THE EIGHTIES STILL SCREAM: A VHS Retrospective

PART ONE: ORIGINS

Growing up in the eighties, I was one of those hundreds of thousands of fortunate kids who were given the wonderful opportunity to get to witness and be a part of not only the beginning of the Home Video boom, but it’s rise, it’s dominance, it’s influence, and ultimately, it’s legacy. The introduction of Videodiscs, Videocassettes, and Laserdiscs spawned such a monumental technological and cultural revolution and would both establish and spread the presence of video players of every size and format into homes everywhere. There was something about having that great big, bulky top-loading video cassette recorder mounted on our televisions sets like a trophy. We felt proud to have it displayed for anyone who stopped by and always made sure to point it out to our friends when they’d come over to visit.  We’d smile and beam when someone would give it a compliment, especially when we were aware of the missing presence of one in their home. It made us feel proud and important, and in the right context, it made us popular. Only those of us who spent our youths in countless video stores can relate to how fantastic those days were and there are some of us who had it impact our lives so much that we never forgot it. That same group of us can remember our “origins” and can recall our very first encounter(s) with home video as either young kids or teens. That first time we would come into contact with our first piece of video equipment would be something we would hold onto for decades.  That moment when we lost our video virginities remains something so unforgettable and so spiritual that it would go on to shape the rest of our lives. I was one of those kids.

If there is anyone to blame for bringing home video into the consciousness and daily awareness of my family, it would be my father. Living in the Fresno, California area just after the birth of the eighties (1983 to be exact), I remember waking up one Saturday morning and listening to my father gripe as he piled the five of us into his white Ford Econoline-150. We made our way to the northwest side of the city to a local mom-and-pop store that sold electronics, mainly televisions and stereo equipment, to purchase a new television for our living room. That day in many ways would forever change my life. It was there in that storeVHS1 that I was first exposed to home video and the first piece of equipment that would find its place atop our new television and the highest place in my eight year-old and future-videophile heart: The RCA SelectaVision Videodisc Player, in particular, Model SFT-100W. While pop was working his charm and making a deal with the salesman, I ventured off from the group and walked around the store on my own, fascinated by everything around me as I had never been surrounded by technology like that before and I remember gazing into all of the different television models while playing with the knobs, changing channels, and pressing buttons.

Out of the corner of my eye, a rather large poster that was plastered along the wall caught my attention. Walking over to it, it was an extensvie montage of different films that had been released onto the VideoDisc format and as I looked each one of them over – in hopes to find one I would like and convince my dad to purchase – there was a film’s art that was so incredibly beautiful and so mesmerizing that it reached out and slapped me across the face so hard that I didn’t know what hit me. That film was Friday the 13th and it was something that would be eternally burned into my memory. When my mother found me mouth agape and drooling and staring at what I assume she thought was Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, she took me over to my father who had just made an outrageous deal with the salesman: If pop took the brand-new television and the VideoDisc Player together that day, he would include three movies at no charge. Yes, that’s right, three of them for absolutely nothing. Being the Peanuts aficionado that I am, and have always been, my mother quickly picked out A Charlie Brown Festival, A Charlie Brown Festival Vol. II, and Tom and Jerry II for my siblings and I. Though pop would go on to choose Dr. No as one to buy for himself, he became quite amused when I took his hand and walked him over to that grandiose mural I’d been gazing at, pointed at Friday the 13th and smiled. I would have to assume that he knew it was a horror film – as I was completely and naïvely clueless to that fact – because there was a way that he smiled back at me that I still remember. He asked the salesman to grab the disc of Friday the 13th out of the display case and insert it into the player to demonstrate its capabilities and to see how movies were going to look on our new RCA television that was housed in a light brown, varnished wood-grain console.

This would become a moment in my life’s history as it would be the very first time I would be exposed to both the wonder of home video equipment and the slasher genre. The moment the salesman slipped the disc’s casing into the player, took it out and pressed ‘play’, my life as I knew it would never be the same. Not only did the first ten minutes of the film scare the living crap out of me as I’d never seen anything like that before, but pop loved my reaction and the look on my face so much that he decided to take it home so we could finish it as a family. He intended to teach me a lesson and show me the evils of horror films knowing I wouldn’t be able to handle them therefore closing the door on the subject and never having to bring it up ever again. He and my mother stayed up later that night to watch it, and he was right – it ended being way too much for me (something that my father found to be a delightful bit of comedy). As if that weren’t enough, Halloween would follow several weeks later and our local soon-to-be Fox affiliate would proudly broadcast Friday the 13th – part 2 and he tortured me yet a second time by watching it with the volume turned up in his bedroom, which was right across the hall from mine, to get a rise out of me. Needless to say, he got what he wanted.

Our first Videocassette recorder, the Quasar VHS VCR Model VH5141XQ, was purchased at Morgan’s TV, another local mom-and-pop dealer, and it arrived brand-spanking-new in our home less than a year later to replace the   VideoDisc player and its gaudy-sized casings and it would introduce me to yet another VHS2game-changing world I never knew could exist. I would set foot into my first video rental store, Ernie’s Video, in Reedley, California when I was nine and from that moment I did, I would have no clue that videocassettes and horror were about to become my reason for living. My father enjoyed keeping up with emerging technology and loved nothing more than being the first in our entire family to get his hands on electronics before everyone else. He didn’t seem to mind having to pay for membership to Ernie’s, in fact, he loved it. Not only did they charge us to take the movies home for a night, but we had to pay extra to be allowed to rent at that establishment. I remember my mother being appalled at the idea of basically paying twice for the same exact thing, but it didn’t bother my father one bit. Though Ernie’s was relatively small compared to video rental houses I would experience in the future, I was overwhelmed when I first walked through its front door with the charming little bell dangling from its back by what seemed like endless boxes against the perimeter of the walls. I recall my jaw dropping to the floor and being awestruck with the vast array of poster art that adorned the front window (Altered States sticks out most in my mind). Along the shop’s right-hand wall hung huge, magnificent and breathtaking posters for The Burning, Squirm, Maniac, and the beautiful but horrifying Zombie. It would be within those four walls that my horror education commenced and I would first glimpse upon boxes for Hospital Massacre, Visiting Hours, Madman, and Hell Night.  Slowly, and with each subsequent visit, my young mind was becoming infiltrated with the images of horror films of the time and their fabulous box art, slowly finding permanent residency inside my being.

The following summer, my family relocated to the south-most part of Texas and my love for horror suddenly bloomed uncontrollably when I first  discovered that not only were there mom and pop stores at almost every street corner, but grocery stores, gas stations and five-and-dimes all had video rental departments! Slasher films were now everywhere! At every turn was one opportunity after another to take a videocassette home. Getting a gallon of milk and some deli meat at the supermarket? Take uncut versions of The Mutilator, Nightmare or Basket Case home to entertain the kids! Making a quick stop to get some gas and a burrito or two at the dowdy and creepy convenience store on the corner? Why not rent a copy of The Outing, The Wizard of Gore or Savage Weekend while you’re there? With the current ability to rent anything from a kiosk at any nearby Walgreen’s or 7-11, there was an wonderfully innocent charm to seeing videocassette boxes inside the back corner of a Maverick Market mini-mart or rows of numbered black and brown cases behind the customer service department of the neighborhood El Chaparral Supermarket. Even walking into a Perry’s department store, known more for selling fabrics, sewing supplies and bric-a-brac, you could find a small video rental sections complete with VHS copies of Shock Waves, Rabid, and Scanners. Posters for Transylvania 6-5000, 976-EVIL and Re-Aminator hung from the ceiling! It was single handedly the most amazing time to be a kid and a budding horror fan. All I wanted to do was take each of those movies home and wrap myself in them. I desired more than anything to watch all of them, one after the other and become an expert on everything that was on those shelves. The only roadblock in my plan was that I was much too young to be able to physically rent anything anywhere, much less a slasher film filled with violence, gore and boobies. Though it was funny and amusing in 1983 to have pop sit me in front a horror film, I’d forgotten that living with a set of strict parents who would lock me up in a concrete box should they ever discover I was delving further into the forbidden territory of horror films wasn’t going to allow me to execute my fantastically devious plan. Hoisted by my own petard!

Being the determined little bugger I was back then, I seized the opportunity to broaden my knowledge about everything slasher when I overheard my mother informing my father that Joshua, our neighbor’s 19-year old son, had landed himself a management position at Valley Mart, one of the local grocery stores my family and I would frequent.  Coincidentally, this was one of those stores that had a nicely-sized video rental department chock-filled with goodies like The Night God Screamed, Victims!, and Alone in the Dark and one that my family and I shopped at on a regular basis. I already had the habit of going my VHS3own separate way whenever we visited the store to sniff out their video rental area until my parents were done, but now that Joshua was working there and could bring anything in their inventory home for free, I made it a point to memorize every single horror title in their library and its corresponding box so I could secretly ask him to bring me the titles that caught my attention most, one by one. Though I couldn’t actually bring the videocassettes into the house for genuine fear of my father’s wrath, I was able to watch them over at the neighbor’s home with Joshua’s younger brother, my childhood friend who coincidentally, was named Jason. This is where my affection for horror was launched into the stratosphere, going from being just one of those wannabe kids gawking at endless boxes of horror VHS that I thought I would never be able to watch until I was dribbling into my incontinence pants to actually having the chance to watch them in real life in their entirety! From that first tape Joshua brought home in the summer 1989, Bruno Matei’s Night of the Zombies, until the last one Jason and I watched together in the spring of 1992, Continental Video’s big box double-feature of The Slayer and Scalps, home video was – and still is – an important part of not only the development of my fascination with horror but also of the home video boom. So many of the films that 80’s kids like me hold so close to our hearts came into our lives because of the rise of home video and because our parents took  part in it. Once I was old enough to rent films on my own, I kept my promise to myself and spent a great deal of my free time renting each one of those classics and taking them into my own home, allowing them to finally become a part of me. Watching slasher films as a 15 year-old is one thing, but watching them when you’re 18 is another experience altogether. Though now we have steaming sites available to anyone, anywhere, twenty-four hours a day, there will always be something magical and incomparable about entering a video rental store, taking in the scents of floor cleaner, moldy carpet and half-burnt popcorn, browsing row after row of hundreds upon hundreds of boxes staring back all vying for my attention, just begging me to take any one of them back to my place for a good time. It was a feeling so satisfying to finally pick out that one cassette – or four – which you chose to spend the night with. There was a unique and unparalleled feeling of excitement and anticipation when you took those boxes in your arms and walked up to the cash register to watch the clerk walk to the back to find the cassettes and return with them.

There have been many instances where I get flack – mostly from the younger generation – because of my love and devotion to anything and everything that came out of that decade. Not just slasher films, but television shows, music, cartoons and toys. I always respond by saying that only if you lived the eighties and got to experience them first-hand as I and so many others did, will you understand why our memories remain so fond and our loyalty remains devout. The video boom of that period allowed so many of these soon-to-be horror classics to enter our living rooms. Had it not been for the introduction of Video Cassette Recorders to the mainstream public and the genesis of the home video era, none of us would have ever known about Blood Rage, My Bloody Valentine or Humongous, much less fall in love with them. I think I can speak for so many of us die-hard horror fans that came out of the Regan era when I say that I would hate to think what a horror fan’s life – including my own –  would be like had not Suspiria, Sleepaway Camp, and April Fool’s Day been introduced to us. I shudder to think of the person I would be today had my father not decided to play a cruel trick on his unsuspecting eight year-old son. Though it ultimately backfired, I have him to thank for opening the door to a world I hope to forever be a part of and for showing me just how much fun it is to be afraid of the dark.

Thanks, Dad.

Leave A Comment