By day, I sling words. Come the night, I work in a video store.
Now — before you start wondering, “what is this ancient sounding shop he’s speaking of?” let me explain to those of you who were born post 1996 what exactly a video store is. A video store used to be a place where film nerds (and Normals looking for a way to spice up a Friday or Saturday night at home) would go to try and rent these black, rectangular boxes known as VHS tapes. Inside of these now antiquated hunks of plastic was magnetic strip, onto which a film (be it horror, comedy, drama or just plain ol’ spank-bank porno) was transferred. To give you a better idea, here’s a picture of one of these quickly disappearing relics:
Not too enticing, right? So to spice up the deal, distributors (many of which specialized in niche, genre films) would package them in boxes that looked like this:
Holy shit, right? Just imagine your fourteen-year-old self perusing racks and racks in this popcorn and piss smelling storefront and coming across this Mona Lisa of masturbatory serial-killer wiles. If you’re a well-adjusted Normal and not some kind of demented, pot-smoking, pimple-faced Mutant, you’d probably pass right by, headed directly for that giant clamshell Animal House case for the twentieth time. But if you’re anything like me, you stopped and stared, jaw agape in awe as you wonder “just what in the Holy Christ is THAT?”
Unfortunately, outside of a few mom & pop operations that exist in certain sections of the country (Seattle’s Scarecrow Video and Austin’s Vulcan Video being the absolute best), these mind-warping houses of horror no longer exist. At first, massive chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came along (as corporate entities tend to do) and stomped the proverbial “little guys” into the ground. My personal childhood haunt, West Coast Video, went out of business six months after one of these big studio warehouses came to town, shilling fifty copies of Titanic at a time. Then came Netflix and Redbox, providing convenience and enabling laziness in the most of casual of film fans, rendering even the big box rental chains obsolete (as of this writing, nearly every Blockbuster store in the US has closed down).
So what happened to all of those rectangular black boxes? Even before rental shops were run out of town by gas station kiosks and web browsing, advancements in home video technology rendered the VHS tape an outdated media form. DVD and blu-ray came in subsequent order, clearing the racks of these bulky boxes until they were seemingly gone forever. But the truth is, thousands upon thousands of these relics had to end up somewhere and that somewhere is flea markets and thrift stores; the same two places in which you can find a VCR to play these magical containers of lurid insanity. And the price you’re more than likely to pay for this entertainment center time machine? A whopping $5.
That’s right — five bucks gains you access to an entire library of movies that have never made the jump to DVD and blu-ray. Unfortunately, as with all shifts in technology, not every film is prioritized and many are left behind. Though you may have friends who come over and inquire as to just what the Hell kind of machine you’ve got sitting atop your Playstation 3 (or 4, if you’re somehow made of gold), the answer is simple: you have a preservation box. By investing less than what it would cost for a Value Meal at McDonald’s, you can become a film preservationist. You don’t need a projector and a basement full of film prints (though I could seriously spend an entire article going on about why you should buy those as well), just the gumption and desire for discovery that you had as that fourteen-year-old kid, ready to take a chance on the strangest, most perverted looking cover you could find. So much of being a “nerd” is based on collecting things, only in this case, you’re not just building a library for your own personal enjoyment; you’re also helping to save movies from being lost forever. As pretentious as this sounds — that’s important. You’re saving pieces of art from being forgotten simply because some suit in a cushy corner office decided “well I just don’t see that title selling well, so let’s leave it behind.”
To help kickstart your new tape-hunting obsession (and trust me, once you start, you CANNOT stop), here are five suggestions that (unfortunately) have never made the jump from the dusty, bottom racks to your pristine, action-figure lined DVD shelves:
Night Warning (a/k/a Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker)  (d. William Asher, Stars: Susan Tyrell, Bo Svenson, Jimmy McNichol)
One of the undoubtedly genius lost gems of the early ’80s slasher boom, Night Warning is a psychosexual mind warp that pits Bo “Walking Tall” Svenson as a homophobic, small town detective (drink every time he uses a slur and you won’t be able to walk 96 minutes later) against Susan Tyrell as a homicidal aunt fixated on her own nephew (Jimmy McNichol). As much as I worship at the altar of the hunky Southern flesh suit that is Svenson, Tyrell is the real story here, becoming so unhinged by the film’s final act that you wonder (much like Isabelle Adjani in Zulawski’s Posession ) if you’re actually witnessing a full-blown nervous breakdown being captured on tape. Tense as all hell, Night Warning is a deep fried potboiler that deserves not only to be re-discovered by tape collectors, but really should be cleaned up and reintroduced to the world at large via a special edition blu-ray release (you hear me, Scream Factory?).
The Park Is Mine  (d. Steven Hilliard Stern, Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Helen Shaver, Yaphet Kotto)
It’s easy to forget how utterly badass Tommy Lee Jones was when he was younger. But between The Park is Mine and John Flynn’s seminal classic Rolling Thunder , anybody can prepare themselves a quick double-feature refresher, in which Jones plays a disgruntled Vietnam Vet in both films. Only instead of playing second fiddle to a hook-handed Billy Devane, Jones is front and center in The Park Is Mine, fighting for his right to be treated honorably after serving his country by taking the entirety of Central Park hostage. This rollicking bit of Canuxploitation won’t fool anyone who’s ever been to New York into thinking they actually shot the film on location (it was produced in Ontario after all), but that doesn’t stop The Park Is Mine from being one hell of a low-budget action thriller.
Patti Rocks  (d. David Burton Morrris, Stars: Chris Mulkey, John Jenkins, Karen Landry)
Somewhat ironically, the most serious movie on this list also happens to call itself a “comedy” (a “serious comedy”, according to the tagline). Before some talentless windbag from New Jersey attempted to claim he “reinvigorated” the talkie indie dramedy, David Burton Morris and his acting buddies made this stunning sequel to their undistributed 1974 comedy, Loose Ends. The tale of two pals (Chris Mulkey & John Jenkins) who take a roadtrip in order to convince one of their mistresses (Karen Jenkins) to have an abortion, what starts as a crude examination of “how men talk behind closed doors” quickly turns into a brutal exposé on masculine weakness. Slapped with an “X” rating for language upon its initial release, Patti Rocks is one of the most painfully honest motion pictures ever made, containing two of the best performances (from both Mulkey and Jenkins) to ever grace the big or small screen.
Heavenly Bodies  (d. Lawrence Dane, Stars: Cynthia Dale & a Bunch of Other Neon-Clad Aerobics Instructors)
If you’re going to venture into a thrift store and buy a piece of antiquated technology, you might as well throw an ironic ditty into your shopping cart as well. Heavenly Bodies is the You Got Served of ’80s “Dance-Ercize” movies (a genre in which I’m fairly certain it’s the only entry). As goofy as the cover promises, Cynthia Dale leads a legion of pissed off Aerobics instructors from a mom & pop fitness institution against their newly arrived rich rivals. It’s a totally formula “snobs vs. slobs” affair that climaxes in an “Aerobics Off” for town supremacy, sweaty and (presumably) stinky, but still kind of sexy if you’re into that time period. Invite the hipster down the block who only listens to “early” Pavement and crack a few PBRs with this little doozy.
Raw Force (a/k/a Kung-Fu Cannibals)  (d. Edward D. Murphy, Stars: Cameron Mitchell, John Dresden, The Fury of God Himself)
One of the silliest kung-fu spectacles anyone is likely to see, Raw Force is a Filipino slice of pure insanity. Chock of full of martial arts, cannibals, zombies, and even a coke-fueled boat party in which a weirdo-beardo breaks an ice block with his head, it’s damn near impossible to categorize the movie into one genre. This is exploitation of the most outrageous sort, never once taking a breath or even giving human decency a second thought. Unlike Miami Connection , which is fueled by sheer sincerity, Raw Force feels like a movie made by a group of drug-ingesting deviants who educated themselves solely with Bruce Lee knock-offs. Add this movie to your collection and use it as a sort of litmus test for friendship, because anybody who dislikes it is highly suspect.
There are some who would say that these movies should be lost forever; that the reason they haven’t made the format jump is because they’re simply not good enough to stand the test of time. These people are idiots. Each and every movie is the product of a team who put their sweat, blood and tears into making a piece of art, regardless of whether or not you deem it worthy. By helping to preserve these would-be lost relics, you’re not only saving a movie, but also the fingerprint that these hardworking folks hoped to leave on the world long after they’re gone. So stop staring at that massive wall of blu-rays that you’ll never deem “complete”, hop into your car and buy a damn VCR! This $5 purchase will ignite a new fire inside of any collector, guaranteed to drive you to seek out even more diamonds in the black plastic rough.
For more info on VHS collecting and film preservation, I highly recommend the recent documentary Rewind This!