VHS and chill with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, High Rise and Eraserhead – Confessions of a video club member

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

With the madness that is online streaming taking away any sense of organic pleasure from choosing a movie, Getintothis’ Del Pike remembers the dusty environs of video shops and sheds a tiny tear.

On a mini sabbatical to Kendal over the summer I came across an off licence down a terraced back street and was beckoned by the rarest of sights, a sign above the door that simply read Video library. The term video library, video shop or video store was so much a part of everyday parlance back in the 80s and 90s, just as much as Netflix is now, and it has all but disappeared. Further exploration in my Kendal off licence revealed a wall of DVD delights, all mainstream fare, so nothing too intriguing. My only guess as to why this shop had such a large selection was a lack of wifi in the area, perhaps scuppering the locals streaming activity, but nonetheless it was a welcome reminder of a past that I feel very lucky to have experienced.

Those too young to remember any of this, let me take you to another world; a barren landscape as far as film entertainment was concerned; the early 80s.

Cinemas were in something of a decline as the rise of Home Video systems posed a real threat, for the first time people could bring the cinema to their living room, but at what cost. Your average movie on a VHS cassette could cost you around £30. I was content as a young teenager to stand in front of a TV adorned with VHS cases in WH Smith on Church St, that showed clips from all the available titles on a seemingly never ending loop. I so wanted a hard plastic cased copy of Quadrophenia or Kate Bush’s Single File.

Bearing in mind this was pre-Ch4, there was still only BBC’s 1 and 2 and ITV to watch at home and they all went to bed when you did. Films were shown on TV, much more interesting and challenging films than are shown now to be honest, but unless you could afford one of these incredible machines, you had to watch them live and hope the phone didn’t ring.

The answer to all our teenage dreams came true with the advent of the video library. I remember the conversation now with my parents, trying so hard to get them to splash out on a video recorder. I had done my research and found out that video rental was easy and cheap and how it would save a fortune in cinema tickets. Catalogues could be picked up containing descriptions of the relatively few films available with images of their boxes and they demanded repeated scrutiny.

Hope came in the form of the school video club. I hated school but a real highlight was being bestowed the lofty title of video club president. This involved listening to the requests of the kids and trotting down to Orrell Park video shop on Moss Lane Bootle to hire a Betamax tape.

This was pre-certificate so unlike at the cinema, you could see anything regardless of your age and the leniency of the staff. I think I pretty much decided what to watch as my memories of those after-school hours include some of my all-time favourites, Quadrophenia, The Blues Brothers, Time Bandits and The Elephant Man, the latter didn’t go down too well with a bunch of 15 year old Bootle lads. There appeared a real lack of sympathy for a black and white Victorian freak.

Our time arrived and my Dad bought the family a JVC HR 7200 VHS with a remote control on a wire. My Mum was constantly tripping over it as me and my mates lounged on the floor watching home recordings of The Young Ones for the zillionth time.

You had to choose what format to go with, the square boxy Betamax tapes that connoisseurs would argue were the best quality or VHS, the populist choice that was rumoured correctly to outlast Betamax. These things mattered.

The popular Ferguson Videostar or my precious JVC would set you back £599 back in 1982, about a month’s wages for some people, but this was a revolutionary moment in home entertainment and everyone was doing it. It was a beautiful beast though, all grey and silver with green LED displays and a range of incredible features like a timer and an audio dub button. Even the blank tapes were about a tenner each. You could buy little rubber plugs to stick in the side of a VHS tape which would either lock or unlock the tape for recording, and if the tape snapped you could open the cassette flap and splice it back with sticky tape, but it buggered up the playheads. It was all so physical in the pre-digital age.

The very first thing we recorded was episode one of Boys from the Blackstuff, Alan Bleasedales bleak depiction of unemployment in Liverpool. I remember rewinding and replaying the tragic moment when builder, Snowy falls from the window of a building site just opposite The Royal Liverpool Hospital.

Joining Orrell Video on Orrell Lane Bootle, not to be confused with Orrell Park, was a rite of passage. Up above a hairdressers shop, a steep flight of stairs revealed a treasure trove of delights. My first rental was Monty Python and The Holy Grail, but when I got it home it was knackered. I took it back and swapped it for Poltergeist and Wings – Rockshow. The journey had begun.

There were other shops too like Oak Video, also by Orrell Park where a portly gent on a bicycle would deliver your first rental just to check you had given the correct address, which could be awkward depending on your choice of first rental.

My favourite was always Orrell Park video which was run by a lad and his Dad who would pretty much let you have anything you wanted. In the painfully short period before the video recordings act of 1984 (aka the video nasty ban), stuff was available that would make your teeth itch. Orrell Park had a range of Mondo videos which were nothing short of irresistible to my 16 year old self.

Mondo movies consisted of international footage from faraway lands, crudely masquerading as travelogues but including animal mutilation, bizarre religious ceremonies, naked tribes and often executions and horrific violence. Later such films would re-emerge in a bastardised form as the Faces of Death collection, truly horrible but fascinating. There was no way on earth you would see this kind of thing at the cinema, or on TV and remember this is pre-internet.

TV Boobs was another, a collection of It’ll Be Alright on the Night style outtakes but uncensored. Hearing Doctor Who tell K9 to F off in Tom Baker’s chocolaty drawl was a teenage highlight, as was the rest of the 90 minute of montage of Frank Bough and endless family friendly faces turning the air blue.

God only knows where these tapes came from, they were certainly not manufactured by any recognisable source. TV Boobs was rumoured to be the Christmas tape that was passed around TV centre at the end of the year, leaked out to the public. Its seemingly photocopied box showed a grainy topless woman with two BBC logos protecting her decency.

Strand Video in Bootle Strand was another haven of forbidden pleasures, multiple rentals of Derek and Clive get the Horn were sheer delight to me and my mates. Derek and Clive were alter egos of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and had enjoyed a run of album releases, packed with expletive filled crude humour. Past the prime of their risqué (at the time) but BBC friendly Not Only But Also… series in the 60s, these two drunken louts would discuss everyday things in the most vile manner. It was hilarious at the time, and audio cassettes swapped hands like gold dust in the classroom, and here they were in all their audio-visual glory to see. Richard Branson pops up at one point alongside a stripper, probably something he would like to brush under the couch now.

The most fondly remembered aspect of this era was the easy accessibility of horror movies. Very rarely as horrific as the video nasty label would suggest, but there appeared to be an endless supply of these movies from grisly classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes to lesser known treats such as the Nazi zombie landmark  Zombie Lake and Basket Case.

As my experience of watching horror movies had pretty much been King Kong to this point, this was a whole new world opening before my eyes, and it fast became a cult amongst kids to see as many as these titles as possible, as we all knew it couldn’t last. A true favourite was David Cronenberg’s Shivers, a mutant, sexualised take on J.G. Ballards High Rise. After at least 5 rentals, it was time to remove the safety tab and hit the audio dub button, adding our own director’s commentary. Sorry Orrell Park video. I’d like to think somebody appreciated it.

The Nasty ban certainly ruined a lot of fun as the Department of Public Prosecutions confiscated 74 titles and made arrests on those video shop owners unwilling to surrender their booty.

Delve into the world of cinema with our Film section

There was still much fun to be had though. The discovery of copying cables led to hours of misadventure. This meant that your mates could bring their players round and you could run off copies of your favourite rentals right there to save money. A three or four hour tape could house two movies so you could start building your collection right there.

I still have my double bill tapes of Derek and Clive / The Rolling Stones Let’s Spend the Night Together and the wonderful pairing of Holy Grail / Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. A grainy copy of Purple Rain in a custom made box accounted for much of my college absences as it became a regular Thursday afternoon tradition to bunk off and gather round and enjoy the pleasures of Prince. I remember getting a free haircut from a girl called Tracey in return of a night watching Derek and Clive… at my Mum and Dad’s house.

This era was my education, so much more than anything I learned at college, and naturally led to my future role as film studies teacher and reviewer. The hundreds of videos that were rented over that period of time were the building blocks to an often encyclopaedic knowledge of trash cinema. Movies like John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and David Lynch’s Eraserhead were considered nothing more than kitsch novelties at the time but have now become very much the fabric of my cultural being. I’d be lost without those films in my life.

The brutal killing of Jamie Bulger, the toddler snatched from Bootle Strand by two eleven year old boys in 1993, became the springboard for another cull on so called Video Nasties, and the sub-standard Chucky sequel Childs Play 3 became the tabloid scapegoat of the horrible crime. It has since been the subject of debate as to whether or not the film played any part on the inspiration for the crime, but since home video emerged, the tabloids and the government had always had it in for the easy accessibility of horror movies for domestic use.

With the coming of DVD came a lack of diversity, as older more obscure movies tended not to be re-issued, making their ex rental VHS copies desirable and collectable. Only in later years did distributors see the potential in unearthing cult horror and art-house movies on disc.

A general lack of rentals often meant that after a while more obscure titles would be sold off in the bargain baskets, hence my ownership of a whole set of Herschell Gordon Lewis classics that cost me less than a tenner from a Southampton video store.

Now DVDs and even the relatively young Blu Rays are on the decline and are very much aimed at collectors rather than your average audience. Amazon Prime, Netflix, Sky Movies and sadly illegal streaming has all but killed off the high street rental stores. Only relatively recently have we seen the decline of the video chain stores like Blockbuster and Choices and they ain’t coming back. LoveFilm is the only way now to physically rent a movie outside of those last remaining off licences and public library DVD sections.

It isn’t just the choice of movies that is missed, it’s the physical experience of having to leave the house and go and stand for ages examining large dusty VHS boxes. It’s the lurid designs, now the subject of coffee table books and the garish blurb on the back. The empty promises of what lay within those tapes was more exciting than half the movies themselves and even the designs of the boxes that video stores gave you to carry home your tapes has become a long lost art. Video stores smelled bad too, due to the fact that their stock never moved. The tapes went home but the cases remained gathering dust, the remnants of human detritus. It was a bad and musty smell but I miss it.

So while you idly click through your Netflix interface from the comfort of your sofa with your wire free remote controls, spare a thought for the video shop owners of yore, and when you are hopelessly looking to watch Cannibal Ferox, The Beast in Heat, The Toolbox Murders or Gestapo’s Last Orgy, remind yourself that Netflix might not be “all that” after all.