Life Out of a Suitcase: My Enduring Veneration for VHS

“M

u-uum! Pur-leaaase!” I remember it like it was yesterday: our local independent video shop, its sharp fluorescent ceiling lights flooding down over twelve-year-old me and mother dearest, whose stern visage told that she was decidedly unimpressed by the ‘15’ rated videotape I was waving about in front of her. This was far from the first occasion that we had come to blows over my choice of title – Clueless (1995) was “too silly; all about boys and clothes!” she’d told me when I tried, and failed, to rent it two years previously – but I was determined it would be the last. I was nearly a teenager, after all, and mature for my age. What did she think? That I would morph into a juvenile delinquent overnight because of a four-letter expletive or a spot of softcore shagging?

If I can persuade her to let me rent this, I thought, then I’ve cracked it. No more Walt Disneys, kiddie-centric comedies, or castrated action capers for me! I had decided that this video right here was to be my gateway to the Grown-Up Film Arena: a cinematic world full of bloodshed, bottoms and breasts; of hardboiled storytelling and obsidian humour. With that mouth-watering prospect in mind, I painted on my absolute best Puppy Dog face and stood there with all the surly, pre-teen petulance I could muster. What’s the problem?! I almost spat out. I’ve seen waaay worse on TV!

I certainly had. Secret late-night viewings of forbidden treats such as The Omen (1976), Alien (’79), The Shining (1980), The Terminator (’84), Evil Dead II (’87), Poltergeist III (’88), Misery (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (’91) and Candyman (’92) had been a staple of my youth for some time. But never had I been allowed to take home a title from my beloved video shop that did not meet the mandatory approval of an accompanying adult. On this occasion, the film clutched stubbornly in my paw was Luis Llosa’s splendidly stupid creature feature, Anaconda – something I’d been pining after since its debut on the big screen in the spring of ’97. Come on! What harm could possibly arise from watching a giant rubber snake gobble up a boatload of foolish adventurers?

And then it came. A long, defeated sigh, followed by four delicious words: “Oh, go on then.” Two things struck me at this moment. The first was that I loved my mum dearly. The second was that I had just played her – with serpentine precision, you might say – like a fiddle.

I’m a sentimental sort of guy. Always have been. A mere few moments of a piece of music can take me back years, if not decades: three seconds of any Kate Bush song and I’m right back in the passenger seat of my dad’s white Peugeot, seven years of age, utterly beguiled by the ethereal sounds emanating from the clapped-out speakers. It’s the same with films. Certain ones conjure memories and emotions – sometimes even a physical sensation – from the days when I’d plonk myself down on my parents’ patterned brown carpet (a relic from the Seventies) and glue myself to the bulky, wood-enclosed box before me. “Your eyes will go square!” my nan would warn whenever she caught me with my nose adjacent to the static-spewing screen.

I can visualise rather distinctly a six-year-old “Nathan” creeping downstairs one Christmas Day morning to tear open VHS copies of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). I was certain that both would be there waiting under the tree: Santa had never let me down before, so why should he now? Straight into the player went Beauty, a film I’d seen twice already at “the pictures,” swiftly followed by Oz, in all its trailblazing Technicolor glory. Before I knew it, the sun had risen and there was movement from upstairs . . . would anyone believe I had spent the past three hours duetting with Angela and Judy while the rest of the house slept through? “There’s no way you got up so early and watched two whole films!” came my older brother’s retort. And yet there I sat on that drab carpet, a contented grin stretching from ear to ear. My exhausted copies of Mary Poppins (1964) and The Little Mermaid (1987) suddenly had serious competition: a pair of slick new videocassettes had entered the building.

Subsequent years saw my taste in film develop vigorously. I was becoming a man, not just in body, but in spirit and mind – and with this metamorphosis came a piqued interest in all styles of cinema. Naturally, those previous midnight screening sessions had aroused in me a voracious appetite for horror; a genre that, in hindsight, was a perfect fit for a lad who had long been enraptured by the sinister nature of old-school Disney, not to mention the disturbing and decidedly more grown-up likes of Return to Oz and Young Sherlock Holmes (both 1985). Weekend visits to the video shop were never going to yield the goodies I so desperately craved, so instead I was forced to be a little bit clever (dare I say, deceitful) in my pursuit of the ferocious and the frightening. The VCR became my confederate – every week I would excitedly comb the pages of the Radio Times, circling (with a not-so-inconspicuous felt-tip pen) potential filmic beauties before stealthily hunting for blank cassettes on which to record them. It wasn’t long until I was the proprietor of quite the enviable collection: an ever-growing plastic tower of revered greats, second-rate schlock, and nasty little numbers such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Driller Killer (’79). Needless to say, each one was kept well hidden from prying parental eyes.

Fast-forward to the ripe old age of thirteen, and there I am, stood queueing in HMV; sweat beading on my forehead, a copy of 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (another member of the ‘15’ club) gripped tentatively in hand. It had been a year since my Anaconda victory, and I was feeling rather cocky . . . only this time, I was going it alone. Out galivanting on a routine excursion to the local shopping arcade, there was no hope of mum or dad stepping in to back me up should anyone interrogate my date of birth – not that either of my honest-to-a-fault folks would have lied for me, anyway! Come on, Nate, you’ve got this. Fortunately, the benefit of stature (I was already close to six feet back then) was dutifully on my side, and the chap behind the counter didn’t give so much as a second glance to my damp brow or skittish grin. The surge of adrenaline that enveloped me on the bus ride home – blue, black, yellow and red-hued prize proudly in tow – was intoxicating. It felt wicked: the kind of ‘naughty’ that one can assume comes with committing a mortal sin. “Jesus won’t love you if you tell lies!” my God-fearing nan (yes, the same lady who often fretted about the configuration of my peepers) used to lament. Well, to my credit, not a single mistruth had escaped from my lips during that triumphant endeavour to circumvent the shop assistant. I am also a devout atheist.

Other, more elusive titles – ones that carried the coveted ‘18’ emblem – I had to source elsewhere. The recent acquisition of my first-ever debit card (a gadget that fast became my best buddy and confidant) led to an enslaving obsession with eBay and Amazon, places that facilitated my hunt for whichever treats I’d missed out on at the pictures: Scream (1996), Urban Legend and Halloween: H20 (both ’98) for instance – not to mention a slew of entries in the Children of the Corn and Amityville sagas; jewels such as Psycho II (1983) and Popcorn (1991); and stone-cold classics ranging from Night of the Living Dead (1968) to The Exorcist (1974) and Se7en (1995). 

And then, seemingly without warning, something changed. An historic new wave of film consumption was about to wash over the world with the arrival of the Digital Versatile Disc, a format that would define multiple generations of film lovers while sending the once-revered videotape on its way to a sorry destination of bargain bins and second-hand shop shelves. Determined not to surrender to the twinkling lure of those shiny little circles, I brushed away the temptation to step over to the dark side for as long as my stamina would permit. It was as if I were betraying my closest ally, a permanent fixture that had proved an unwavering source of glee, amazement and solace for as long as I cared to recall. But of course, this benevolent act of protest was not to last: the innards of the VCR had barely cooled before the brazen newcomers laid claim to my bedroom walls, while trusty old videotapes were relegated to the attic; packed tightly away like naughty sardines into strapping cardboard boxes, which is exactly where they would stay until . . .

Sun 7th March, six weeks ago: “Decide which ones you want to keep,” ordered dad, “and the rest I’ll take to the charity shop.” Oh, fucking marvellous! I mused with wry disdain. It’ll take forever to go through this lot! I could tell from the sheer weight of the item that had been dumped unceremoniously on the floor in front of me – an ancient, Herculean-sized suitcase covered in decades’ worth of dust and grime – that the task would not be easy one. My first inclination was to simply ignore it and instruct dad to get rid of the case and its contents. The day was growing tired, and I was eager to get home after a pleasant weekend stay with the ’rents. “Things to see, people to do!” – or whatever the saying is. Sod it, I’ll just have a quick rummage and tell him to get rid of it all. Job’s a good ’un! With great reluctance, I fought with the chrome buckled straps and ever so slowly lifted the lid.

Looking back, to describe the next few moments as somewhat of a blur would be an understatement, but I can attest with resolute certainty that the first thing to hit me was the smell. My goodness, the smell! Not just of the choking dust, but of something near indefinable . . . an evocative perfume of plastic, places, people . . . “Hello, stranger!” whispered J-Lo as she leered seductively up at me from the sleeve of The Cell (2000) . . . And in that moment, I was Aladdin in the centre of the desert, stumbling upon the vast cave that he was so unavoidably compelled to explore. No rubies or magic lamps in sight for me: instead, a treasure trove of nostalgia; of summertime discoveries, midwinter marathons, and infinite stretches of watching-with-the-volume-down mischief. With newfound gusto and nary a shred of the previous trepidation, I dove in, my unmistakable zeal growing emphatically with each find: Leprechaun (1992), Alligator (1980), The Craft (1996), A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) . . . waaait a minute! . . . I’d recognise those tatty ‘Blockbuster’ stickers anywhere! Ladies and gents, let me introduce you to an old chum: the exalted Ex-Rental, a brawny yet gracious opponent of its modest retail counterpart.

An abrupt and really quite palpable blitz of guilt befell me. How had I forgotten what unbridled pleasures these omnipotent gifts – as much a part of my voyage to adulthood as that god-awful carpet – once bestowed; these stout rectangles that felt like chunks of my very being, all of them crying out to be caressed and admired. And so, one humongous haul later, into the boot of the car they went, nestled together in the battered abode that had shielded them for the best part of two decades – and would continue to do so for the forty-minute expedition to their new lodgings. What was to become of these cherished comrades? Would a fickle change of heart upon arrival home prompt me to sell them? Perhaps I’d display them on a shelf somewhere to be glanced at from time to time. Or would they be sent back up to the attic without any supper? Heck, would I even watch any of these tapes ever again?

“Decide which ones you want!” . . . I’m afraid that’s easier said than done, dad. I want them all.

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