall, Eliminators or Ninja Terminator were always in stock.

If you had never heard of a film before, that didn’t matter – the covers were always mind blowing. Films like Wraith, an early Charlie Sheen movie about a Crow-like entity, clad in motorcycle leathers and a helmet borrowed from the crew of Airwolf, had a cover that was all chrome and metallic and decked out with that ’80s typography to rival any of your favourite hair metal band.

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Phantasm 2, the second outing of Tall Man and his malicious silver balls, possessed a terrifying cover, while The Lamp (aka The Outing) a horror movie that had a novel ‘lenticular’-like cover with a lamp and evil genie coming out of it, depending on how it was tilted. From Beyond, an HP Lovercraft-inspired frightener, also went in a similar direction as it had a moulded plastic cover that had the evil Dr Pretorius mid-transformation leering out at you, with the glorious tagline, ‘Humans Are Such Easy Prey’.

If a big-budget movie hit the cinema, there was bound to be a cheaper alternative copied by a smaller studio. In 1984, Gremlins hit the cinema and for a five-year period afterwards we were inundated with films about ‘gremlin’-like monsters, pint-sized monstrosities cutting a swathe of terror through the straight-to-video landscape. If it wasn’t Troll, it was Munchies or Critters, with the biggest bandwagon jumper being Ghoulies, which was essentially an exact copy of Joe Dante’s classic Mogwai tale, only with more toilet humour.

The video shop was also the place where you could catch up on another craze, namely martial arts. After the success of Bruce Lee, distributors Golden Harvest found that video was the perfect way to distribute their work as obscure and badly dubbed kung-fu movies were commonplace in a video shop.

But what Hong Kong could do, Hollywood thought it could do better and with that, of course, came classics like Karate Kid as well as a plethora of other kung-fu movies that neither had the budget or mainstream appeal but feeding the need of teens everywhere for more fighting. It was a time when Chuck Norris, Jean Claude van Damme, Cynthia Rothrock and Michael Dudikoff were huge, thanks to video.

An especially bad movie (so bad, it’s good, of course) that ‘borrowed’ a great deal from Karate Kid was No Retreat, No Surrender, which summed up everything that was great about video shops. An American kung-fu flick, it’s a Rocky/Karate Kid hybrid that has Russia versus America, a training montage, Van Damme, breakdancing and BMX bikes, the ghost of Bruce Lee, as plot, acting and common sense all take a backseat.

This really sums up the video shop experience. Who cared that the films were shoddy, the trailers were bad and you had to adjust the tracking of your video player to watch them through a grainy filter? It was a time where you could watch anything sitting at home and be taken into fantastical lands full of mullet-wearing heroes, bad guys with funny accents and laughably bad special effects. But to a teenager like me, it didn’t matter – the video shop was film heaven.

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