The Halcyon Days of VHS Horror

They used to keep Faces of Death behind the counter at Rick’s Flicks. You had to ask for it, and they were supposed to see your ID before you could rent it. Fortunately, back then (in the mid-1980s), a friend of ours worked at Rick’s Flicks. His name was Jon Tucker. He was cool as hell, had hair so long he looked like Cousin Itt, and played rhythm guitar in Strycnine, perhaps the only thrash metal band to come out of Woodland Park. It was a smaller town back then, just about 15 miles outside Colorado Springs up Ute Pass.  Rick’s Flicks was the only video place in town, where Jon turned us on to all the cool horror movies. So when we wanted to see Faces of Death, he may or may not have let us rent it without an ID proving that we were 18 years old.

Forbidden video fruit — banned in 46 countries!

I think about Rick’s Flicks pretty often.  It even crops up in stories now and then.  When it does, I see it as clearly as if I were just in there yesterday.  And that smell … if you spent any time in video stores, you know the smell. Of cellophane, and fresh printed-box ink, and plastic and film … just that video store scent. You can still get that now and then depending on where you go, but one thing you can’t get back is that aisle of 1980s horror movies: covers with screaming faces, scantily clad women, evil eyes, reflective knife blades, dripping claws, blood and assorted viscera. Ah, those bloody gems of yesteryear that I first discovered with my old friends and girlfriends in parents’ houses all across town. The flickering pictures of that old Video Home System horror, forever reflected in my memory by the walls and wood paneling of the homes of our youth.

Fondly remembered finds

Also known as “City of the Living Dead,” this Lucio Fulci gut-fest is one for the ages.

My most fondly remembered finds from back then would make a pretty long list. From Beyond is at the top of it. Then there was Slithis, The Being, The Gates of Hell, The Kindred, Parasite, The Curse, Xtro, Death Ship, Mausoleum, The Gate, Demons, The Alchemist, Cthulhu Mansion, Chopping Mall, The Unnamable, Rawhead Rex … and of course all the heavy hitters that have gone on to outlive their formats and become modern classics … Creepshow, Re-Animator, Videodrome, Dawn of the Dead, Phantasm, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series, not to mention the veritable landslide of slashers that came along with them: Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Graduation Day, Slaughter High, Slumber Party Massacre — the list goes on.

Some of those movies I rented from Rick’s Flicks were great and live on in my collection to this day. Others … well, not so much. By today’s standards, some of them are so bad they’re unwatchable. Some of them, which had theatrical releases (and that was relatively few), were practically unwatchable because of their atrocious transfers. I remember watching Deep Red Hatchet Murders on VHS and wondering what the hell was going on — the film had not bee

When Tony grows up, he’s going to be just like Daddy!

n reformatted from its original aspect, but had instead been cropped. Badly. You probably only saw 50% of the screen. But it didn’t matter back then. I used to brag that I’d seen every movie in the Rick’s Flicks horror section, and thinking back, it’s entirely possible that I did.  Sadly, the romance of nostalgia is all some of those old 1980s horror movies will ever have going for them.

Collectable market

Like most things for which people develop a sense of nostalgia, there is now a market for collectable VHS, especially horror, and especially those in Big Box format and movies that were never released on DVD.  One night I spent hours on this site Critical Condition looking at all of the amazing cover art. If you go to the link, be sure to click on the logos between each paragraph to see the cover art galleries for each company. Some of it is seriously fine art.

Wizard Video big box releases featured some of the most amazing art seen in the genre. Artists were seldom credited for their work, so unless you see a signature on the image, it’s next to impossible to discover the names of these talented artists. At least a couple of these covers were works by the artist C. Cascard, and it’s likely that Full Moon Features still owns the rights.

I’ve since discovered another great site for the VHS collector, cleverly named VHS Collector.com.  One thing is for sure, they don’t make covers like that for horror movies anymore, and frankly, I think it’s a damn shame. Half the time, the cover art was better than the movie. Home video was one hell of a lucrative market back then, and there was more money to pay artists for works like this before computers gave rise to the digital art era and cover art suddenly became a lot less expensive (and a lot less interesting).

As much as I admire the art and savor the nostalgia of watching these movies again after all these years, I’m not much of a VHS collector myself.  I do have a few favorites stashed in the closet.  I have a big collection of my favorite 1980s horror films on DVD though, and I watch them over and over again. Something about them lights an old fire inside me. I guess it’s just the simple fact of being able to somehow re-live a part of your past you remember fondly. I can sit on the couch with my wife an

One of my stashed VHS favorites.

d we can look at the leg warmers and the big hair, or see a reference to some long-gone band or product, and say “I remember that!”  It’s just cool. But the novelty of watching things on VHS wore off for me not too long ago, and I sold off a huge collection. Fact of the matter was, the tapes were degrading.  And as I have massive collections of just about everything else (toys, books, CDs, DVDs), I thought I’d sell them off to people who could enjoy them for a few more years, just as I did with my cassette collection a few years before.

I don’t miss them much.

Really.

Some of the big-box horror movies I unloaded a couple years ago. These particular VHS came from the Video Hits liquidation sale: “The Slayer/Scalps” double feature, “Microwave Massacre” Midnight Video edition, and “Devilfish,” one of those where the artwork was better than the movie and a suspected inspration for “Sharktopus” (refer to the dark images of Devilfish compared to the cgi Sharktopus and you’ll see what I mean).

Oh, okay, there have been a few times I’ve gone out and looked up the tapes I sold, but by and large they’re now so damn expensive there’s no way I’d pay that much for any of them.  But someone will.  And God bless that guy.  Because he knows what I’m talking about here — that nostalgia for the halcyon days of 1980s horror shelves stacked with garish beauty, and I’ll bet he does the same thing I do when I buy an old pulp magazine … opens it up and breathes in with his eyes closed, smelling that video store smell, and getting transported back to the video store of his youth.

Interwebz killed the video store

Speaking of the Internet, you can search online and find a coffinload of articles with the titles: INTERNET KILLED THE VIDEO STORE, riffing on the old 80s hit “Video Killed the Radio Star” (but they’re a lot more pissed off about it).

The last Mom-and-Pop owned video store in my local area, Video Hits, closed down in the fall of 2010. I drive by it on my way home from work every night, and fondly remember good times with great movies.

In the area of Texas where I live, four video stores I used to visit have sold off their stock and closed up shop in just the past few years.  Forbidden Books and Video off Exposition in Dallas? Gone.  Starlight Video in Dallas? Disappeared. One day there … the next time I drove by the place was empty and the old Starlight Video sign was lying on the floor inside.  It was kind of like looking through a misty haze and remembering an old friend who passed away.  Then Video Village in Rockwall closed up, and finally, closest to home, dear old Video Hits, from which I purchased quite possibly the greatest boon of collectible VHS I’ve ever found in one place. I left with all of those movies with a bittersweet sense of loss. Never again would I slip a dime in the gumball machine on my way out, hoping to get the one wrapped in foil, which meant you got a free rental next time.  The happiness of owning and getting to watch all of those movies again was overshadowed by the knowledge that when Video Hits was gone, that would be the end of Mom-and-Pop owned video stores in my area.

A common sight at video stores these days: liquidation.

The end of an era.

But, did the Internet kill the Mom-and-Pop video stores?  Maybe.  It sure had an impact.  Just like the Web has had an impact on Mom-and-Pop record stores, and bookstores, and everything else.  But, by the same token, the Internet has made it easier to find stuff you always wanted. It made it easier to discover things that match your interest. In the past ten years, I’ve found more bands, movies, and novels that were recorded, filmed, or written in the 1980s than I ever knew existed.  And that is a great thing.

I don’t hate the Internet for the changes it has wrought.  Some of them have been good.  And the “bad” changes are, in many cases, only bad because they mean the death of things I held sacred in my youth.

I guess time marches on, things change, and they call it progress.

I’m taking the wife and kids out for dinner tonight.  Maybe I can convince them to stop by Movie Trading Company. And maybe, when they’re not looking I’ll slip one of those VHS tapes out of its case and take a deep breath of that old video store scent, close my eyes, and go back to Rick’s Flicks.  Just for a moment.

Ah, that’ll be nice.

Comments 2

  • Wow, that takes me back, funny I was googling jon tucker, woodland park and came across this,thanks for the memory refresh! What ever happened to Strycnine, any way to find the music?

    • Hi Jeff. I don’t know what happened to Strycnine, but it doesn’t seem like they did anything other than the demo. I have a copy of the official demo they did, “Judging the Book by the Cover”, as well as an earlier practice demo I got from Jon way back when, before Brett and Cliff joined up. Really cool band, and I loved seeing them live. Too bad nothing else happened for them.

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