Hooptober ’21 Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s Asian Cinema Country: Russia
Viy Elevator Pitch
Three wild nights with sexy witch shenanigans and a “vampire” payoff.
Idle Viy Musings
Three seminary students get lost at night, stumble upon a farmhouse and ask the old lady for shelter. She agrees, on the condition that they sleep in different parts of her barn. She comes to one, Khoma, in the middle of the night and attempts to seduce him. He refuses — because she’s an old bag. Instead she puts a spell on him, climbs on his back and rides him around the countryside like a horse — a flying horse! When they land, he snaps out of the spell and beats the woman with a stick. As she’s dying to transforms into a beautiful young woman. He runs off to seek solace from his Rector who informs him that a rich merchant has a dying daughter — the woman he beat — and he’s asked for him by name to pray for her soul over the course of three nights. Else unstated severe punishment brought down from above.
There’s a lush and fertile weirdness running throughout Viy, directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, that feels uniquely Russian — paced and rendered in a way that feels entirely other to our Western sensibilities. The specific color palette (assuming proper color timing on this disc) and the special effects by Aleksandr Ptushko, reserved for the film’s grand finale, surprised and delighted, a festive gathering of low-fi practical effects and rubber-suited weirdness.
Viy just became an early front-runner in my favorite Hooptober 21 first-watch. A wicked/sexy witch, three-crazy nights, and delightful practical effects made this simple story a weird and wonderful exercise in restrained horror showmanship.
Hooptober ’21 Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s Asian Cinema Country: Hong Kong
BEWITCHED ELEVATOR PITCH
Shaw Bros. sponsored PSA about the dangers of casual sex. Complete with super-earnest post-movie title card. But really gooey.
IDLE BEWITCHED MUSINGS
This one doesn’t make a lot of sense, so I won’t spend much time trying to make sense out of any of it. It opens with a guy defending himself against the charge that he killed his daughter. His excuse? She was possessed by evil spirits and had to hammer a spike into her head to end her suffering and save his own life. You see, he traveled to Thailand, hooked up with a long-lashed honey and contracted a mad case of Gong Tauuuuuu! He’s been cursed and evil things happen all around him. His daughter trying to kill him just happened to be one of those evil things.
Our protagonist, a very lazy detective, heads off to Thailand to investigate the man’s claims where he also contracts a mean case of Gong Tauuuuuuu! Gong Tau is less a hex and more of a voodoo monk that pulls the strings from a safe, unnamed location that cost very few of the Shaw Bros. precious dollars to secure for long days of filming this wizard monk voodoo guy relishing the pronunciation of various hexes like “Hairy chest!” and “Strangling spell” with Chyron generated titles beneath.
Things get really wacky when the detective finds a good crazy voodoo monk to do battle with the evil monk. For 90% of this 45-minute battle they’re not even in the same room and they can’t even troll each other on the Internet. They’re squaring off remotely with mind powers and incantations. It’s not until they confront each other (with one extra wandering through the airport like she got lost on the way to craft services) that they come face-to-face.
Elsewhere you’ve got worm vomiting, maggot eating, pregnant demon ladies with goopy yellow snot, bursting bubble blisters… the list goes on and on. Thankfully this ooze and goo and GONG TAU! fest clocks in 101 minutes. Any more and GONG TAUUUUUU! might have worn out its welcome.
While I can’t say that Bewitched bewitched me (sorry about that), it did lead me to Kuei Chih-Hung’s follow up feature, The Boxer’s Omen (1983), which amplifies all the crazy I enjoyed in Bewitched. Maybe I’ll even write about it. Until then, stay out of Thailand and if you must go to Thailand, please keep it in your pants… because GONG TAU.
Nature of Shame: Unwatched Severin BD, “Folk Horror” Essential
Hooptober ’21 Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1970’s Folk Horror Country: UK
THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW ELEVATOR PITCH
A farmer overturns a mysterious skull, which sets off mass demonic possession among the village youth, aka raging puberty + ritual sacrifice.
IDLE THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW MUSINGS
Folk horror became a buzzy subgenre after Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) shocked and horrified audiences with their relentless sense of self-importance and eerie and effective, long-game subversive terror. If that statement confounds you and blurs your understanding of where I stand on these films, I’ve done my job. Goodnight. Tip with your waiter. He doesn’t want to be here because he could be collecting a fat unemployment check and finally finishing up Red Dead Redemption 2 on his couch.
Having not heard the term folk horror pop up in my cinematic travels before The Witch, I struck out on my own in search of its nexus. Based on The Witch‘s singularity (in a contemporary sense), the concept seemed rather self-explanatory, but seeming and knowing are two wildly different states of being. The former works best when buzzing on two pints, the latter for writing a bl-g post about one of the Unholy Trinity, the three British films identified by writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell as the origins of the folk horror subgenre in response to a 2003 BBC interview with The Blood on Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard. This interview represents the first known usage of the term folk horror. Mark Gatiss, in the 2010 BBC4 series A History of Horror, furthered the usage and yada yada yada… now it’s a thing, almost 40 years after the release of the final film in the Unholy Trinity. They are Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973).
If I wanted to do something useful with this space, I’d have watched all three just now, but that’s not what we’re doing here. I’ve seen the breads. It was time to watch the bologna in this here folk horror sandwich.
THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW REVIEW
If you look at Piers Haggard’s film as the Blood and Black Lace or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage of the subgenre, the tenets of folk horror fall into place. Like the giallo, the folk horror film relies on a narrow bandwidth of available visual tropes. Rural, pre-industrial landscapes (The Wicker Man and Midsommar artificially create this setting). Horror elements introduced via the occult, witchcraft, loopholes in religious doctrine. These limited elements work in service of a mood — isolation.
The remote landscape provides the perfect playground for a moral and spiritual corruption brought about by external supernatural influences such as demonic spirits and witches. Sometimes even the big bad Satan himself. The violence contained within often stems from a darker, buried human past, one that’s permanently entangled with these spirits and will continue to erupt because of mankind’s tenuous grasp on morality. There are startling comparisons to be made with the recurring themes in folk horror and the ebb and flow of political movements like fascism standing in for demonic possession, but that’s a tangent I’m simply not prepared to entertain in this space. I’ve placed upon you the burden of deeper thought and that’s more than enough for your average Tuesday.
On folk horror, writer and illustrator Andy Paciorek mused: “One may as well attempt to build a box the exact shape of mist; for like the mist, folk horror is atmospheric and sinuous. It can creep from and into different territories yet leave no universal defining mark of its exact form.”
The horror found within the genre tends arise from grotesque visions, but bloodshed occurs when humans turn on humans in service of dark spiritual forces. In one particularly brutal scene in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the town teenagers lure one of their more innocent peers into a rape and ritual sacrifice to summon the dark lord. The unsettling power arises because one day earlier these were all average teens, joking about sex and idling in the fields. They played a game with Satan’s claws and now the innocents have become agents of pure, monstrous evil. The rape relished. The murder as natural and easy as killing ten minutes in Snapchat.
We, the viewer, feel remotely complicit. Due to the lack of sensationalism and stylized cinematics in folk horror, the dread and low-lying terror provides a greater unsettle to overt horror imagery ratio. The rape/sacrifice scene made me uneasy in ways that gore and violence in other supposedly shocking horror movies has not.
Like my immediate response to Eggers’ The Witch, I wanted to escape immediately, but chew on deliberately. Pardon my ghastly adverb abuse, but I’ve deemed them necessary. These are fascinating movies about human ties to the spiritual and our dormant, innate capacity for evil. They do not provide me with the same visceral and preternatural pleasures of the giallo movement, to put a capper on that analogy. Perhaps folk horror burrows too deeply, too coldly, whereas the superficial pleasures of garish colors, chiaroscuro, and black-gloved killers allows distance and escape.
I can’t be the only one that’s interested in what happens after the events featured in The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Twenty teenagers just kidnapped, raped and murdered a girl in addition to summoning the devil. Sure, this one had a deus ex witchfinder kind of finale (hooray!) that predicts evil’s certain return (booo), but there has to be some kind of ramifications beyond revoking idling in Satanic fields privileges.
Unsettling, fascinating, and defining film in the definition of the folk horror genre, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for more.
Nature of Shame: Massive Amazing Stupendous Unwatched Gamera Arrow Box Set
Hooptober ’21 Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1960’s Kaiju!
GAMERA, THE GIANT MONSTER ELEVATOR PITCH
[ahem]…it’s GODZILLA, except… wait for it… HE’S A TURTLE…
And he flies and spins and fire comes out of his mouth. Plus some other weird places on his body because nuclear bombs and planes and war are bad! REAL BAD.
My first viewing of an un-MST3K’d Gamera movie. Even during the riffs, Joel and the bots didn’t set out to undercut the movie’s relative quality. In my opinion, they’re not among the best Mystery Science Theater riffs because they’re more hangout-inspired rather than a celebration of the joys of bad cinema. The same observations could be made about any non-Godzilla (1954) kaiju film that strains its budget to an obvious breaking point. More on this later.
While watching these low-budget kaiju offerings, it’s easy to slip into a childlike frame-of-mind. The obvious model-work (and destruction) and person-in-a-rubber-suit costume party doesn’t lend itself to mockery so much as isn’t it cool they made a movie like this? You can see clearly how the film comes together absent the moviemaking magic allowed by money to make those models and costumes less obvious.
It probably benefitted the MST3K riff that the version used was the 1985 Sandy Frank-commissioned release featuring an atrocious English dub and new soundtrack.
I love watching these movies with my youngest daughter (now 9yo), who thinks all of the kaiju are just adorable and has started to identify some of the filmmaking and special effects techniques. Enjoying low-budget monster knockoffs like Gamera isn’t about ignoring the shortcomings; it’s more about embracing the artifice as its presented. We watched through a handful of offerings on the Criterion Godzilla set last year, so she’s primed for everything Gamera has to offer.
In 1964 Dalei Film studio head Masaichi Nagata wanted to piggyback the success of both Toho’s Godzilla (obviously) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (not as obvious?) by creating a “Nezura the Giant Horde Beast” franchise and replace birds with mammoth-sized man-eating rats created by a revolutionary high-calorie food source that causes mutations. The real Japanese health department shut down production because the flea-infested wild brown rats used for the film escaped the set and had the potential to spread disease. The climax? Neutralization through rat cannibalism.
Nagata conceived Gamera as his Nezura replacement. Due to an extra-tight budget and schedule, the production used outdated equipment and faulty props and faced the wrath of other Japanese film producers for its unrepentant clone of Godzilla right down to its nuclear anxieties. This time, however, an American jet shoots down an unknown, unidentified aircraft in Arctic waters. The blast awakens a dormant prehistoric tusked turtle that an Eskimo chief identifies as Gamera. “Action” shifts back to Japan where the story localizes on a kid whose turtle obsession is threatening to derail his studies.
Anytime a monster film focuses on the kid, I have concerns. Toshio (played by Yoshiro Uchida). Perhaps because he’s mugging in Japanese I’m less bothered by this tendency to put himself in irresponsible situations. Goshdarnit he’s gonna stand between that turtle and the collective forces of the U.S. and Japanese military to ensure its safety. A few moments of sisterly hand-wringing aside, everyone seems okay with this crusade even as little Toshio stows away to the frontlines of Gamera battle.
Gamera lands on that elusive intersection of corny and cool. Outdated effects, hokey dialogue, and blatant Godzilla lifts don’t betray the film’s independent spirit. A fire-spitting turtle that hurtles through space and destroys Japan? What’s not to enjoy about that? It’s not great or original or Godzilla — it’s just Gamera.
After taking a COVID-break last year (8yo being remote-schooled next to me would have received a very interesting brand of education based on some Jean Rollin I’d planned to watch), I’m refreshed and ready to Hoop it up in 2021. Not familiar with Hooptober? Here’s a primer. The Cinemonster started Hooptober on Letterboxd.com as a way for horror fans to come together during this holiest time of year. The rules of engagement? Watch 31+ horror movies during the month of October (starting September 15th because we’re adults and we can do what we want) and write a review on Letterboxd.com for each and every flick. I’ll be documenting my progress here and on Letterboxd. More words here. Short bits there. Each year The Cinemonster comes up with some specific parameters to direct viewing and highlight filmmakers and subgenres.
I always attempt to watch as many new-to-me movies as possible. Cinema Shame demands it. I must broaden my horizons… even if they’re the more unsavory horizons. It makes me a better and more respectable human to watch as much Eurotrash as possible. I will assault innocent bystanders with conversations about Jess Franco and Sergio Martino. Inevitably, some old favorites sneak into the mix because goddammit, yes, I want to watch AnAmerican Werewolf in London again, okay?!?
CINEMONSTER’S 2021 HOOPTOBER 8 GUIDELINES:
6 countries 8 decades 2 folk horror 4 films from 1981 2 films from your birth year 2 haunted house films The worst Part 2 that you haven’t seen and can access. (I realize that this will take a little work) 1 film set in the woods 1 Kaiju or Kong film (not the new K v. G) 2 Hammer films 3 films with a person of color as director or lead. (excluding Asian) 3 Asian horror films.
And 1 Tobe Hooper Films (There must ALWAYS be a Hooper film)
American Werewolf in London (1981)* Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) The Black Cat (1981) The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) Bones (2001) The Boogens (1981) Cat People (1942)* The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)* The Curse of the Cat People (1944) Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) The Fly II (1989) Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965)* Ganja & Hess (1973) Ghost Story (1981) The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) The Howling (1981)* The Howling II (1985) Invaders from Mars (1986) Lake of the Dead (1958) The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) Murder Obsession (1981) Mystics in Bali (1981) The Old Dark House (1932)* Patrick (1978) The Pit (1981) Suddenly in the Dark (1981) Tales from the Crypt: Demon Night (1995)* Thirst (2009) Ugetsu (1953) Venom (1981) Viy (1967) Wolfen (1981)
What’s your list? What’s your plan for horror movie watching this year? If you’re keeping a list or participating in the Hooptober challenge, I’ll link to your Letterboxd list or blog in the header for my posts. Just leave a note with a link in these comments. Together we shall overcome… or we’ll be the losers knocked off in the first act to establish the killer’s indomitable menace. It’s more comforting to know you’re not doing this alone.
I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I’m home-schooling kids and maintaining stress levels and writing and research has become the most impossible thing in my world. I can barely type a sentence without fielding a homework question. (Technology and seven year olds do not mix.) I try at night. I try in the morning. Distraction is required, but distraction is a terrible writing bedfellow. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.
On the previous episode of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble
Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape
Early 1989 slept off its holiday bender as, per tradition, prior-year releases dominated due to Oscar buzz and awards promotion. In the pin-up magazine dedicated to this phenomenon of the totally and completely forgettable January, 1989 graced the centerfold.
With a box office populated by seven forgettable mid-budget offerings like Deepstar Six, Physical Evidence, and The January Man, the Oscar-favorite Rain Man (1988) dominated ticket sales on its way to four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor. The film entered January at #1 in its third week of release and carried the title through the end of the month.
It would only be dethroned in February by the mostly forgotten Martin Short/Nick Nolte bank robbery comedy Three Fugitives. The film rode an overcompensatory advertising campaign to a $6.4 million opening week and $40 million over the course of a 16-week theatrical run. 16 weeks! That tells all you need to know about the early 1989 box office wasteland.
This apparent crowd pleaser offered broad humor and a wildly uneven tone that waffled between saccharine kid drama and screwball comedy. Despite strong (mismatched) lead performances, Three Fugitives barely registers as a film in 2020 unless you remember dragging your parents to see the thing due to a Martin Short obsession in the wake of Three Amigos! (1986). I do not doubt that they were pleased when I stopped spotting airplanes in the sky and asking them if they thought it was a “male plane.” (At least now my kids have seen Three Amigos! and are old enough to humor me.)
In a stagnant theatrical landscape, the real drama took place on the rental shelves. Until 1988, retail sell-through VHS comprised only about 20% of the home video market. The general public had yet to embrace the ownership of movies, which shouldn’t be surprising since most studios priced these VHS offerings according to their weight in precious minerals. With a going rate of $50-$100 for the average VHS tape, it’s not hard to see why rentals dominated the market. Only a few notable mega-hits had even launched retail advertising campaigns. The Top Gun / Pepsi reign of terror remains one of the most aggressively scarring marketing onslaughts in home video history.
In order to offset the loss of selling Top Gun at the then impossibly price of $26.95, Paramount struck a deal with Pepsi. Paramount Pictures allowed the soft drink maker to include a 2-minute commercial before the beginning of the film on retail VHS copies. In return, Pepsi agreed to push the Top Gun release during its own TV commercials. An entire generation survives to this day with the Pepsi commercial branded into their grey matter.
Unlike pay cable, which the studios had readily embraced because networks would prepay producers for exclusive rights, home video was met with skepticism. The original intended purpose of the VCR had been to record live television. So how did we reach a price-point of $80-$100 for individual home video releases? To answer this question, let’s enjoy a rapid-fire history of the sell-through VHS tape.
Founded by Andrew Blay (producer of They Live and Brain Damage), Magnetic Video approached 20st Century Fox in 1977 about obtaining a licensing agreement to release 50 films from their catalog on VHS and Betamax. At the time of Blay’s offer, the cash-strapped Fox had no qualms with making a few extra pennies on films that were just lying around gathering dust. Classics such as The Sound of Music, Patton, M*A*S*H, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became some of the first films sold via catalog mail order through the Video Club of America. Each of the boxes came with a list of the available films on the back cover rather than a description of the film itself. Each tape cost somewhere between $50 and $70.
The early success of the deal convinced Fox to purchase Magnetic Video outright in 1979. Soon after, Warner Brothers launched WCI Home Video and released 20 of their own catalog titles including the bulky clamshell VHS box everyone remembers, Superman. Since the movie ran longer than two hours, however, it had to be shortened from its theatrical runtime of 143 minutes to the VHS-friendly 127 minutes. Super speed, indeed. Nobody complained too much about the edits, however, because for the first time consumers could own their favorite movies and watch them as much and whenever they wanted rather than relying on the rare prime-time television event.
Disney had also been an early adopter of sell-through pricing. The company began releasing live action classics such as The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks all the way back in 1980. Dumbo launched a series of animated classics in the fall of 1981 with a price of $29.95.
In 1982, Paramount’s home video production group tested the temperature with the release of an individual episode of the Star Trek television series. “Space Seed” hit retail shelves in the wake of the theatrical success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Space Seed” remained on the Billboard chart for bestselling VHS tapes from the summer of 1982 until early 1983. It received another boost when The Wrath of Khan hit home video shelves for the bargain price of $39.95 — $40 less than Star Trek The Motion Picture just a couple years prior. The success of Star Trek on VHS gave Paramount the confidence to eventually offer every Star Trek original series episode for purchase on VHS, a brand new concept in home video, but one that seems positively quaint in the wake of the availability of TV on DVD and streaming services like Netflix that allow you access to the entire 236-episode run of Friends with the wave of a remote.
Despite their hesitancy, studios could not hold back the tide of home video. They had to adapt or get swept away. 20th Century Fox rubbed the lamp, and nobody could put the genie back in the bottle. VHS and Betamax brought movies into the home, and the closely guarded studio gates were about to be forced open with a crowbar known as Blockbuster Video.
Founded in 1985, Blockbuster Video quickly became the largest rental chain in the country and a swift jab into the jaw of Hollywood. The rise of the video rental store caused a chain reaction all across the industry. But first let’s be kind rewind and talk legalese.
Concerns about piracy and copyright had begun as early as 1976 when various studios (obviously not including 20th Century Fox, who’d jumped on direct-sale VHS early) sued Sony to prevent the proliferation of their Betamax machine. Focus at the time had been on the legality of copying television programming, not the retail viability of home video ownership. Sony won the initial case, but Universal Studios appealed. In the 1981 appellate case, Sony was found liable for the copyright infringement of the Betamax users. That’s like sending Lee Iacocca a bill for all speeding fines levied against drivers of Mustangs. Consider the ramifications of making Sony liable for all supposed financial losses resulting from the use of the already widely adopted Betamax platform. At the very least, immediate insolvency. Naturally, Sony appealed to a higher power, the Supreme Court. In what has become known as the “Betamax Case,” the Berger Court ruled 5-4 to ban Betamax and the VCR before deciding to make both sides re-argue their case (a court feature that was only granted in 2.6% of all Berger Court cases. Statistics included for the Court junkies in my readership).
After new arguments and testimonies, one judge switched sides, ruling in favor of Sony. In its final argument, the court cited Mr. Fred Rogers’ testimony as a major tipping point. In his speech supporting the use of home video recording devices, the beloved children’s TV personality said, “I have always felt that with the advent of new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air, they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others.” And after single-handedly saving home video, DVD and everything beyond, Mr. Rogers dropped his microphone and exited stage left, a curious footnote in the story of the VCR’s ascendancy.
In the 1983 Consumer Video Sales Rental Act, Congress also ruled, independent of the suit against Sony, that video rentals did not infringe upon copyright despite the testimony of Jack Valenti, then head of the MPAA, who claimed that the “VCR is to the American film producer as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” Stay classy, Jack. In this parallel decision, Congress upheld the Supreme Court’s decision that VCRs and VHS rental constituted “fair use.”
Having lost their days in court, the studios fought back with consistently higher prices for VHS tapes ($79.99 being a consistent price point). When higher prices not-so-shockingly resulted in more piracy, studios implemented a little trick they had up their sleeve called Macrovision. Macrovision resulted in fluctuating screen brightness and fuzzy pictures on tape duplication. Professionals found workarounds, savvy consumers found the latest loopholes, and the vicious cycle continued.
By 1983, VCRs had invaded more than 10% of American homes and despite the hefty price tag for machines, still hovering at around $528, the home video market found itself perched atop an active volcano. Paramount took the first step in this brave new world by releasing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Footloose at the reduced price of $29.95. Warner followed by dropping Purple Rain to a similar price point. When these successful A-list films sold well and further stoked the desires for home ownership, Studios initiated a two-pronged attack. They’d sell their biggest hits, the massive moneymakers at $29.95 (“sell-through pricing”), and all other films at $79.95 (“rental pricing”).
The gap would widen even further by the end of the decade with some titles such as Top Gun finding introductory sell-through sale pricing in the neighborhood of $20 (and accompanied by that $8 million-dollar marketing campaign with Diet Pepsi) while all other lackluster performers hovered around the $100 per tape barrier. Despite acknowledging that the $19.95 price point represented the magic number for direct home video sales, studios still attempted to find ways to market cassettes retailing for $79.95 and $89.95 – as if consumers could still justify paying almost $100 after buying Top Gun for $20. Even Return of the Jedi failed to move the expected number of units after CBS/Fox spent $2 million promoting the release.
All of these macroeconomic machinations reached a crescendo during the holiday season of 1988. With the availability of E.T. (1982) and Cinderella (1950) for sell-through home purchase, VHS sales revenue surpassed rental revenue for the first time in history. From our perspective where the rental market has become nonexistent, this shift might feel like a minor blip in the grand scheme of 1989, but within the industry this development signaled the proper arrival of the home video generation – and more than ten years after the first VHS tapes went on sale for home consumption, Hollywood struggled to find balance.
All I understood at the time was that the movies I loved in the theater suddenly appeared for purchase where they weren’t before and what kid wouldn’t find that kind of novelty thrilling? Gone were the days of renting a VHS tape and dubbing three mismatched movies onto a cassette tape for maximum squiggle and jitters. (SLP, FTW!) I could walk into a video store in 1989 and find newly released movies I wanted to own for less than $20. Looking back, this may have been my superhero origin story. Having dished out those $100 for an original Superman, my parents also felt the seismic shift. I recall my dad walking into Suncoast Video and buying VHS copies of movies he hadn’t even seen because they were $15 and they must have been good and popular because they were right there in abdominals made from a 2×3 VHS grid for a life-size Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Next to advertisements for Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, the sales charts in the January 7th, 1989 issue of Billboard Magazine reveals so much about the state of home video, and specifically the VHS market, as it reached the peak of its popularity as an everyday commodity.
Only three of the top 10 selling cassettes – E.T., Dirty Dancing, and Lethal Weapon — featured movies released in the 1980’s. The rest were all pre-1970 classic catalog titles. Note that The Wizard of Oz had been on the chart for 179 weeks since its VHS debut in 1985! If you allow your eyes to filter down to the bottom of the chart, you’ll get a broader picture of the 1980’s video landscape – Callanetics (103 weeks), Jane Fonda (42 weeks), The Grinch (a mere VHS babe at 3 weeks), Mickey Mouse (29 weeks) and Def Leppard (21 weeks). So few sell-through releases hit these charts that a single workout tape had remained a best-seller for two years. I guarantee you know someone that bought Callanetics on VHS. Hell, there’s a good chance that you own a copy of Callanetics and don’t even know it. At that volume they had to be giving them out at baby showers and bar mitzvahs. It remains the number one selling exercise video of all time. (How many husbands gift-wrapped Callanetics to give to their wife at Christmas? Oh, that’s sweet… maybe next time stick to the mildly insulting vacuum cleaner and don’t put a bow on a VHS called ‘I think you’re fat.’)
And now for a semi-related tangent.
Studying release dates and popularity paints a defining portrait of not just the VHS market, but the 1980’s as a commercial entity. Alongside the expected charts for VHS sales and rentals, the magazine listed sales for “Videodisks” aka Laserdiscs. For the divinely curious, Beetlejuice topped the chart – but I don’t want to talk about Laserdiscs because these weren’t yet on my radar. (We didn’t invest in that platform for another couple years.) I’d much rather talk about the format that Laserdiscs replaced, for all intents and purposes. Remember the RCA Videodisc? The bizarre hybridization of the VHS tape and the vinyl record never evolved beyond a niche market or a video nerd punchline who thought “Betamax” was too prosaic.
Also known as CEDs or Capacitance Electronic Disc – the analog playback system developed by RCA utilized a needle and groove system much like that of the phonograph. First developed in 1964, incompetence and technical difficulties delayed release until 1981. “Incompetence” is a nice shortcut for all the uninteresting nonsense that delays the release of any technology almost beyond its natural obsolescence.
Housed in a plastic casing the size of a vinyl record sleeve, the user would insert the disc into the player like a front-loading VCR. Although the CED had the same number of lines of resolution as VHS (but less than the laserdisc, which as I suggested was just over the horizon), RCA’s superior mastering techniques allowed for a higher quality picture. Grain of salt considering most everyone had a square 27” cathode ray television upon which to play these magical vinyl records.
RCA expected to sell more than 200,000 $500 players upon release in 1981 – however those estimates were made before the rapid advance of the VCR as then-RCA-head Anthony Conrad had decided to proceed with promotion of the CED system as early as a 1977 article in Popular Science. It was determined shortly thereafter that the design required further testing and development, resulting in the four-year crawl to the consumer market.
CEDs proved to be a technological success, more than doubling the data density of an audio LP at what would have been half the price of a VCR in the late 1970’s. Upon their 1981 arrival, and lacking the ability to record, RCA’s vision for the future of home video failed. By 1984 RCA abandoned development after having sold only 500,000 players. Disc sales, however, continued to remain strong – selling more than twice the number anticipated – which led RCA to continue producing discs until sometime in 1986, well after the official demise of the platform.
Remember how the studios sent their army of lawyers to fight the proliferation of VHS and Betamax? All of the major studios hopped on board the tiny CED bandwagon. More than 1700 Videodisc titles were released during those five years. The price per disc started at $19.98 for specialty titles like cartoons and compilations and rose to $34.98 for a single-disc movie and $39.98 for a double-disc. Compare that to the traditional $80 for a VHS tape. You could buy a movie on Videodisc for the price of a blank VHS tape (that would, of course, soon be filled with three dubbed rental tapes in SLP.)
On June 27th, 1986, the final disc pressed at the RCA pressing plant on Rockville Road in Indianapolis, Indiana was a title called “Memories of Videodisc,” a commemorative CED given out to RCA employees at the end of the Videodisc era featuring snapshots of the Rockville facilities, employees and various promotional materials. The disc begins with an 11-minute presentation from Dr. Jay J. Brandinger, RCA Vice President and general manager of Videodisc operations. During this presentation Brandinger eulogizes the format by quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince:
“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
Now if I’m reaching back into my bag of undergraduate English classes to pull out Machiavelli memories, I’d suggest that is a rather disproportionate response to the format wars of the 1980’s – seeing as how The Prince first coined the term “Machiavellian” to describe the unlimited lengths men would go to achieve or maintain political power. Though adding the traits “duplicitous” and “amoral” to VHS’ character list alongside “jittery,” “degenerative,” and “chewable” adds a little more pizzazz to the behind-the-scenes drama. As RCA’s dream of movies on vinyl died, it’s fun to imagine them sulking in the corner, listening to The Cure, and intermittently monologuing about “bullshit capitalist dogma.”
I predominantly used my grandmother’s CED player to watch Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre as these discs constituted the majority of her personal collection. Whenever she’d babysit, we’d drive up to video rental store that had the discs for rent and pick something out. Looking back, it seems unusual that in a farm community of roughly 2000 people we had two video rental stores and one of them boasted a plethora of RCA Videodiscs and players for rental and purchase. I’ll let you guess which one of these stores survived the longest. (Hint: It wasn’t the one that invested in CEDs.)
Home video, CEDs included, played an integral part in my coming of age as a liberal-minded moviegoer. Without this new accessibility to movies, I’m not entirely certain 1989 becomes such a landmark year and I’m not sure I’m even writing about movies in the 21st century. The movies I was able to own and view on repeat, time and time again, contributed heavily to the desire to go forth and seek out more movies and more movies after that. (Who knew you know you could order VHS tapes from all over the world?! I can pick up this phone to order some bootleg Italian horror movies from Canada!) The sell-through VHS boom didn’t dampen my desire for the theatrical experience; on the contrary, it stoked the fires and made me keenly aware of future theatrical release dates. I feverishly rented movies like License to Drive (the Coreys!) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport. The more and varied movies I rented the more movies I considered in the theater. I didn’t know it yet – but my cinematic frame of reference approached a Big Bang.
I’m not sure why this memory stands out so acutely, but inside my red Trapper Keeper there lived a small calendar. It was just a single sheet of miniature dates featuring the days of the 1988-1989 school year. Now I’d probably have to squint to make anything out. Upon that calendar I began circling release dates for movies and future rentals. Fourth grade just doesn’t require constant planning and preparation, so I found a way to make the calendar personally useful. To be fair to fourth grade, however, I didn’t consider scholastic planning a useful endeavor until at least high school and even now my documentation leaves much to the imagination.
On that fourth grade calendar I had a specific week highlighted in green – I know it was green because I always kept a green highlighter in my bag. I refused to be a mindless slave to Mola Ram, aka the yellow highlighter.
In the event that you were merely a lusty twinkle during this greatest movie generation, Die Hard was a big deal. I’d suggest that it was an especially big deal to prepubescent boys, but that would unfairly discount the prepubescent girls with which I didn’t discuss Die Hard in 1989.
At 9, I wasn’t yet old enough to partake of John McClane’s bloody exploits in the theater. And indeed I tried. The answer to any R-rated theatrical experience resulted in the “Wait for the rental” response. My parents laid down only a few hard-liner policies regarding my viewing habits and the theatrical R-rated line was not one that could yet be crossed. Considering that as children of the 80’s we witnessed in PG-rated movies rampant sexuality, illegal drug use, exploitative violence, more shits than you could measure with a fuckstick, exploding green monsters in microwaves, and the discretization of Santa Claus (credit to Gremlins for those last two), pardon my contemporaneous skepticism over what scandalous madness happened inside an R-rated theater when I’d already seen it all on my 40” cathode ray tube.
I couldn’t have been present when the video-store clerk scribbled Die Hard on the “Coming Soon” chalkboard, sometime in December for a mid-February release date. Memory’s faulty that way; it fills in gaps to serve dramatic ends. I’d have been browsing the new releases, disgusted by the non-availability of Three Men and a Baby, when what-ho! The clerk ascending the stepstool to chalk his scrawl across the blackboard that hadn’t been properly scrubbed since the release of that Ewok movie. I paused and waited for the reveal of the titles coming to a VCR near me. Once the “D” appeared, hundreds of video-store idlers rushed the counter to mark themselves down on the waitlist, leaving me battered and torn, no match for the stampeding horde of elder moviewatchers… and 27th on the Die Hard list.
Die Hard felt like the biggest movie in the world. Because I’d been denied a theatrical viewing, the anticipation created an unparalleled thirst. This was also partly due to the ads airing what seemed like every thirty minutes on television. First for the film, then for the rental. And with my 10-year-old conception of time and space, i.e. loosely based on the beginning and end of baseball season, the wait for anything between October and April felt outside of time. After seeing Three Fugitives during that last week in January, I embarked on a long, cold winter of video store trips and waiting and waiting… and waiting… for Die Hard on VHS. And while it wasn’t traversing broken glass barefoot, the intermittent weeks felt interminable and uninterrupted.
What certainly didn’t help was that dearth of theatrical releases to distract me from the “Coming Soon” Chalkboard. Conversely, I might have been too focused on Die Hard to take into account the slumbering greatness appearing at a theater near me. A few of these movies would go on to become beloved essentials in my home video library. I’m still not sure how Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure escaped me. Joe Dante’s R-rated The ‘burbs obviously waited for home video, and honestly I hadn’t yet properly become acquainted with Tom Hanks beyond The Money Pit. I do really like The Money Pit, but there’s nothing there to re-orient my limited worldview.
While I did attempt to cajole an adult or two to take me to see Who’s Harry Crumb?, all driving-age relatives and family friends opted out of the opportunity to embrace that John Candy movie. (Which I’m sure you’ll mostly all agree was their loss. To quote Harry Crumb himself, “A book cover is only skin deep. Sometimes you have to read every word to get the whole picture.”) Was I really the only one willing to admit a palpable pre-teen crush on Iron Eagle and Summer School star Shawnee Smith?
And here’s the boondoggle, a grand irony after all the straight-to-video quality grand guignol, I don’t remember my first viewing of Die Hard. I remember the build-up and the aftermath. After the release of the VHS tape for purchase, I dogged that tape within an inch of its life. I could recite all of Hans Gruber’s best lines. I lobbied for a Hans Gruber business suit at Halloween 1989, but it was decided the outfit might have been in poor taste.
You’ll be happy to know that this story has dramatic closure, despite the gap in memory. Two years later, Die Hard 2 become my first R-rated theatrical experience. It’s utterly confusing to me that I can reminisce about so many eccentric details but remember nothing about that first Die Hard viewing. Like I said, memory’s a funny thing. It’s also a cruel and unforgiving prankster. This irony appears to me in nightmarish visions of talking horse with the voice of John Candy. (In February of 1989, all human life seems to revolve around John Candy as if he were a celestial body and not just a larger than average human.) Around the same time I would have finally seen Die Hard, I watched a mostly forgotten but completely inept movie by the name of Hot to Trot (1988) starring Bobcat Goldthwaite, Virginia Madsen, Dabney Coleman, and the voice of John Candy.
I can’t even fathom the heavy sighs that accompanied my rental of Hot to Trot. I loved the Police Academy movies, much to the detriment of my early comic sensibilities. Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) and Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986) featured a primal manimal by the name of Zed, played by none other than the Bobcat. This led to the immediate rental of Hot to Trot and a nightly parental prayer than Bobcat would make no more starring vehicles for me to rent.
Around this same time my dad presented me with a VHS collection of Francis the Talking Mule movies. That’s generally how I felt my way into classic films. I’d become interested in a lesser or referential 1980’s film and my parents would present me with a reputedly more palatable alternative. I find myself doing the same thing with my daughters now. I didn’t recognize the value at the time but allowing them to discover derivative contemporary programming gives them an opportunity to build their own identity – while simultaneously allowing me to supplement with my own experience. As a parent I find it important to use contemporary benchmarks as a gateway drug. I’ve also learned that if you do not allow unfettered television privileges, they will watch anything once given the opportunity. (I have not tested them with Francis the Talking Mule… yet.)
References to older, classic films appear in all forms of media. Sure – in many ways, they’re placed there for the benefit of the parents. If parents enjoy a show, they’re far more likely to present that programming to their kids, but that doesn’t mean the obligation should end there. Talk about where these things come from. I was able to introduce my kids to The Marx Brothers and ultimately other silent and classic comedians like Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello as a result of a brief Grouch Marx routine in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The short’s called “Wideo Wabbitt” from 1956, by the way, in which a cigar-chomping Bugs imitates Groucho doing an introduction to You Bet Your Life featuring Elmer Fudd.
We tend to assign a greater value to our own nostalgia because that nostalgia represents the formative foundation for our entire frame of reference. With proper exposure to older media, we understand that it doesn’t, but we still subscribe to the feeling that our 1989 bested every 1989 that had ever been. And it goes without saying that all future 1989’s will pale in comparison. Allow me to set a baseline. Would anyone rightly proclaim Hot to Trot the righteous heir to the throne of talking horse cinema? Don’t answer right away.
First of all, claiming ownership of the talking horse throne is like planning to dress up as Menudo for Halloween 2020. At no point during the last 30 years did that sound like a sensible goal. (Neither was it sensible in 1989.) Hot to Trot was just the talking horse movie I knew. Only because my dad responded with Francis the Talking Mule did I then have the opportunity to understand the origins of Hot to Trot. I also came to realize that we’ve been laughing at the same talking horse jokes for 50 years. My parents watched Donald O’Connor and Mickey Rooney; my friends and I embraced Bobcat Goldthwaite. From an objective point of view, that’s an unequal substitution, but we, as pre-teens in the late 80’s embraced Bobcat Goldthwaite because we loved him in Police Academy. Maybe we just connected on a level beyond words, like the apes and the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
(I never thought when I woke up this morning that I’d write about the healing properties of Hot to Trot, but I’ll accept your gesture of continued readership as indication that you too have accepted the healing properties of Hot to Trot, at least temporarily or in theory.)
 It would cost you roughly $200 in 2020 dollars to own your very own copy of Return of the Jedi in 1986, which some fans would deem acceptable now that George Lucas has locked away the original cuts of these films where no one will ever find them.
 We now take this for granted and have slowly ceded our control back to the studios by eliminating the “clutter” of home video and opting instead for subscriptions to streaming services. Convenient and clutter-free, the streaming services have given studios the ability to take back their movie libraries, bury them behind paywalls and slyly undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Paramount. In that 1948 case, the Court found that the studios had violated anti-trust laws by controlling the production, distribution and exhibition of their movies.