Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Video Stores of My Youth Part II



In 1986 my family and I moved to Delmar, in upstate New York.  During this period, I became consciously aware that I didn't like change.  The first thing that I remember disliking about Delmar, other than that it wasn't Great Neck, was that they didn't have matzoh ball soup.  This, to me, ultimately became symptomatic of a problem in Delmar that would plague me throughout my time there: most of the people I encountered there didn't seem to want to acknowledge the world.

But they did have a video store.  American Video was a smallish space in Delaware Plaza, at the time Delmar's chicest and most important shopping center, which also housed the Grand Union supermarket, a bakery where I always asked for cookie samples (sweets being almost as important as movies), KB Toy and Hobby where I bought my first Lite Brite, Records and Such where I bought my first pop tape (Bangles: Everything), the Town and Tweed clothing store where, as you would imagine, all of the salesladies were stuffy old bitches, and The Laura Taylor Clothing Shop, whose owner I loved even before she came out of the closet and married a woman (Laura Taylor, if you're out there, I love you still, and your existence was important for me).

Only the Fashion Bug, the Radio Shack, and the liquor store remain of my childhood.

As was somewhat trendy at the time, the owner of American Video, Ken, cut up the tape boxes and made them into cards that were diagonally filed onto shelves so you could still see the cover art.  You would take the card to the front desk and Ken would give you the video in a black plastic box.   I don't know how or when exactly my mom and I discovered American Video--it seems like the minute we arrived in Delmar it was the place where we always went.  We developed a relationship with Ken: a big, friendly guy who wore a mustache.  We were probably his most frequent customers, and I imagine that he was fascinated with my obsession with his store and his movies


Many of the iconic movies of my life I first rented at American Video: Beaches (1988, Garry Marshall), Little Shop of Horrors (1988, Frank Oz), and Heathers (1989, Michael Lehmann) were particularly influential. At American Video, when I asked my father to rent me Beaches for the twelfth time, he resisted since I'd "seen it before." He had to be educated, and this was an important moment of growth for him. Ken eventually sold me his copies of the first two films so that my parents wouldn't have to rent them for me every other day. I discovered the bliss of ownership and became a media hoarder immediately.


He taught me the word "cheesy," when he used it to describe a Swedish horror film titled The Visitors (1988, Jack Ersgard) to my mother, after she asked "Will it scare him?" when I asked to rent it.   I later had to ask her what it meant--I'd assumed it had something to do with gooey flesh or cannibalism (which, actually, I guess it did). For this and other reasons, he was weirdly one of my first friends and heroes in Delmar, and is an immensely significant person in my life's history.

Most importantly, American Video was the tree from which I plucked the fruit of knowledge:  The horror film.


Every horror fan talks about it.  The thrill of the VHS covers in the horror section at the video store.  They were so deliciously unlike anything that existed in life that you couldn't imagine what sorts of evil magic those tapes contained.  The first image that drew me to the horror section was actually a "New Release" poster on the wall for the movie Waxwork (1988, Anthony Hickox).  I was enchanted by the image of a redheaded little person in a tuxedo standing in front of a huge door filled with screaming heads.  The image seemed strange and yet familiar, unnerving and yet comforting, as though I had experienced it in another life.


 I realize that I must have started renting horror movies before I knew how to read, because I remember pointing to the poster and asking my mother to read me the title and the movie's tagline: "Stop on by and give the afterlife a try."  I wanted to, desperately.  The idea of a doorway that opened to a world filled with formal wear, screaming heads, weird lighting, and hot pink credits fonts appealed to me then as much as it does now.  The video was checked out, but I insisted on renting something scary, and miraculously, my mother obliged.  Ken recommended Poltergeist II: The Other Side, probably assuming that it couldn't possibly scare anybody.


I accepted his recommendation.  The notion of a little girl talking on a toy phone to something ominous appealed to me immensely, as it does now.  I now know that Poltergeist II is considered notoriously awful, and I am so glad that I saw it when I was 6 years old so that I could fully appreciate its infinite gifts.  I was completely enraptured by and enamored with this extremely ordinary looking suburban world in which little girls had psychic powers, drunken fathers vomited monsters, toys came to life and threatened to kill, a boy's OWN BRACES attacked him and his family, and underground caves led to mystical light shows where grandmothers could return from the dead and save everybody.


Oddly, Reverend Cane, the evil ghost preacher who is the only thing about the movie that ever scared anybody, didn't strike me as the most memorable thing about the movie until years later.  I was too enchanted by the ways in which Poltergeist II showed me a version of the world that looked like mine, but in which the boundaries were extended to include the supernatural and mysterious.  This world would, eventually, resonate with my perceptions more than the world in which such dimensions were allegedly closed.  That probably makes me sound weird, but so be it:  Now you know how everybody in Delmar perceived me.

When I finally rented Waxwork I was actually disappointed.  I've now seen it multiple times and I still can't remember what it's about.  Something about Zach Galligan and Deborah Foreman going to a wax museum in the middle of the night and entering the exhibits.  Waxwork proved to be a rite of passage that every young horror nerd must go through:  I learned that the image on the cover doesn't always take place in the film.  I didn't like it, but I would be forced to experience it again and again.  I wept when Deborah Foreman failed to braid her hair into a noose in April Fool's Day. 


I screamed with rage when the ball of angry critters failed to materialize in Critters 2.


Ironically, even though Waxwork disappointed me because it did not feature a scene in which a redheaded little person opened a gigantic door to a wild and wonderful world of strange, sublimely beautiful faces and weird lighting, that is precisely what Waxwork's poster, and American Video, did for me.

To quote a song that figured prominently in that other Jobeth Williams classic: You can't always get what you want.  But when you try sometimes, you find, you get what you need.


Read The Video Store of My Youth Part I

Read The Video Stores of My Youth Part III

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