Categories
31 Days of Horror Cinema

Hooptober / 31 Days of Horror 2021

Prior Hooptober/31 Days of Horror Lists on Letterboxd.com: 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 

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 An American 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)

***FOR THOSE THAT LIKE TO DO EXTRA WORK: WATCH JD’s Revenge, The Skull and The Scooby Doo Project

30Hz/CINEMA SHAME 31 DAYS OF HORROR 2021 ROSTER

Prior #31DaysOfHorror Shame-a-thons: 2013 | 2014 | 2015 Part 1 | 2015 Part 2 | 2016 | 2017 | 20182019

*rewatch

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)

MY UP-TO-DATE HOOPTOBER ROSTER ON LETTERBOXD

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.

Categories
Best Of Music

Best Songs of 2020

A little late to the Best Songs of 2020 party is fashionable. You’re tired of all the rest, now it’s time to read, well, just another list.

This is my yearly countdown of the best songs (as dictated by me, of course) from the past year. It’s already January 13th, which means that most of you sonic go-getters have already moved on to anticipating the fruits of 2021. I’ve been operating at a different pace for damn well near a year now (because 2020) so 13 days late just feels… right.

First, I’ll present my standard disclaimers. I’m just one listener. I read blogs and share picks and discuss new finds with my partner in listing, B-Sides Narrative aka Michael Smith (@BSidesNarrative on the Twatter); but I’m still just one pair of ears and one set of limiting and finicky preferences. A year ago I would have been paid for making observations such as these (believe it or not people paid me to hear my thoughts on music) so you’re getting unfiltered, unadulterated 30Hz for the cost of free. As David Byrne said on Remain In Light, “same as it ever was.” I’ve been giving these notes away for free for more than a decade. (Speaking of David Byrne, you should absolutely watch American Utopia now streaming on HBO Max because it’s a document of one of the greatest live concerts I’ve ever seen. Plus, it’s a Spike Lee joint, which makes it even more mind-blowing as an intersection of two brilliant but face-value mismatched creative minds. Like the positive side of crossing the streams.)

If nothing else, 2020 gave us reason to crave escape — be it through movies or music. I found many many many hours of solace in Bill Evans (this will come as no surprise to anyone in my family) — namely the albums Undercurrents and Moonbeams. I even found my 11yo daughter reading in her room listening to Bill Evans because “it was the only chill music that I could think of.” That’s called top of mind awareness. It’s also called molding young minds. As a result of this new listening trajectory, the kinds of music I consumed shifted. The frequency with which I sought out new and obscure music changed as well. Once the music magazine for which I was writing folded in April of 2020, my priorities shifted from “discovery mode” to “maintenance mode.” What’s next became what’s great and familiar. Oddly, I’m not sure that I heard more new music, but I heard and found many more different kinds of music. I dabbled in more contemporary jazz artists, world music and experimental. I can’t claim that too much of it is represented in my Best of 2020 Songs list, but it informed and broadened my palette for adventure. Instead you’ll find a similar assortment of electro-dream-pop and pulsing disco beats alongside the side dishes of alt-country and distressed bedroom singer-songwriters.

Keep digging through those crates. Keep searching for more music. Those unique voices and heartfelt pleas for change and hope and the sorrow of loss and life. Music, more than ever, needs to help guide us through the quagmire… and maybe some of these songs will help.

Spotify Playlist (Top 124):

30Hz Top 25 Best Songs of 2020:

“Say the Name” – clipping.

A call to words and/or arms. A protest song. Experimental, alt-rap from Daveed Diggs, aka Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. This is the flowiest absence of flow you’ve ever heard. The cadence and language rattles in your brain, a train of the future forever arriving from the distance, just beyond sight.

“Blue Comanche” – Westerman

Smooth, buttery sonic landscapes fronted by hushed, high-pitched and hopeful vocals. My year-long tally of “hits” that struck a chord featured five songs from Westerman — the most of any other artist in 2020. This is the music that soothed savage souls.

“god’s chariots” – Oklou

I first heard Oklou on a long, late-night drive. Everyone else in the car had fallen asleep and the highway stretched out infinitely into the future. No cars, no sights other than the concrete under my headlights. Ethereal vocals and hookish electronic beats soundtracked the moment better than anything I could have chosen. The electronic artist of my year.

“Lilacs” – Waxahatchee

This could have been four other Waxahatchee songs from their latest LP, Saint Cloud. It doesn’t matter. Put them all here. I spread a few out over my 100+ countdown but Waxahatchee is a mood. Not quite country, not quite folk, not exactly alt. Katie Crutchfield’s voice speaks to everyone through its familiarity, relatability, sturdy during swells and fragile when it all falls apart.

“Lovers (Home Made)” – Anna of the North

A singer can manufacture emotion through nothing more than precise control of their vocal accentuations. The tenuous connections between syllables bears great responsibility. This one tears tears me the fuck up because the Oslo-based Anna Lotterud allows breath between perfectly chosen syllables, the breakdown of the artist, the deconstruction of the artistic creation. You’ll melt before she finally utters that “k” in “dark” during the very first verse.

“Live 4eva” – Magdalena Bay

I wrote about the promising home-brewed electro-pop upstarts Magdalena Bay for the now defunct music magazine Music Meet Fans. I’d link the article, but it’s been obliterated by the cruel mistress called failure. Mag Bay (Mica and Matthew) creates whip-smart little confections that take your face, kiss you full on the lips and leave you wanting more, more, more. Beats, relentless pluck and a deft musicality.

“Forever” – Nicole Atkins

Don’t you dare try to pin down Nicole Atkins with one of those reductionist music-industry labels. She’s Joni Mitchell Roy Orbison Steve Nicks Otis Redding Jefferson Starship. She’s a psychedelic soul singer songwriter. She’s a goddess. “Forever” lifted me up whenever it shuffled to the top. It’s not a song I would have necessarily chosen from an objective perspective, but it refused to not make me happy and that there’s a return on investment.

“4ÆM” – Grimes

Grimes channels Tibetan monks, block rockin’ beats, flight of the bumblebee and Martian dream logic. Just another Tuesday.

“JU$T” – Run the Jewels, featuring Zack de la Rocha, Pharrell Williams

I listened to a lot of garbage rap music in 2020 in search of the this spark that people claim is happening. It’s not for me. If you’re still telling me that Drake can rap, I’m turning down your volume. What’s that? I can’t hear that kind of stupid. I came of age when beats and rhymes (and samples) reigned supreme. What we hear today might be called progress, but apparently I’m a purist and that kind of progress sucks. El-P and Killer Mike have taken up the torch and this time they’ve got a bone to pick. No rap artist has produced more consistent greatness in the 21st century.

“Dionne” – The Japanese House, featuring Justin Vernon

The Japanese House channels Frou Frou. Remember Frou Frou? Hell yes you do. (Just say you do. Humor me.) Justin Vernon adds lo-fi soul like frosted tips. It might be possible to craft a song more perfectly aimed at unlocking my heart locker, but it would require an appearance from CHVRCHES.

“Paper Cup” – Real Estate, featuring Sylvan Esso

Lounging in a tepid pool, the morning after… pondering the limits of your own potential and holding a fruity cocktail in a Soho cup. You’re depressed that you’re right here at this moment, but you wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“Murder Most Foul” – Bob Dylan

I’m no Dylan acolyte, but this meditation on what we lost after the Kennedy assassination is Bob Dylan’s Iliad and his Odyssey.

“Spotlight” – Jessie Ware

Remember that troubling disco thread I mentioned in my list this year? This is just the blissful tip of the iceberg. Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? LP will make you question why the sounds of the 70’s ever disappeared. I’m even hearing some traces of Bill Conti’s score for For Your Eyes Only. I’m clearly deranged.

“Dying to Believe” – The Beths

New Zealand rrriot girls blister and burn through hooks and sass. Great guitar-driving rock was a rare sound in 2020, but this would have been a damn fine record in any year. This cut stayed with me from the start, meaning it was just as good with COVID as it was without. There’s something to be said for that kind of versatility.

“The Steps” – Haim

Haim’s new record found the band emerging from the long shadow of their ancestors and finding their own voice and creative vibe. Este’s new confidence in her vocal range, the merging of genres, the shifting tempo, a memorable hook. I’m a Haim junkie and I don’t care who knows it.

“Guilty Conscience” – 070 Shake

Danielle Balbuena calls herself an alternative hip-hop artist. This song doesn’t speak to that, but it does suggest that we have no clue how big this Jersey-born talent could get. No genre can hold her. Big voice, musicality, experimentalism. No reservations. If you find yourself swaying for no earthly reason you might be hearing the background synths to “Guilty Conscience” in the back of your brain.

“Cool for a Second” – Yumi Zouma and Japanese Wallpaper

Two of my favorite electro-pop/dream-pop artists unite and it’s like this song always existed, somewhere out in the cosmos, an ethereal tone above our comprehension. These two artists just turned the right frequency. If you’re just learning about Yumi Zouma or Japanese Wallpaper you’ve got listening to do. Prepare to be content beyond belief.

“Ferris Wheel” – Sylvan Esso

This duo just has an indefinable swagger. It’s a good song… and then there’s that call and response “hey” thing and that’s the earworm of the year. That one second. To which I can only surrender.

“So We Won’t Forget” – Khruangbin

Other than a certain buzzy lady named Phoebe, Khruangbin released the record of my year. This Houston trio could be spouting gibberish poems over these slick grooves and I wouldn’t care. Kitchen cleaner ads. Whatever you want, guys. These mellow vibes cut through the imprecise nature of language. I have no idea what any of these songs are about. Who cares? A fast ride on a plodding mule into the sunset — that’s the Khruangbin tempo.

“My God” – The Killers, featuring Weyes Blood

Brandon Flowers brought the Killers back from the dead with a new lineup, new guest vocalists (kd lang?!) and a new lease on life. I included “Caution” on last year’s list and Weyes Blood is also no stranger to my countdowns, having won the top album spot in two different years. This one wound up at #6 because this here’s a pair of artists I never knew I wanted together. If you’re still resisting the grotesque and garish beauty of this new album from the Killers, I don’t think I want your kind of juju tarnishing these vibes.

“Stay” – Valerie June

Tennessee soul artist teases further greatness with a one-off song release. See this girl live if you can, if concerts ever reconvene because she’s a force of nature, the anomalous intersection of New York soul and Tennessee folk music. She’s inimitable — a perfect distillation of the self through a singular sound.

“Blinding Lights” – The Weeknd

Not much to say about The Weeknd that hasn’t already been said. I slept on this record and this song for months, but I’m glad I came back and gave it another chance. While I might not vibe with the album as much as his past efforts, it’s not for a lack of imagination. This guy’s a supernova and we’re just trying not to get burnt by the flames. It’s the synth that gets me, if I’m being honest.

“Breathe Deeper” – Tame Impala

Oh yeah. Tame Impala — how interesting. You would put Tame Impala on your list. Yeah. I would. Damn straight. Because while I’ve been a longtime fan, this album bangs by proxy. And “bangs by proxy” isn’t even the dumbest, most meaningless thing I wrote today. This is why I can’t write about music for more than an hour per day because things like that start making sense.

tie. “Too Late” – Washed Out
tie. “4 American Dollars” – U.S. Girls

Okay, so confession. #2 is a tie because I miscounted and started my list at #26 instead of #25, but why waste mindless prose when you can just call #2 a tie and make everybody but Travis happy because they got left out at #27 and goddammit those Scots deserve to be happy, too. But I can justify this pairing as well. I flip-flopped these two songs back and forth until finally calling it a day and sealing the envelope. I sing both of these in the shower. I own both on vinyl and they’re both not my #1. So much in common. In any other non-Phoebe Bridgers, non CHVRCHES year they could have been #1. Both also exist on the same mid-tempo wavelength that channels A.M. radio and platinum artists of the 70’s. I’ve said nothing about either artist, but you’ve learned dark secrets about my listing convictions and that’s more than enough truth for one day.

“ICU” – Phoebe Bridgers

It was always ever going to be Phoebe Bridgers. Los Angeles’ favorite daughter dictated the moods of everyone she touched this year. It should come as no surprise that Punisher dominated my personal airwaves. When I first heard a Phoebe Bridgers song years ago, I championed this artist because she had something that others didn’t — her own thing, her personal pizzaz, in a sea of imitators. We’ve witnessed her potential grow in a few short years, but I’m convinced there’s still room for more. When Phoebe breaks down “ICU” just beyond the 2-minute mark, it’s easy to consider the song finished… a good, but then — HOLY MOSES! — it rises to a new crescendo, a transcendence above the other great songs on Punisher. The surge of bass and the layering of her vocals channels what I believe to be the purest form of spiritual enlightenment we mortals can achieve.

PREVIOUS “BEST OF” SONG LISTS:

2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011

Footnote 2020 Playlists:

The full “Hits” List, basically the sandbox for every song that tickled my fancy during 2020.

2020 Covers, just a compilation of all the fetching covers I enjoyed.

Categories
Cinema Summer of 1989

The Last Greatest Hollywood Summer: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

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

die hard on a vhs

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[1], 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[2] 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[3], 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[4].

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.

vhs sales jan 7 1989

 

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[5], 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.)

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[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/12/business/innovations-spur-boom-in-vcr-sales.html

[4] ‘Marketing ‘Top Gun’ Cassette by Aljean Harmetz Jan 15, 1987

[5] In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the heart stealing Mola Ram made his subjects drink blood from a skull in order to enslave their mind. The highlighter parallel could not be clearer.