The fading wonder of video rental shops

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.

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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.

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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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