I really miss late fees. I miss that feeling of embarrassment that came from handing the overdue VHS rental back to the video store cashier. I always avoided eye contact, like the cashier was my mom and she'd just caught me watching Skin-A-Max. There was a strategy involved—stand outside the glass window, wait for the person to walk out into the store to put returned tapes back on the shelves, and then speed-walk into the store, throw, not drop, the late tape into the "Return" drop slot, and then haul ass out.
Before the days of Netflix, way back when I was barely allowed to watch R-rated films, I had to rent movies the old-fashioned way: by pleading with my mom to drive me to the local video store and then pleading even more desperately to pay for movies like Burial Ground, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, and The Burning. Bless her heart, my mother either didn't look at the horrific box covers. Maybe she figured, hey, he already listens to rap cassettes with those "Parental Advisory" stickers on them—why stop now? And I love her to death for that.
The best thing that my mom did during those times, though? She never interfered with the video store workers who were anxious to share their expertise with a kid like myself. It must have been an exciting recruitment exercise for them—join us, little one, and behold the joys of exploitation cinema and obscure horror. Shun cheerleaders and dating and play with us. The only girlfriend you'll need is Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. And, if you're lucky, maybe you'll score a threesome with her and Linnea Quigley!
Sadly, those one-of-a-kind video store workers are going the way of the Stegosaurus. With indie video shops closing at an alarming rate across the country, today's news that Blockbuster Video will close its remaining 300 retail outlets nationwide in the new year cements what I've been fearing for a long time: My future kids will never have those experiences. That makes me sad.
There's something so impersonal about relying on Netflix for my current rental needs. It's just me and the mailbox. I miss the fanboy employees at the nearby Easy Video and Dollar Video locations in my native town of Fair Lawn, NJ. Those who'd look at me with such genuine appreciation when I'd opt for The Evil Dead over Aladdin at such a young age. "The force is strong in that one," they might've said to one another once I left the building. By seeing their enthusiasm, I didn't feel so odd for spending hours on end thinking about when I'd get to watch Evil Dead 2, while my peers were busy idolizing Michael Jordan and Don Mattingly, two superstar athletes I also adored, but, in my eyes, they couldn't hold Bruce Campbell's chainsaw. While my friends were pretending to be Scottie Pippen and Bill Cartwright at the playground, I was at home, subjecting my eyeballs to the Faces of Death series, which gave me one of those unforgettable film-watching images: the sight of a woman leaping to her death from the top of a tall building, all while some bizarre circus music plays, a perverse and morbid duality I've never been able to shake. And I had Easy Video and Dollar Video to thank for that.
Today's news about Blockbuster Video brought those memories back to mind. Even though Blockbuster emphasized its bigger, newer Hollywood releases, the venues in Fair Lawn never skimped out on stocking their "Horror" and "Action" shelves with the 1970s and '80s genre classics and oddities that I'd always read about and forever longed to experience firsthand. Without Blockbuster, I wouldn't have been able to impress my 8th grade friends by bringing over a VHS copy of Dario Argento's Suspiria to a pal's Halloween house party. I never would have bonded with my grade-school co-defendant Kevin Murphy, either, since he and I routinely re-watched the intestine-eating scenes in George Romero's Day of the Dead after school like non-gorehound teenyboppers would check back into Degrassi Junior High once their school day's final period bell rang.
Think about how difficult it is to peruse Netflix on a Friday or Saturday night. All you've got to decide with are those small thumbnail images of the DVD covers, and they all bleed into one another the more you scroll down the page, to the point where Beverly Hills Cop's simplistic but iconic front-cover artwork looks no different than The Stranger, starring "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
In the video store days, you could actually pick up the VHS or DVD package in your hands and read the back covers. Every box felt like treasure, and the home video distributors knew it. Thus, most, if not all, box covers looked at least attention-grabbing, it not completely bonkers. It was the old Roger Corman model—design a wild box cover, and, even if the movie is garbage, curious viewers will come. That's the only reason I rented Night of the Creeps from Dollar Video. Thanks to my interest in the 1985 horror-comedy's wonderful artwork, director Fred Dekker's film remains one of my all-time favorite genre flicks.
I also remember how that particular Dollar Video employee spoke so highly of Night of the Creeps, and how his recommendation sealed the deal for me. After all, anyone wearing a Cannibal Holocaust T-shirt must have a reliable opinion on a film called Night of the Creeps, right? It sucks that present-day kids will surf Netflix, come across the box cover art for, say, Larry Cohen's The Stuff, and not have that guy in the Cannibal Holocaust shirt to sing the film's praises. To say, "Stream that crazy shit right now!" Instead, today's kids will skip over The Stuff and just watch Arrested Development's latest season for the second time. The thrill of hands-on discovery is fading away, fast. And with it, the shame that comes from paying late-fees in-person.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
And keep reading for why Redbox is a particularly shitty substitute for your local video shop.