A week or so ago I was on the toilet reading an interview with Ti West in Filmmaker Magazine – the toilet is where I do all of my significant magazine reading, and I suspect I’m not alone in this – and was surprised to discover a filmmaker I’d never heard of on the cover of a magazine I had heard of. Feeling myself to be something of a movie connoisseur and like I’m generally plugged in to what’s happening in cinema, I was amazed how I’d overlooked this particular director, given his relative level of success, and also quite a bit shocked.
That I didn’t know who he was, though, is somewhat beside the point I want to make. My point revolves around some discussion in the interview of one of West’s earlier films, The House of the Devil, which intrigued me to the extent that I wanted to see it. Unfortunately, my local video store is basically a hollow shell of what it once was, and perusing the contents of the Redbox online, I could see there was no copy of this film for rent anywhere within the boxes within fifty miles of my house – not that I’d ever go that far to rent it – so I was basically sitting on a thirst for a film that my rental options could not quench.
The only obvious solution to this dilemma, then, was to rush off to my computer, hop onto Alibris, and wait the customary 3 to 15 days for a reasonably inexpensive used copy of the film to arrive on my doorstep. (In the interest of complete honesty, my mail-lady does not drop our mail on the doorstep, but actually puts it in our mailbox).
When the disc arrived and I finally had it in my hot little hands, something occurred to me that I’d never really considered before about the internet but which had obviously been true for longer than I’d cared to notice it. That is, for movie fans, and even for readers and music lovers and people who like just about anything, anywhere, the internet is the great equalizer. No more are we to be reliant on the spotty offerings at our local theaters, bookstore, records store or video stores. No more were we held captive by people who decided what we liked for us. No, because we had the internet now we had the power to control our own destiny and to have everything we wanted, with little effort, no matter what some faceless little dweeb thought about it.
Obviously, this freedom was a relatively new phenomenon.
It was in my teen years that I came to really enjoy movies, although ‘enjoy’ seems like a too-mild word to use. No, in my teen years I came to the point of near-obsession for movies, watching them pretty well any chance I could. This being the late 80s, cinema was basically a wasteland, which didn’t bother me all that much because as a 13 year-old I was little interested in mainstream films or anything that smacked of art – I mean, I saw Tim Burton’s version of Batman and basically couldn’t have cared less and, no surprise, I still could care less. No, what I was interested in, and what I suspect most 13 year-old boys were interested in, were boobs and blood. Because I was too young to rent outright porn, I turned my attentions to horror films because they usually brought plenty of blood and promised the occasional boob.
Anyway, to satisfy my obsession I would spend many an hour at my local video store on Allegan Street, a little mom and pop place in the corner of an old Main Street USA-type building, where they pretended not to be overly-concerned I was probably too young to be renting R rated films, as long as I had money. (There’s a little lesson in there, folks, that in this world, with the right amount of money you can do anything). Anything, it’s fitting that my favorite haunt at my favorite store – pun intended – was the horror section.
In my memory the horror section of the store was roughly two shelf units, front and back, that reached just over five feet tall. As best I recall there were five or six shelves on each side of the unit and, assuming there were six videos per shelf, the math suggests there were in the neighborhood of 150 horror films on these shelves – doing the math makes me think my memory is faulty, because I definitely do not remember that many movies, but I wasn’t standing around the store counting them, I was standing around looking for one to take home, so maybe there were that many.
As can be expected, the section was replete with all the great series of the day. They had all seven or eight of the Friday the 13th films (no boobs there that I remember), the three or four Nightmare on Elm Street films (ditto on the boobs), and the five or so Halloweens (the only boobs I recall there were from P.J. Soles, who I really wasn’t into, even naked). There were also the late, great, mainstream classics, like The Exorcist – which still gets inside my head to this day – The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, all of which offered plenty of horror but were also short on boobs, unless you count seeing super-flat-chested Mia Farrow naked as having seen boobs. And I don’t.
Anyway, filling out the shelves between the series-films and the mainstream classics were the current biggies of the day, including Child’s Play and Hellraiser, and a couple of the more notorious films out there, like I Spit On Your Grave and The Last House on the Left. While I was adventurous enough to rent I Spit On Your Grave – that it was about rape held the promise of nudity, which in hindsight seems a disturbing reason to have rented the movie in the first place – the lurid feel to the clips I’d seen from Last House on The Left included in the This Is Horror series I saw on MTV when I was a kid scared me off that film: it seemed almost documentary-like, and while I was into simulated violence, real violence was a problem, which is why I also shied away from the Faces of Death series.
Given the lack of shelf space allotted to non-mainstream films, it’s a wonder I Spit On Your Grave and Last House on the Left made the cut – pun intended – but there they were, probably because they were simply too notorious and controversial not to have. Although, if controversy was the reason those movies made the shelves, I wonder why a film like Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t included as well.
Anyhow, no matter how or why they were there, it’s safe to say that under no circumstances would a film like House of the Devil have been stocked. It was simply too-low-budget, and too-low-grossing, and not-controversial-enough to make the grade.
What’s interesting is just how the budding small town cineaste of the 80s was held captive and exposed only to what could be seen on cable or rented in a rinky-dink video store. Without anything resembling an art theater in my hometown – or a theater at all – my exposure to the greater film-world was limited by the snobbery and close-mindedness of the provincial little thug who controlled the video store and is why my knowledge of soft-core porn was far more advanced at the time than my knowledge of independent cinema – thank you Cinemax.
Things improved later, of course, when I moved in with my other, less-neglectful parent in a much larger town – by contrast, the small town had approximately 4,500 residents, the larger town had 77,000 – and I wound up frequenting video stores that catered to the pretensions of the university students kicking around town. This meant that while gems such as The Wicker Man – the 1973 version – were available to me, it was shelved with the horror films, where it really had no business being; and also meant the Video Nasties, or borderline nasties, of Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave were barred for being too-regressive and nowhere to be found – it’s somewhat interesting to think of how those films were culturally acceptable in the little town but not the larger. It also meant that even though there was a cult section it was limited to the mainstream cult films of Eraserhead, Bad Taste, Polyester and a copy of Nadja that was perpetually checked out. In other words, while some things changed, they remained exactly the same and even as my horizon’s could be broadened, they were still limited by some controlling-lackey.
Of course, with the internet, everything changed.
Between Netflix and the Redbox, brick and mortar video stores have largely been deprived of stable footing and the bloated monsters that once ruled the land have quickly faded away – the half-dozen or so Hollywood Videos where I live are all gone now, and at least one of the Blockbusters is having a going out of business sale at this moment. I’ve been tempted to go in and pick over the carcass a little bit, just to rub salt in the wound, but I have a feeling that Blockbuster and I long ago when separate ways in terms of the movies we enjoy and it would be a pointless exercise. (As as aside, I did eventually go in and picked up a nice copy of Storytelling, so maybe we weren’t that far apart).
Given the fact that streaming movies on demand has finally come into full vogue, I suspect it won’t be too long before the rest of the video stores in town will also succumb, leaving maybe one or two to survive by providing services to dinosaurs, i.e. stubborn luddites, who like stores and are not interested in internet sites or red boxes. That is the free market for you: change or die.
Don’t misunderstand, I don’t weep for video stores. When I was in law school – can you believe it, I’m a lawyer – I rented from a particular one all the time, because it was comforting, it was convenient, and because they let you have the movie for five days for a minimal charge which meant I could find time to watch a movie in pieces over three or four days, instead of trying to find two entire hours to devote to it in one night. After law school, though, when Redbox started edging in on the new release business, I tried to maintain contact with the video store, simply for the access it provided to catalog titles, at least until it started to expand the cyber-café portion of the building, put in tanning beds, and opened a print cartridge refill services counter, all of which cleared out otherwise valuable shelf-space. On the downside, the cult and obscure movies disappeared and I stopped going to the video store. On the upside, in the feeding frenzy I managed to pick up the complete Fawlty Towers for a song.
With the death of the video store I was forced to rely on the internet to provide me the films I was interested in – at least those that didn’t play at my local multiplex. That process had already begun, in fits and starts, when Best Buy started paring away their movie and CD sections – if one really wanted to judge the impact of the digital revolution, consider how large the same sections at Best Buy were just five years ago, and just how costly a CD used to be – but video store failure made the process complete.
Now, instead of popping into a video store, hoping the more obscure titles I’d been waiting on would appear, I’d simply go the internet, searching out sites where I could find a used copy for nearly the same price as I had previously paid in rental fees. Yes, this meant I’d have to deal with the fact that I couldn’t have my desires instantly gratified, but I’m in my 30s and have learned to be patient. And yes, it also meant I might get stuck with a couple of dogs now and then – I bought the movie Midnight after reading John Russo’s how-to book on filmmaking and found the movie pretty terrible – but even when a dog shows up I don’t feel too put out by it because I never spend a fortune on them anyway and it wasn’t much different in price from renting a failed movie and returning it unwatched. At least this way I’d have something I could see to try and recoup my investment, something I couldn’t do with a rental – my monetary investment anyway, because I would never get back my time.
Despite some inefficiencies in the way I consume movies, for a person like me, increasingly plugged in to the greater movie scene – notwithstanding the fact that The House of the Devil snuck by me – the internet has truly been the great equalizer. Before, I was completely dependent on video stores, movie stores, etc., to make movies available to me and unless they were the first run films in the first run theaters, or they’d somehow been an art house hit in other, larger metropolitan areas, I could forget seeing it. Now, though, whatever I want is out there for the taking. All I have to do is reach out and grab it.
So, when I wanted to see Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, the video store failed me, because nobody had it in stock, for various reasons. Turning to the internet, though, I could easily find it in a Korean import version. (As an aside, why is it that my Korean import has all pubic hair edited from the film but doesn’t mind leaving in the more gruesome violence?). When I wanted to revisit my past with a copy of Young Lady Chatterley II, one of those soft-core gems from Cinemax – always Cinemax – it would come, pun intended. When I wanted anything, from lesser known Bergman films (The Magician) to Herzog’s earlier, better films (Nosferatu) they were all there. Everything was in reach, easily and affordable. Consider, for a moment, Herzog. When I first got interested in seeing Fitzcarraldo I couldn’t go to the video store because they didn’t have it. This meant my only option was perusing Ebay, hoping the 20 year old pan and scan VHS copy being shilled for $50 might come down in price, because there was no way I was paying that much for a movie on VHS, sight unseen. But as soon as Anchor Bay got a hold of his catalog I could have it, in widescreen, subtitled, with both English and German soundtracks and a wonderful commentary by Herzog and his brother, Lucki, for a mere pittance. Did I get it at my local Best Buy? No, I got it on Amazon. (Another aside: I can’t think of anybody who has benefited more from the advent of the internet that Herzog, who became relevant all over again by the access it gave people to DVD’s of his films).
Anyway, so in the grand scheme of things, it’s obvious the internet has been an agent for good, smoothing out the varying tastes that we would otherwise have been subjected to twenty years ago. In essence, it removed the local tastemakers, and made everything available. This means that when I’m sitting on the toilet doing some heavy reading, and I find my interest piqued in Ti West’s The House of the Devil, I only need ask the internet to provide and so it does.
Wonderfully, what the internet provided proved to be a little gem. No, The House of the Devil is not the over-the-top type of horror film that’s so in vogue today, made by men who believe gore is the same as horror. And no, it’s true that not a lot happens in the film, but this I don’t think is a bad thing, because not a lot happens in Rosemary’s Baby either. What it does have is that same type of screw-tightening tension that was far more prevalent 40 years ago that believed the key to a good scare was withholding it from you and simply letting your anticipation for it make it all the more potent. And so even though I’m in my 30s, I don’t mind saying the film got under my skin, because all I care about is that whatever it was doing, it clearly worked.
Incidentally, I also picked up his film The Roost on DVD and aside from the weird bookends to the film starring Tom Noonan, who I like, I thought that film was just as effective as The House of the Devil, forgiving, of course, the cheesy special effects of the bats.
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