Dismembering Mama Lost Boys, Grave Spit & Other Schlock By Don Takano. I’ll never forget my first experience at a video store. It remains odd, however, because the first time I rented VHS was at the local Jitney Jungle in my hometown of Columbia, Mississippi in 1986...
I’ll never forget my first experience at a video store. It remains odd, however, because the first time I rented VHS was at the local Jitney Jungle in my hometown of Columbia, Mississippi in 1986. Technically it wasn’t an actual video store; it was the corner of a grocery store that had a carpeted wall with VHS boxes taped with velcro on the back of them, stuck on said wall. I was five. I arrived with my mother and two older sisters. I rented The Muppets Take Manhattan, while they rented Silver Bullet, the Catfish League Stephen King adaptation about werewolves and Corey Haim having this totally badass wheelchair. I don’t really recall watching The Muppets; however I do barely recall Silver Bullet having an off-putting psychedelic scary scene at a church. Am I wrong? Possibly, but I’m not going to watch it again to find out.
From age five to seven, my mom would always take me to the video store once a week. I’d always rent one of the Star Wars films, or a Bugs Bunny movie that was actually a compilation of the best of the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes shorts (The Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Movie was my favorite). My Uncle Phil at this time also loaned us about 30 tapes of movies that he’d recorded off HBO. I remember watching National Lampoon‘s European Vacation and the Police Academy movies a lot, although as an adult I cannot recall anything from those movies.
My father died when I was seven years old. In a weird way, trips to the video store would fill the void left by his permanent absence. At this time, my oldest sister would always rent horror movies. Soon after my father died, I had already seen Friday the 13th 1-7, A Nightmare on Elm Streets 1-3, the Lamberto Bava metal-laden gorefest Demons, the metal-laden Halloween frightener Trick or Treat, and, oddly enough, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. My sister rented it because on the front of the box it said, "From the Creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street." I saw Last House at age six and it wasn’t until I re-watched it as a 28-year-old did I realize the gravity of the "Mother-giving-the-guy-a-blowjob-then-biting-his-dick-off" scene.
At this point, I merely watched horror because my older sisters would watch it. I was still obsessed with my Star Wars and my Ghostbusters and my Nintendo games. My fascination with horror began to take off as soon as my oldest sister rented The Lost Boys. At that time, I thought she was the coolest person I knew. She was really into Guns N’ Roses and Poison and at the time I thought those were cool bands. And here came the cinematic answer in my opinion to those cool bands, the stuff that was on heavy rotation on MTV in 1988. The Lost Boys was a teenage vampire movie that seemed to aim itself at the hair metal youth that I thought were the coolest people ever. For me, it made horror a really cool thing. Although it’s nowhere near my all-time favorite films, The Lost Boys was important in shaping who I would eventually become in terms of an inexplicable fascination with horror.
Back in 1988, neither IMDb nor FEARnet nor even books by Videohound or Joe Bob Briggs existed. This meant there were only two sources for any need of a horror fix: Fangoria magazine (which I read through a few times at the local supermarket, and then was passed over in favor of MAD magazine) and the horror section of the local video store. After my obsession with horror films began to grow, my mother was still taking me to the video store once a week. Prior to, I would never browse the horror titles; I’d head straight to the Nintendo games section or the cartoon videos section. But then I would eventually gravitate to the horror section. "Well, there’s Freddy and Jason," I would say to my seven-year-old self, "So who else is there?"
VHS in the 1980s, as you probably know by now, was a dependent resource for B-movies and drive-in cheapies of the late ’70s and early ’80s to make their limited funding back. And these cheapies showed up the most in the Horror section. Released by such famed ’80s VHS companies as Paragon, Vestron Video, New World Video, Embassy Home Entertainment, Thorn EMI video, Midnight Video, Wizard Video, Magnum Entertainment, Media, and the list goes on. There had to have been some success in recouping lost financing; films that no longer played in theatres or on TV found a second life in video stores. Consumers looking for a good scare on a quiet night would no doubt turn to such titles as Microwave Massacre or Blue Sunshine.
To me, browsing these titles and looking at the artwork was like MAD magazine. Back then, VHS horror artwork was creepy, violent, disturbing and, true to its genre, horrifying. I would always dare myself as a child to look at each and every VHS horror title, to study the artwork and see what scares they had to offer. Sure, nowadays VHS horror artwork from the 1980s is a fun, laughable reminder of how macabre and menacing distributors could get. With decapitated heads, bloody knifes, skulls with snakes and worms coming out of them, the artwork had zero boundaries for decent taste. I would never have the balls to rent these titles. I would stick to the typical Jason and Freddy fare, and only watch them with my older sisters.
When my mom started working late shifts, I was always home alone in my pre-adolescent years. Before going off to work, my mom would take me to the video store, G&S Rentals, in the heart of my hometown. I never rented horror movies: being home alone at dark and watching a scary movie at a young age would’ve had me die of fright. But even as I knew I’d never rent a scary movie, I’d always look at the VHS horror art. Many different box art selections would scare and disturb me, like the VHS cover of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie or an old title called Tourist Trap, with a woman’s plaster-cast mask as she holds a camera. But the one VHS horror box that would always not so much scare me as much as disturb me, was I Dismember Mama, the cover of which was a caricature of a man with a light beard and a cold, emotionless gaze as he brandishes a switchblade. What made this disturbing to my young mind was that he seemed like a real person. He was like that creepy guy who always hangs out at the liquor store or the cemetery late at night. He wasn’t a zombie, or a demon, or an evil spirit. He was a human being like you and me.
Eventually I became a teenager, and stopped having nightmares or anxiety about those classic VHS horror boxes, some big (like Wizard or Midnight) others standard-sized (Paragon and Vestron). I began to rent some titles, such as Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer and the infamous I Spit on Your Grave. I can vouch for Ferrera, he may not be everyone’s favorite director, but I’ve always appreciated his grit and fearlessness. I first heard about I Spit on Your Grave as a child watching The Today Show, as they did a feature on horror films that were considered disturbing. I was also friends with a guy in school who had seen it and always mentioned the scene where the girl castrates the man in the bathtub. I always remembered the cover, with the girl’s ripped clothing and toned, naked flesh, smeared with dirt and blood, back facing the consumer. When I finally watched it, I wasn’t at all scared as much as I was disturbed and disappointed. Yes, it’s a cheaply shot horror film with bad acting, and the rape sequence just drags. It’s one thing if a rape scene is brief or assumed, but this shit just drags, like fifteen minutes. And yes, she gets her revenge, but where was the payoff? Where was the satisfaction in all of this? I felt cheated by a film whose box art for years intrigued me.
I went to college for two years at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. These were rough years in my life as I found myself alienated and alone by a campus culture I did not fit in with. I would always drive around outside of the campus on Hardy Street. One day, I passed by a store called Video Village. I pulled in and entered, having no idea that this would be the greatest video store I had ever set foot in. I browsed not only the horror titles, but also everything else. What did they have here? Outside of horror, they had Robert Altman’s Countdown, an outer space film made before M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud, that is hard to find, in addition to Terry Gilliam’s first feature, Jabberwocky, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. The horror section had its share of gems, like the original Thorn-EMI version of George Romero’s The Crazies, which was a center-profile shot of a person in a white post-nuclear-apocalypse body suit, and the biggest gem I had ever found at that point in my nineteen years of browsing horror sections: John Landis’s debut feature Schlock. At the time, I had only heard of Schlock based on the different trailers I had seen of it on the ’90s SyFy channel show Trailer Park, and I thought that this film was pretty silly yet interesting, considering that five years later the man who directed this would helm Animal House. At the point that I rented Schlock, I had seen Kentucky Fried Movie, and while I found it amusing, it was pretty outdated. I didn’t tell myself this prior to popping the movie in. Sure, there were maybe one or two sight gags that I found amusing, but the movie as a whole was a forgettable one. I honestly don’t remember much about the movie. This was the year 2000, when DVD was beginning to send VHS to an untimely grave. Two years after that first fateful day I entered Video Village, the store closed its doors.
Several years after this, I came back home to Mississippi in the summer of 2007. I took a trip to G&S Rentals, not having been there in almost nine years. I walked in to see that most of the store was now renting out furniture, however the VHS was all still there; all in their old plastic black cases, stocked up and out of order, their original boxes all thrown out. I learned from the employee there that each title was two dollars. I spent hours in that store, perusing the dust-lined video cases, grabbing as much obscure horror as I could; titles that I remember seeing as a kid that scared me as much as intrigued me. Among the purchases were Breeders (a Wizard video title about giant alien insects terrorizing Manhattan while kidnapping, raping and breeding young models), Terror on Tour (a late ’70s rock ‘n’ roll horror film about The Clowns, modeled after KISS, who kill their fans this movie was not scary at all, it was essentially a really shitty, slow-paced mystery film), The Prey (a monster-in-the-woods thriller that was also boring, and the monster is a tall, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature who kidnaps, rapes and impregnates the female lead), and Bloodthirsty Butchers (a Midnight Video release that was a really shitty, shoestring budget take on the Sweeney Todd legend).
The VHS horror legacy lives on through websites and certain YouTube channels that will play feature-length B-horror flicks that you can’t find anywhere else except if you happen to luck out by dropping into a Goodwill, or my method of cruising around a small town and finding an old VHS store. They still exist, although they now remain scarce. It’s all DVDs, with the VHS in huge-sized boxes in the back of the store, that the manager or clerk on duty will let you browse through at your own will, which usually takes hours but is always worth the reward. It’s a shame that today’s B-horror doesn’t have the immediate, gripping charm or dark humor that the early ’80s had. I guess when you break ground for the aesthetic of a certain genre, up is not an optional direction.
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