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Tales from the Video Store: First Impressions

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Welcome to TALES FROM THE VIDEO STORE, where FANGORIA unspools their experiences in the eerie age of VHS. We’ll traverse our memories as if they were shelves filled with video insanity, and we invite you to join us in revisiting analog nightmares…

There’s a certain envy I have for the two generations directly before mine and how they were able to experience horror cinema. By the time I could see R-rated horror fare in the theaters by myself, the only direct comparison to the big screen horror franchises of the ’80s was the SAW films, which had become low budget horror events before eventually petering out in convoluted self-importance. I’ll never have the opportunity to watch Freddy, Jason, Chucky or Michael evolve over the years from film to film on the big screen in the same way that those before me had.

At the same time, I don’t think I would ever trade in my first experiences with these horror icons either, considering just how odd and, to a degree, hilarious those impressions may have been on a young moviegoer. In a strange way, these experiences were defined just as much by the cable hatchet-jobs on these films as much as they were by the video store themselves; perhaps even more so. Without the video store however, the coincidence of it all would serve as completely inconsequential and there’s a chance I’d be a different kind of horror fan altogether.

It all began as many, many horror movie experiences begin: at a cousin’s house. On that particular side of the family, there had been three cousins, with the youngest being closest to my age. As we all grew up together in such a sporadic fashion, we both informed one another’s tastes as such and the gaps between visits would allow us to discover newer and crazier pieces of pop culture. In this way, we introduced one another to so many rock bands, horror movies and comic books that it almost became a competition at points.

It was on a night in which my parents were at a concert that my cousin and I discovered our first FRIDAY THE 13TH film: a cable edit of PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. And while the film is much-maligned among Jason fans (although, in this writer’s mind, unjustly so), our young fascinations synced up with it on two levels. The first being the horrific aspects of the film: we’d finally seen what the big deal was about this undead and seemingly unstoppable psychopath even if he wasn’t traditionally scary. The second level, however, was how funny we found it all. My cousin and I were laughing at how truly over-the-top the kills were and the next day at school, I remember telling my friends about how proud I was to have finally faced a FRIDAY THE 13TH film and laughed rather than screamed.

Fueled by false bravado, I sought out the iconic slashers one-by-one on VHS, convinced that if I could handle Jason, I could certainly handle the rest. At the next trip to the video store, which was likely a weekend tradition at this point, I ran to the horror section, ready and willing to take on Freddy Krueger.

To my dismay, almost none of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films were in stock at the lowly yet endearing Merchant Square Video…  except one. My eyes lit up as I hurriedly grabbed the last copy and looked at the cover. It almost felt like destiny that I would be discovering A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET for the first time… with FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE.

Thanks to my experience with a gore-less JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, convincing my parents to let me rent FREDDY’S DEAD was surprisingly easy. And with a title like FREDDY’S DEAD, I was secretly hoping to be scared in a way that would live up to the hype that my older cousins dished out in hushed tones. So as soon as I got home, I popped open FREDDY’S DEAD, shut off the lights and readied myself to what would surely be the scariest film I’d ever seen.

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Once again, I found myself laughing.

Freddy on a broomstick, dishing out one-liners? Freddy killing a kid in a video game with an oversized mallet? Was this really what my parents, the storeowners and the MPAA was trying to keep me from seeing my whole life? If anything, this experience was less scary than JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. My arrogance only skyrocketed.

That very same week at school, I was finally given a challenge: one of my friends had seen HALLOWEEN, and couldn’t stop talking about how scary it was. Suddenly, the bar was raised; after all, this was someone I’d trusted and someone I’d seen many horror movies with personally. If Michael Myers was scary enough to raise such a stink at school, I knew I had my next target.

Upon my trip to Merchant Square Video however, there were no HALLOWEEN titles to be found. For a moment, my master scheme to defy the Gods of horror was shattered. I needed to be sure, and made my way over to the cashier. After inquiring about HALLOWEEN, the cashier checked the rudimentary computer system and found out that, as luck would have it, there was one HALLOWEEN title that had been returned just 10 minutes prior. Thanks to the cashier’s general indifference to my age, as I couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 at the time, I went home with a freshly rewound copy of HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS.

And outside of one truly terrifying sequence involving a laundry chute, the pattern of continued. A telepathic serial killer wearing a William Shatner mask? Clunky and disappointing death sequences? The cheapest of cheap scares? Even as a child who could relate to the protagonist, HALLOWEEN 5 couldn’t deliver on the schoolyard chatter that infected my imagination for the whole week. At this point, I just assumed that all these iconic horror films were secretly comedies, and there had been a giant prank pulled by those from earlier generations.

Yet as I was returning HALLOWEEN 5, one VHS cover caught my eye in a real bad way: Tom Holland’s CHILD’S PLAY. I’d heard about the film, knowing it only as the “killer doll” movie by reputation. However, if all horror films were secretly comedies, CHILD’S PLAY would be the one to confirm it. So I grabbed CHILD’S PLAY on the way back to the entrance of the store, and with the indifferent cashier once again behind the register, I prepared myself to play with Chucky and prove everyone wrong once again.

Only this time, they weren’t wrong. Chucky didn’t make me laugh; he was brutal, terrifying and without remorse. CHILD’S PLAY scared the living daylights out of me, and the image of him asphyxiating someone with a plastic bag (the first time I’d ever seen such a thing) was exactly what my nightmares were made of. And the next week at school, I wasn’t laughing anymore, and my respect for horror had been all but renewed.

It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d see the original of each franchise on DVD, after I’d been hardened by years upon years of gory contemporary horror. Luckily, most of them lived up to their hype, although there were a select few that took a theatrical screening before I truly appreciated them. Had things been different, whether I visited Joe’s Video or the other Two Horsemen of the Videocalypse (which I’ll address in a later article) instead or if I’d left my cousin’s place only two hours earlier, I might have been too scared to challenge all the icons of horror in such a fashion.

In a way, I got most of the bad out of my system off the bat, and now, I’m able to look back at those experiences and laugh. Well… maybe not at CHILD’S PLAY. I’ll consider that a lesson learned.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley

Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.

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