L.A. horror fans are ringing in the Halloween season at Slashback Video, an art installation created by Blumhouse exec Ryan Turek and aimed at the VHS generation. It’s a strange experience, wandering through this recreation of a mom-and-pop video store in 2017. On one hand, it feels like going back in time. On the other hand, it’s a little bit of a frustrating experience, begging the question: Why is my childhood already on display in a museum?
To be clear, I am grateful that Slashback exists… I’m just sad that it exists only as a museum, like a ghost town preserved in a state of arrested decay. The existence of this exhibit, lovingly cobbled together from the private collections of horror geeks throughout Los Angeles, raises a question: Why have collectors preserved these particular tapes in an age when most horror titles are readily available on DVD or Blu-Ray (or streaming)?
Read between the shelves and you can find some answers. #1. Because some titles are NOT available on DVD or Blu-Ray, or not available in the same version.
#2. Because DVD / Blu-Ray editions of films often don’t retain the original artwork.
#3. Because, well, we like to remember how we discovered our favorite films for the first time. For those of us who grew up in video stores, there’s something powerfully evocative about re-discovering the images (and synopses) that first drew us to a particular film. What we’re after, I think, is the excitement of the initial experience.
In general, it’s probably fair to say that horror fandom starts early. When I made my documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, filmmaker Joe Dante put it this way: As kids, we see something that thrills or terrifies us and then we spend our lives either running toward it or trying to avoid it. A project like Slashback Video reminds us of the early part of the journey, and I’d bet that every person who has wandered into this mini-museum in Burbank has a unique story to tell—about a particular time, a particular place (a particular video store), and the VHS covers that helped turn them into horror fans. Here's my story...
My dad was always open to new technology. When I was a kid, he routinely brought home new gadgets—a Radio Shack computer (TRS-80 Model IV), an Atari 2600, an RCA SelectaVision Videodisc player (SJT-090), and eventually a VCR. The SelectaVision player didn’t last long; there was a store that rented videodiscs for it, but the store was pretty far away from our house, so we were temporarily stuck with a limited number of films.
Eventually, my dad realized that there was another video store—much closer to home—that carried VHS tapes. Boy, did they. As I remember it, the place was HUGE and stocked with more titles than my little brain could fathom. My dad—God bless him—bought me copy of the first edition of Mick Martin & Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide to help me wrap my head around the wealth of available material. Like the VMG authors, the video store owners organized their collection by genre (with the exception of a “new releases” section up front). So while my little brother was in the Family Fare section, I hovered in the Comedy section…. because it was next to the Horror section.
Oh, how those titillatingly-gruesome images tickled my virgin eyeballs. These are memories worthy of a Jean Shepherd voiceover.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about the top ten “most horrific” VHS covers I remember from that time. It was easy to find images of original VHS cover art online… but not so easy to find images of the backs of the VHS boxes. Today it’s a little easier, thanks to sites like VHS Collector, VHS Wasteland, and Retro-Daze. As an example, here’s the full box art for my #10: HOUSE (1986). Great cover, but I think the real reason I wanted to see that movie as a kid was because of the image of the shriveled-up old lady on the back.
To be fair, sometimes the back of a VHS tape could be a real letdown. Check out my #1: FEAR. Lame, lame, lame.
Somewhere in the middle is POLTERGEIST II, the back of which more or less says: You’ll have to watch the movie if you want to see what’s on the other side.
Not a bad marketing tactic, but I think the distributors might have gotten even more mileage out of a single image of the eminently-creepy Reverend Kane. One of the unique features of Slashback Video is a rack full of original VHS covers designed by horror fans. I would love to have seen one for POLTERGEIST II.
I should add that I did see one VHS cover at Slashback that I had completely forgotten about, but which definitely haunted me as a child…
I’ve never seen this movie, and I don’t want to. I’d rather live with the image alone, which I’m sure is more unsettling. That’s the beauty of the video store experience—it stirs the imagination, then and now.
Rewind to the summer of 1988. My family had just moved to a new town—and, for me, that meant a new video store. I think it was called Movie Time Video. Over the next three years, I probably rented more Nintendo games there than movies… but that’s only because I wasn’t allowed to rent R-rated horror movies. One day I got away with renting CHILD’S PLAY—because I told my mom “it’s about a killer doll, how scary could it be?”
Most of the time, I had to settle for PG-13 movies. I remember picking LADY IN WHITE as my Halloween movie one year. What I really wanted to rent was THE CHANGELING (I was big into ghost stories), and I almost got away with it because the back cover didn’t specify the R rating.
The safest bets were usually older horror movies, pre-MPAA ratings. That’s how I got away with seeing PSYCHO and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at a pretty young age. My argument went something like this: “They’re black and white, so how scary could they be?” I knew better, but hoped my parents (who knew practically nothing about horror films) didn’t. Thankfully, the box art for both of these titles was pretty innocuous.
Then came PSYCHOMANIA, which cast a dreamy spell on me when I was about ten years old. I’ve never seen this film as an adult, and I’m not sure I want to. But I was thrilled to see two different VHS boxes for this title at Slashback Video, including the one I remember best.
Regardless of rental restrictions, I spent a lot of time perusing the covers in the horror section of my local video store, and I became especially fascinated with sequels—which is to say that I was intrigued by the idea of horror mythologies. I endlessly studied the box art for the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, curious to know how the story—and the central symbol of the hockey mask—evolved. Again, it was the art—rather than the movies themselves—that got my imagination going.
The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series had the best covers. That mythology seemed to get trippier with every single installment.
Which brings me to the summer of 1991, when my family moved again and my parents gave up on the R-rated movie ban. New town, new rules, new video store. Actually, three new video stores. (It was a small town, and there wasn’t much else to do there.) From 1991 until 1997, my cinematic education was in full effect—and each of those video stores played a crucial role…