Cannibalism with a side of Voortman cookies (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 8)

“WORLD TELEVISION PREMIERE” was a familiar and sometimes exciting phrase for kids in the early 1980s. It meant that you were going to watch a big budget, smash-hit Hollywood movie at home. Unless you had one of the four – FOUR! – premium stations, there were two ways to watch recent popular movies: You could go to the theater, or you could catch one on sychronous broadcast TV. I have a hazy memory of watching Mark Hamill introduce Star Wars on a little black and white set in my room as a preschooler. At the time it was kind of a big deal.

I’ll play the rest if you remove RROH’s restraining bolt.

VCRs became available in affordable consumer models in the mid-1970s, but it took about 10 years for them to catch on. No one we knew had one until my folks bought one in 1985, right smack in the middle of the format war and the golden age of the local video shop. Overnight, it seemed like everyone else got one too.

My parents’ decision, probably like a lot of other people’s, was spurred by the sudden explosion in the number of places to rent movies. The first one in our town appeared in the big shopping plaza that was anchored by Kmart. In an unnecessary investigation that presaged my own obsessiveness about electronics, Dad went there several times with a notebook to  write down the titles of some of the videos in the store, the cost to rent them, and whether they were available or checked out.

That store was followed by Showcase Video, which was next door to the camera shop where Mom worked before I was born, and Video Bank, which was up the street from our house at the end of the same shopping center where we bought groceries. Somewhere else in town there was another store called Video Bank, which forced the owners near us to rename their shop Video Bonk. Network Video opened in a shopping center a few miles further up the same road. Network Video sucked. The only thing in their kids section was several dozen episodes of Inspector Gadget, which I didn’t like. Within a year or two, Marsh set up video rental areas in their stores, and Kroger followed suit a couple years after that.

At first we mostly went to Video Bank/Bonk. It was close to home and we could stop there after grocery shopping on Saturday afternoon. Add in the fact that they had a drive-through window, and there was no beating them for convenience. The kids’ shelves were shaped like a doghouse and the video boxes sat on its roof and sides, almost like shingles. Mom and Dad restricted me to choosing one kids’ tape per visit. Most of the selections were older live-action Disney movies, which was fine for a while because I hadn’t seen them. Through the magic of home video I was initiated into the most prevalent childhood trauma of 20th century America: Old Yeller. For a little boy with a Golden Retriever-Labrador mix, this was possibly the most horrific video available.

It ain’t Air Bud.

Video Bonk enjoyed our patronage for maybe a year. There was a knock at our door one evening. It was a collection agent, who asked to speak to someone we’d never heard of. Dad confirmed the agent was at the correct address, but the person they were looking for didn’t live there. Well, the agent asked, do you rent movies from Video Bonk? Dad responded that we did. The man asked if we had any unreturned videos. No, we didn’t. The guy eventually explained that someone had rented a lot of videos and hadn’t returned them, and had given our address when they signed up for a membership. Well, that cleared that up, or so we thought, until another collection agent showed up weeks later asking for someone else, who had also rented movies from Video Bonk, and had also given our address as their residence. And then another agent came another night. Mom and Dad told the people at Video Bonk what was going on. They seemed sympathetic. Then another collection agent showed up on our porch. And then another. And another.

And so we became Showcase Video customers, and started frequenting the other Marsh near it. This was a doubled-edged sword; Showcase had a way better selection, but the Marsh was bigger and it took longer to shop there. At first I was still only allowed to pick from the kids section. This is especially lame when your mom just wants you to fucking pick something already, and so steers you to a gem like Kid Colter, a 1984 kiddie action movie in which a city boy gets kidnapped by grits, or spies, or grit spies, or somefuckingbody, and they ditch him in the middle of nowhere because they want him dead but why bother killing the little shit when you can let nature do it for you? He survives using some hastily learned survival skills and a set of those three interlocking rings that magicians separate during their acts. Somehow the spybillies realize Mother Nature’s napping on the job because this fucking kid’s not dead yet, and they go chasing after him. In what I think is supposed to be the big set piece, the boy uses the rings to ride down a zip line or an old telegraph wire or I don’t fucking know man, there’s a wire across a gorge, kid’s got his magic rings, whoosh, what a thrill! The movie would have been better and funnier if those fucking rings would have come apart over that canyon. Shorter too.

Not everything in Showcase’s kids section was a dud. Some titles had cross-generational appeal, like the seminal war dramas “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!” and G.I. Joe: The Movie, both of which placed highly on AFI’s 100 Greatest Films list. Seriously though, those scenes in The GI Joe movie after Cobra Commander has been exposed to the mutation spores in Cobra-La, and he’s slowly losing his mind and turning into a big fucking snake – chilling stuff. And touching too; Cobra Commander and Roadblock, man they really bonded. It was like watching Billy Dee Williams exchange goodbyes with James Caan. Perhaps not as wrenching as Old Yeller, but definitely some of Chris Latta’s best work.

Ultimately, Showcase Video was way better decorated and eventually the frequently updated displays, posters, and standees were too enticing. It wasn’t long before Mom and Dad had heard all the begging they could withstand and allowed me to rent from other parts of the store.

I didn’t get all my wishes, life-size cardboard cut-outs of Freddy Krueger and the not-yet-famous Jim Carrey accompanied by Lauren Hutton notwithstanding. I didn’t even bother asking about the teen sex comedy Mischief, the poster for which featured some blonde guy holding Kelly Preston’s panties as they tumbled from the backseat of a red convertible.

Age seven: No idea what they're doing, definitely interested.
Age seven: No idea what they’re doing, definitely interested.

But I did get to see some of the spooky stuff. My cousin Kelly and I became devotees of Disney’s 1980 kiddie chiller, The Watcher in the Woods. It’s 60 minutes of a good, atmospheric supernatural tale, followed by a bizarre and muddled ending. Still, we rented it for two or three New Year’s Eves in a row, along with The Neverending Story. Over the years I rented a lot of kiddo scare-fare, like Saturday the 14th and Monster Squad.

Mom usually was the arbiter of what was and was not appropriate for me to watch. Many of her decisions were questionable, particularly in the early years. Transylvania 6-5000 was full of jokes about the horror genre that I didn’t get, and Geena Davis in a seriously deep V-neck, which I did appreciate. Troll was another questionable pick. It wasn’t particularly good, or particularly scary, except for a scene in which the troll jabs Sonny Bono with a needle on a ring, causing him to vomit, convulse, turn into a cucumber, and rupture in a riot of trees and plants. Like Watcher, it starred a familiar leading lady as a witch; Watcher had Bette Davis and Troll had June Lockhart. Unlike Watcher, it was definitely not made with kids in mind. (It did star Noah Hathaway from The Neverending Story though.)

Some movies I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to watch had I not pleaded and pleaded and pleaded. If you were a boy in the mid-1980s, you had to see Teen Wolf. He’s a teenager! He’s on the basketball team! He turns into a werewolf who can dunk! He also stands on the roofs of moving cars and uses a jimmy card to buy beer for a kegger. In retrospect, Teen Wolf was one of those 80s movies that presents a deliriously outlandish misrepresentation of teenage life. I also begged my way into renting Legend, which probably appealed to Dad as well. Legend is fucking awesome. Tim Curry’s Darkness is the most indelible Satan in film; take it from me, I’ve seen a few. Getting to see this movie was a career-defining achievement in Olympic-level begging for a little kid who had already displayed a problematic fear of Lucifer. Meg Mucklebones was scary as hell too.

Other decisions Mom made were total head-scratchers. She was an ardent Stephen King fan, so any adaptations of his work, anything that featured original writing by him, and anything he produced was a must-rent. At the time, I did not get to see these, except Cat’s Eye. It wasn’t what you’d call nightmare fuel, but if you aren’t going to let a kid watch Creepshow, what’s so different about Cat’s Eye? I was eventually allowed to fully partake in the Stephen King movies, but by then I was 10 or 11.

The one that really puzzles me though was The Terror at Red Wolf Inn. (Some releases are titled The Folks at Red Wolf Inn; it’s the same movie.) I was having trouble settling on something to rent and Mom spotted it among the horror movies. The box description promised a tale of a young woman who wins an all-expenses-paid stay at a quaint seaside inn … an inn with a seeeecreeeet. It strongly hints that the secret has something to do with food and unexplained disappearances, but maybe if you’re a parent looking for somewhat tame horror movie for your second-grader to watch, you might reasonably be thinking “big deal, haunted inn.” You would be wrong.

I mean, there are two human heads on that table.
I mean, there are two human heads on that table.

So we get this movie home, pop it into the VCR, adjust the tracking, and true to its description, within minutes young Regina, a college student, discovers she’s won a getaway at the Red Wolf Inn. The owners contact her to arrange travel, and she’s off.

A few things become apparent shortly after that. One, the movie is of an early 70s vintage, and two, it’s a bit of an exploitation flick. Sure, it’s not Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS or even The Last House on the Left, but Regina meets two other pretty young things at the inn and, since there’s a beach, she has an opportunity to head down to the water in a skimpy two-piece. The other girls, Janet and Edwina, have a tendency to show up for dinner with the elderly proprietors wearing backless dresses or spaghetti straps. Look, I’m not a prude, but it is conspicuous. It’s not like the Red Wolf Inn has a lounge where they can cruise for other singles.

Equally conspicuous, unlike other food-serving establishments the mystery meat at Red Wolf Inn is fantastic (and not much of a mystery). Guests also check out in the middle of the night while everyone else is asleep. Regina’s suspicions are confirmed when she enters the forbidden walk-in freezer. But it’s not over yet. In a truly unforgettable scene she joins the innkeepers around their table one more time and tries to hold down the food, while hallucinating that Janet and Edwina are still there, eating contentedly, smiling knowingly.

Our dinners, ourselves.
Our dinners, ourselves.

It was a weekend tradition for us for a long time: Grocery shopping, stop at Showcase, watch a couple movies. Though I did not tolerate grocery shopping gladly, it did present the opportunity to get a snack for movie night. Usually I could pick whatever I liked (within reason), but sometimes Mom steered me toward the Voortman cookie bin. It was a self-serve kiosk near the bakery, stocked with a dozen or so varieties of cookies. There was some sort of discount if you bought a certain number. Most of them were pretty good but I always sort of hoped to avoid the bin because I never knew when Mom would be on one of her “the boy needs to eat healthier snacks” kicks, during which she would only buy me the windmill cookies. Voortman windmill cookies, which bizarrely endure, are MDF-like healthfood shingles with a few almond slices baked in. They are shaped like windmills.

MOM AND POP VIDEO STORES in the mid-80s did not bother with guaranteeing the availability of any new releases, or even buying additional copies of movies that were hits. Every shop had exactly two copies of each new movie: One VHS and one Betamax. Our VCR was VHS. VHS was cheaper, but Beta had better picture and sound quality. Every consumer could see VHS was poised to win the format war, so far fewer people bought Beta, meaning those tapes were always available for rental. For months, Showcase Video’s Betamax copies of Gremlins and Ghostbusters sat on the shelf, calling me, but were unaccompanied by their VHS counterparts.

We had some movies on tape at home, but we did not purchase them. Rather, we recorded them when they were on TV. We had House on Haunted Hill, Devil Dog: Hound of Hell, and Star Wars. I later realized that if I watched a movie while it recorded, I could pause it during commercials to create a break-free copy. Buying movies on home video wasn’t too common mid-decade. Showcase would order you a copy from a catalog, but none of the stores near us stocked movies for sale. The first one I can remember owning was a tape of two Three Stooges shorts, “Disorder in the Court” and “The Brideless Groom,” which my Grandma gave me. Then there were some Ninja Turtle cartoons that were Burger King kid’s meal giveaways. The first feature length movie I owned on home video was either Raiders of the Lost Ark or Tim Burton’s Batman. I don’t remember which I got first.

In fact, prior to owning any movies on home video, we had a game on home video. Mom and Dad were big fans of the Clue VCR Mystery Game. I never played it, but they enjoyed the hell out of it. As best as I could tell, it was something like regular Clue, except you watched these hammy video clips and answered questions about them, which earned you cards, which enabled you to rule out suspects, murder weapons, and locations. Depending on which room a player chose to explore, someone had to fast forward the VCR until a certain number showed on the display counter, in order to access the correct scene. This was the 1985 equivalent of DVD scene selection. It was my job to stand very close to the VCR and watch for the number.

Our VCR was a Panasonic Omnivision, a lot like this model.
Our VCR was a Panasonic Omnivision, a lot like this model. Looking at the counter was fine, but touch the son of a bitch and it would shock the life right out of you.

Speaking of games, not long after we bought our first NES, the video stores started renting Nintendo cartridges – an invaluable public service. We might never have bought Castlevania if we had known beforehand how damn difficult it was. After a million repetitions of getting killed by Igor while Frankenstein’s monster shuffled back and forth, taking the plunge on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!! felt like gambling your entire life on one throw of the dice. In reality it was only several months’ worth of odd job money. I saved up $40 and was delighted to discover it only cost $29.99 at Johnny’s Toys. At the other end of the jewelry case were several less popular carts, priced to sell at $10 each. I could buy Punch-Out and take a chance on one of those games, I thought. This was the precise moment when I learned about sales tax.

Anyway, thanks to the video stores we were able to try out The Legend of Zelda before getting it. (As if there was any need; that game is a classic.) More importantly, we dodged a lot of bullets too. A cover story or feature in Nintendo Power could make any random piece of shit sound like a universally anticipated million-selling cart in the offing. Video stores let you try before you buy.

Wizards & Warriors sucked balls. At the request of Kevin Tanner, who was coming to our house for a sleepover, I rented it from Convenient, which kept a small selection of NES carts right near the beer case. Kevin arrived and played a shitload of Wizards & Warriors, which was a one-player RPG-style platformer. I chilled out nearby on the living room floor, waiting for my turn, which seemed to arrive rarely and never last long when it did. This was at the beginning of the “Kevin is my good friend, but is he a good friend?” phase of our friendship. When he went home the next day I finally had the chance to play the game for more than a few minutes. It was basically a series of fetch-quests. You come to a place in the map where you can’t jump high enough or the lava pit is too wide to walk through, so you have to go back and explore until you find the hidden area that contains the item that allows you to overcome the obstacle. Like a lot of early “RPG” video games, there was very little role playing and a shitload of accumulating gear.

Why did we rent Rush’n Attack? I’m just thankful we did. It was an NES port of a military-themed coin-op beat ’em up. A very repetitive coin-op beat ’em up, it turned out. We rented it on a Friday afternoon on our way to a mall. The whole shopping trip, I was dying to go home and play it. Such a letdown.

Licensed games based on movies, cartoons, and TV shows were a big deal to me back then because I was too little to notice the pattern, to wit that they always sucked. The Dick Tracy NES game offered an interesting take on the 1990 summer hit; instead of rounding up Big Boy Caprice and his underlings, Tracy always died in a hail of sniper fire pouring down from as many as six different rooftops at a time. I guess the designers got confused and took inspiration from the wrong Warren Beatty movie.

Fester’s Quest struggled to match theme to game play – or game anything. The Three Stooges cart was a ho-hum collection of minigames, but it least it was a well-themed ho-hum collection of minigames. Fester’s Quest took Addams Family characters and grafted them into a lame 2D overhead adventure in which Uncle Fester collects ever more powerful guns in order to go into the sewers and shoot Giger Lite aliens. What the fuck did that have to do with anything?

But you can’t talk about crappy licensed-IP Nintendo games without talking about Friday the 13th. Kelly and I actually enjoyed it for a while, just running around throwing rocks at zombies and hoping Jason would show up so we could shit a brick, yell a lot, and get killed. Friday was a one-player game too, but we resolved this equitably by picking three each of the six playable characters before every game. Eventually we decided we’d try to actually finish the thing, at which time we started to get really pissed.

We had no fucking clue why Jason’s mother’s head was a boss in the game, because of course we’d seen the recent Friday the 13th sequels but not the original movie.

THE FIRST CHAIN TO ARRIVE in our town was The Video Store. It went into a big storefront pretty close to the former location of the rental shop where Dad had done all his research. It was big, about three times the size Showcase Video. It later changed it’s name to Video Towne before moving to a similarly-sized space in a new shopping center that featured Kroger and K-Mart on opposite ends. Eventually it became Blockbuster.

Locally owned shops endured for a while. A guy my Dad worked with opened Rainbow Video, which had the best horror selection in town but only lasted a few years. Video Bonk became Ebner’s Video, and introduced the concept of stupid cheap prices for older movies. I think they were four for a dollar. Dad liked to wore out our VCR. Showcase lasted until the mid-1990s.

Hollywood Video arrived in 1997. It was under construction next door to the movie theater where I worked as a senior in high school. In one of my best-ever work related memories, my boss and I watched with glee as a windstorm blew in and swept up an ocean of styrofoam peanuts apparently intended to insulate Hollywood Video’s then unfinished roof. They rose and wheeled like the ping pong balls in the tornado at the end of Twister, while a single, forlorn worker stood next to his truck, watching them settle all over our parking lot. “Take a dustpan and broom over there,” my boss chuckled, “and tell him he has to sweep all this up.”

Like Ebner’s – which didn’t last long at all, and was already gone by senior year – Hollywood Video also made a selling point of renting out older movies for pocket lint and car wash tokens. I think it was five nights for a dollar. This was a major boon when my remaining friends and I entered our college-years peonage and became interested in growing beards and talking about film noir and arty SF movies. Those were the days of the five-dollar film festival.

Fast forward from the sunset of the VHS tape to the twilight of an entire business.

When you run the biggest video store chain in the world, with who knows how many stores in probably every damn state, the important thing to do is keep fucking eating your competition. By 2005 the video rental industry had transitioned to DVD and Blockbuster Video, with all it’s shitty horror sections packed with mockbusters and direct-to-video excrement, had proliferated like dogshit; you couldn’t put your foot anywhere without stepping in one. But it wasn’t enough. Big Yellow turned its attention to Hollywood Video that year.

Hollywood Video always had a decent horror section. For one thing, they put all the horror movies there, instead of dispersing the better ones throughout the thriller and drama sections – which is to say, they didn’t dismiss the validity of the genre, like Blockbuster did. Hollywood was the second-largest rental chain in America, so of course Blockbuster, being number one, had a pathological need to devour them. Blockbuster attempted to buy a controlling stake in Hollywood, which responded by selling itself to the third-largest chain, Movie Gallery, for roughly a billion dollars.

Movie Gallery bought Hollywood Video’s debt along with its stores, and the bills became too much to bear around 2007 or 2008. Stores branded Movie Gallery were liquitdated and shuttered first, then Hollywood Video locations started closing. I went to the going out of business sales to pick over the bones of both chains’ local shops. Movie Gallery’s selection was pathetic. When the nearest Hollywood Video closed I scored a copy of Dark City and talked for a second with the shop’s longest-tenured employee, a guy named Courtney Klopek who had been in my Cub Scouts den and later became the leader of a face-painted coven of Marilyn Manson fanatics in high school. I ran into him again a year later; he had transitioned to working at the box office of a cineplex.

I stumbled upon a still operating Hollywood Video about 15 miles from home and immediately, gladly, went through the rigmarole of signing up for a membership. It was worth the drive too. They closed their doors a month or so later. I moved to Illinois in August 2009 and found there was still a Hollywood Video in town. Score! Then it closed by the end of fall.

And then, with Netflix still mailing people discs but pivoting toward streaming, and RedBox letting customers borrow movies at a DVD vending machine but charging them late fees even when everything was returned on time thus encouraging them to go bitch at a bank teller because what the fuck else are you going to do, stand outside Walgreen’s and yell at that goddamn box?

Ahem … As all that was going on, even Blockbuster started to totter. Within a couple months in 2010 the company was delisted and then filed for Bankruptcy. About a year later it was purchased by Dish Network. Commencing more or less then, and concluding within a year and a half, all Blockbuster locations except those owned by franchisees were liquidated.

Ironically some of the mom-and-pop video stores were among the last to disappear. That’s Rentertainment in Urbana, Illinois and Movie Fan in nearby Normal were shops for the connoisseur and the casual alike. In addition to its comprehensive horror and sci-fi sections, Rentertainment also had a foreign film section that included movies you absolutely did not find at any chain store, like the Herzog-Kinski collaboration Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. Movie Fan had a much better, even festive, ambiance, with movies constantly playing on a little tube TV near four soda shop tables at the front of the store. Movie Fan closed in 2014, and That’s Rentertainment in 2015. Though I no longer lived in Illinois, I was really sad.

That leaves Family Video, green-roofed provider of new releases, almost new releases, and older titles. One alphabet for each, and no sections for genres.

I was at the old Marsh near my Dad’s house a while back (before that went belly-up too). There were the same floor tiles they had when I was a kid, still 12 aisles, still the same shelves, a little bit of redocrating but that’s it. No more movie or Nintendo game rental though. No more tiny credit union next door, where I got my first checking account. No more running into people I know while grocery shopping either. That’s the hardest part. When I was a kid my aunt and uncle lived right at the top of the hill near the store, maybe a tenth of a mile away. They’re both gone now. So is a high school social studies teacher I saw there from time to time. Jared Pettitte’s family lived across the street from the store, but they moved away ages ago.

And certainly no more Video Bonk or Ebner’s. A trip to the video store was one of those small treats that I looked forward to in a big way as a kid. As a parent, I struggle to find similar experiences for my children to enjoy. In an age when no one seems to want to leave their house, there’s not a lot of neat stuff to do in public.

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