They were heavy and bulky. They took ages to rewind and made an absolute screeching racket while doing so. And if you watched a film on one on an evening you may have to cope with scratchy bars of interference (apparently caused by the use of Citizen Band radios, another 80’s fad “Rubber Duck”). To a ten year old in 1983 however, owning one of those ugly looking boxes called a VCR was a life changer. No longer would visiting Grandparents, being at school or being past my bedtime, mean I’d have to miss what was on television. Likewise, the next time one of my favourite films was on television, boom, I’d tape it and have it seemingly for life (blank video tapes became my most requested Christmas present) and I had pausing the recording to seamlessly edit out commercials down to an art.
The VCR went beyond sheer convenience however, it opened up a young film fan like me to a whole world of movies beyond what I got to see on British television and that I’d be allowed into a cinema for. Having a VCR exposed me to how varied, colourful, and frankly disturbingly sleazy movies could be. To thank for this revelation and the shaping of my movie tastes, I had the video rental stores of the 80’s.
It was a Saturday morning sometime in 1983 when me and my parents went in search of a video rental shop to join. The VCR that we had bought was still in the boot of our car, it was Betamax which we’d been assured by the spotty teen in the electronic store was the superior model (true) and was going to be a winner in the VCR format wars (which was complete bollocks). I’m pretty sure the conflict with VHS was pretty much in the bag by now, which may have been a reason why the recorder we bought was about half the price of a VHS one. In any case at this point there was little difference between the choice of films available on the two formats, and it has to be said aesthetically speaking, Betamax tapes were kinda cute.
For prosperity, (and a self indulgent interlude) the first video we rented was Star Wars. This was a monumental day for me as I’d read the novelisation, the comic, listened to the radio play, reenacted the story with my Star Wars figures many times and had already seen Empire Strikes Back. So I knew the story like the back of my hand, but up until this day had yet to see the actual film. Incidentally, this version did not have the Episode IV: New Hope title on the opening crawl and I believe copies of this VHS are quite sought after because of it
I’m sure this is something that all families shared, but having a VCR changed the routine of our lives. Weekends would now mean a family drive out to the video store, at least twice, one trip to rent tapes and another trip to return them (and often to end up renting something else). It would also mean we ended up visiting areas we would never think of venturing into for any other reason.
In the early 80’s video stores were popping up on UK streets everywhere. Yet it seemed a bizarre that the very best stores, with the best selections, layouts and the best deals, always happened to be in the shadier areas of towns. Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wildside” would have been an apt theme to play anytime we got out of our car to visit our favourite video store, sharing a street with tatty off licenses, launderettes, bookies and one of the scariest looking pubs I ever saw.
Another favourite of ours was in an even worse setting. In what seemed to be a former warehouse, this building was on the edge of a lonely industrial estate and surrounded by a foreboding wasteland. We’d been lured there by an enticing “2 for 1” deal at all times, and ended up walking in on the video store equivalent of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This massive selection on seemingly never ending wall space was complimented by being run by a fantastic character who getting to chat with made the journey through the Mad Max landscape worthwhile.
If the environment outside could be described as sketchy, there was something mildly seedy and underground about the rental stores in those early days. Not so much by the condition of the premises, but by the tacky looking covers that sat face out on the shelves. The biggest section of the average video store would be for horror movies. In some stores I visited a good quarter of the tapes on display would be horror, with entire walls giving over to unsettling titles such as “Cannibal Holocaust,” and “SS Experiment Camp,” creating a montage of lurid covers that were made all the more sordid by their cheap poorly designed presentation.
In the early days of video rental the market was flooded with these cheap, gory and violent movies and it became a genre apart from traditional horror films and made only more popular when an outraged media and watchdogs dubbed them video nasties. For a long time I could barely even glance in the direction of the horror section so unsettling was it to my young sensibilities (although I could quite happily watch people being devoured by dinosaurs and sharks I wasn’t a fan of the “nasties”), the sordid packaging suggested to me that they were less movies and something dangerously underground more akin to snuff.
The only horror film in those days that I remember watching in that period was American Werewolf in London, which as terrifying as I found it (seriously the triple scare scene had me and my mum screaming) the light hearted comedy moments and awesome effects in the werewolf changing scene, helped me stick with it the whole way through. A genuinely well made film, American Werewolf in London made me realise there were some actually class films which were unfairly lumped in with the sleazy trash.
Another fixture of video rental stores was the porn section, or as they were more commonly known the Blue Movies. Another early hit of the video rental boom, the adult films of the day still held the stigma of being for the dirty mac brigade. However unlike in the US where I’m told the adult section would be in a separate room of the store, often behind a tantalising beaded curtain, here in the more liberally minded UK these films were all up front and displayed for all to see. Although I suspect the material on offer in the UK was far taming than what pervs from across the pond had access to.
Unlike my unnerved attitude to the nasty section, my curious young mind would sometimes lead me to sneak away while my parents were chatting to the shop owners and have a peek at these covers. One in particular always caught my attention that showed a young lady with a punky, blonde haircut and clad in leopard skin underwear and tall leather boots. This unknown lady was especially alluring to me as she bore a slight resemblance to one of my best friend’s mum. One time my dad took me and this friend to the store for us to choose a movie to rent one Saturday afternoon and first chance I got I sequestered him to the section to bring his mum’s saucy doppelganger to his attention. Funnily enough he wasn’t all that chuffed (Barnsley translation: he wasn’t happy).
The rest of a video rental store would be a glorious mixed bag, depending on what a particular owners tastes were or what he’d get offered by distributors. For a long time film studios were wary of video and were reluctant to make available their full catalogue of films. The normal small section set aside for children’s movies for example only had the B level Disney movies, with the Herbie movies being the highest profile available to rent. “Black Beard’s Ghost,” “Cat from Outer Space,” you could rent , but certainly not Jungle Book or Snow White (which remained so until the mid 90s) although youngsters in the 80s had the chance to watch “Songs of the South,” and “One of our Dinosaurs is missing,” which you certainly won’t find on Disney Plus today.
You couldn’t expect to see the latest blockbusters any time soon either. You could rent films like Stars Wars and Superman that had been out for a while, but it could be years before films at the cinema would find their way onto a tape to watch at home. ET was a prime example, as it was six years from it’s release before the makers finally relented and made it available on VHS in 1988. Of course if you “knew a guy” you could lay your hands on a bootleg copy, as ET was the first Hollywood movie to fall afoul of video pirates, and bringing this new underworld network of piracy to public knowledge. Copies of ET rumoured to be floating around the UK before the film had even been released here.
Speaking of ET, I did become overjoyed on one tape rental excursion when from a distance I spotted a tape cover with that iconic poster of ET’s finger and what looked like that famous logo. However when I excitedly reached the shelf I found to my disappointment and horror that the film was in fact E.T.N (ET Nasty as it was widely known), I film I’d always assumed to be an urban myth. According to playground lore, this was a sequel where ET returns to Earth and goes on a rampage that sees him slaughter Elliot and his family. Of course ETN was nothing of the sort, it was in fact a sixties alien horror movie originally called Night Fright that was dug up and retitled with a copyright skirting cover for the rental market. The creature of course looked nothing like ET.
E.T.N is a good example of the wild west lawlessness of renting videos and the carny mentality of video distributors. With major studios withholding their biggest films and small companies wanting to get in on a hot market, the dust was blown off film archives in the search for any old crap that could be bought cheap and repackaged for unsuspecting customers looking for a film for the night. Many times I would be suckered into renting a Sci-Fi film that had a spectacular, Star Wars like action packed poster on it’s cover only to get home and find I was lumbered with watching a shoddy, badly acted Portuguese film with ropey special effects. that would make Blake’s 7 laugh.
The rush for any content meant exploitation movies had a whole new lease of life beyond the sleazy theatres of New York’s 42nd street. This meant browsing the shelves became an adventure for me as I made some curious discoveries mixed in with the countless Smokey and the Bandit ripoffs. Some led me to ask my parents awkward questions such as “What’s a Ku Klux Klan and why would there be black one?” and notoriously after a film in the infamous “Angel” series caught my eye and after reading the synopsis on the back I was driven to ask my mum “What’s a schoolgirl hooker?”
Growing up in the peak of the video rental store era shaped the direction of my love of movies. As well as the actual “good” movies I got to watch along with my parents, it left me with a taste for enjoying B-Movies and introduced me to the existence of whole genres I never would have encountered on regular television. The first anime I ever saw (“Space Fire Bird,”) was thanks to a recommendation from a video shop owner, who assured me “It’a cartoon but it’s good,” and this was about five years before Akira hit our shores. Martial Arts movies, Japanese monster movies, Mexican wrestling movies, raunchy teen comedies, post apocalyptic biker movies, sword and sorcery movies, I’d end up sampling the best and worst of them all throughout the 80’sthanks to video tapes. Looking back I think I learned more about movies watching these badly dubbed, cheap movies, sometimes from countries I’d never heard of, than I ever did studying Fellini and Goddard in legitimate film classes.
I couldn’t really appreciate it at the time, but my visits to the video store were a great way to explore the weirder world of movies. I wasn’t alone in this, as having a VCR opened you up to a whole community at school that acted as a word of mouth network on movies. Kids would come into school raving out some Gremlins ripoff (quite a popular genre at one point) or a Rambo clone that they’d seen at the weekend, or describing a scene from a Porky’s style sex comedy that they were definitely too young to be seeing.
This was another element of the video rental store, depending on how strict your parents were as regards the ratings certificate on films, you could get access to films that you’d never be allowed into a cinema to see. As such certain films would be hyped to ridiculous levels, the more classmates who saw them (or claimed to have) the more the aura would grow of the likes of Death Race 2000, The Hitcher or Missing in Action making them the must see rentals that we’d bug our parents about, years before we would have encountered them normally. In our school it was the infamous “King Frat,” a grindhouse Animal House clone that took on mythical proportions for it’s gross jokes and getting to watch it was like a rites of passage for young teens.
However there was more to the experience than just getting to choose a film to take home, as remembering those days makes me nostalgic for the rich independent vibe that we’ve allowed to slip from our retail streets. Just like with record stores (you know vinyl) VCR rental stores were small local enterprises (the term in America is “Mom and Pop stores,”) and there was a joy in getting to know the staff and owners. Having familiar friendly faces behind the counter who you could chat and banter with, was just as important as the selection of films when it came to which store you’d end up attaching your loyalty to.
Today we have video on demand and streaming services, with thousands of movies new and old all available in our homes at the press of a remote control. Yes they are wonderfully convenient and the obvious way ahead in the way we consume movies. Yet, for all the advantages of this Netflix era, I will be forever grateful that I grow up at the time that I could experience the video rental store. It gave me a kickstart on my exploration of movies but I think more importantly the video store also had a warmth in those days, it gave off a vibe of encouraging a sense of community.
It many ways, it felt more real.
And nothing beats the sound of a tape loading into a recorder.
Next time, I’ll explore a few of the weirder discoveries I made thanks to renting movies. As well as those that I craved to get to see but were rightfully denied me by my parents (including the bizarre story of the first time I heard the dreaded F Word in a movie).