Monday, 20 May 2013

VHS nostalgia and discovering Eurohorror in the (former) backwaters of Melbourne

Gamon Video Centre, Charles Street, Seddon, est. 1983. One of the longest surviving independent video stores in Melbourne.

My earliest memories of the video era are from the mid-1980’s, when every week my family would trek into a long-gone store called ‘Top 20 Video’, located on a dismal shopping strip in a semi-industrial area of Braybrook, Melbourne. With my parents having to adhere to a strict budget, videos provided hours of inexpensive entertainment and were still a relatively new phenomenon, so I’d always look forward to those excursions. Even though I was only around 6 or 7, I always gravitated towards the horror section, where the vivid, garish video slicks repelled and fascinated me at the same time. I recall being particularly intrigued by the covers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (like with many others the title and artwork immediately had me convinced that it must be the most gory, bloody, frightening film ever made), Xtro, the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies, The Brood, Bloody Birthday, Visiting Hours, Ants, and Black Roses (I vaguely recall Black Roses being featured on one of the typically misinformed current affairs shows at the time as a prime example of ‘video violence’. No doubt increasing rentals to increase for that title tenfold). I also was drawn to the ‘novelty’ covers popular at the time, such as The Video Dead’s limited edition slick featuring a holographic sticker of a zombie head coming out from a TV set and the Fright Night 2 coffin box. And of course there was the notorious ‘Banned in Queensland’ slogan (deliberately slapped on usually forgettable dreck as a marketing ploy to increase rentals), the most memorable example was walking into the store one day and seeing a massive poster for Silent Night Deadly Night, with the killer decked in his murderous Santa garb, wielding an axe, topped by huge font screaming the immortal words ‘BANNED IN QUEENSLAND’.

Highest in the queasy stakes for me was the cover of The Worm Eaters, featuring a grotesque photo of its director/star Herb Robins about to devour a slimy forkful of live worms. I’ve always had a strong stomach, but later at home upon being offered a bag of corn chips and salsa dip, unfortunately the image of Herb devouring his worm supper came back as I began to eat and I could feel my insides doing backflips. Definitely a cover that put me off my food for the rest of the night! Inevitably my family’s choices in viewing would either be horror, comedy or martial-arts movies and I was permitted to watch what was considered the more ‘tame’ horror fare (such as Poltergeist, The Gate, Creepshow 2, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars and Psycho). However with my older brother, sister and cousins always around, and my parents often preoccupied with work, household chores and family dramas, I was usually present when the older kids were viewing Evil Dead, Amityville 2: The Possession, An American Werewolf in London, Xtro, Alien, The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Over the next few years my fascination with horror took a backseat as I became hooked on Amiga and PC computer games, but in 1994 my then best friend got bitten by the horror bug. Her family owned a video store (Gamon Video Centre in Seddon, which is still open today and is one of the few surviving independent video/DVD rental stores in Melbourne), so we had access to all the latest genre releases. Which were pretty woeful at the time (Ghost in the Machine, Brainscan, Man’s Best Friend, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad nasuem). Horror was pretty much seen as a dirty word in the early-mid 90’s, and so apart from the occasional ‘respectable’ big-budget studio releases (Interview with the Vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Wolf), horror fans seeking new fright flicks generally had to wade through a sea of direct to video flotsam.  The last straw for me was enduring a particularly excruciating pile of said direct-to-video excrement called The Club, the less said about the better.
A glimmer of hope surfaced when one day at the local library, I discovered two books which helped introduced me to a whole new horror world – Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies and Phil Hardy’s The Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. These groundbreaking tomes introduced me to European genre aueters such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco and Ruggero Deodato, as well as key titles such as Dawn of the Dead and Last House on the Left.  Coincidentally SBS screened a letterboxed, uncut subtitled print of Deep Red at that time, and the film completely blew me away. The stunning visuals, cinematography and Goblin soundtrack left me awestruck and wanting to seek out more of the director’s output immediately.  I knew Sunshine Video Ezy stocked a few of his titles, so following an unsuccessful attempt to talk the customer service person into letting me sign up using a library card and birth certificate extract as ID (I was 14), I simply borrowed my older brother’s membership card and hired them out without any trouble (fortunately they were much more lax about things like that. As well as stocking banned dupes of the Faces of Death series in their ‘Documentary’ section, by all accounts a particularly popular rental ). In a short amount of time I’d viewed Phenomena, Tenebrae, Suspiria, Inferno, Opera and Trauma.
During this time my parents were going through a prolonged, acrimonious separation and divorce, and I was not shielded from their many bitter fights and animosity towards each other. Though I had close, supportive friends, this was not enough to distract from the feelings of sadness and loss that impacted me as a result of the family breakup. The Eurohorror films offered an escape for me, an exotic other world which I fully immersed myself into. I began renting every Fulci, Deodato, Bava and any other movies of this ilk I could find, never mind that many were cut-to-fuck and residing forlornly on the bottom shelves gathering dust and major sunbleaching (the same tapes that collectors now happily pay hundreds of dollars for). 
In the 90’s I was a regular visitor to record fairs held around Melbourne and while wandering around one held at the Royal Exhibition Buildings in early 1996, I stumbled across a stall which looked vastly different to all the others selling boxes of vinyl records – the table was covered with duped VHS tapes of uncut and unavailable horror titles in Australia, as well as imported Goblin and other Eurohorror CD soundtracks. A TV and VCR set up on one of the tables was even playing Michele Soavi’s The Church, one of my most coveted movies at the time. I had arrived at Phantastique Video, the most well-known horror/cult/trash mail-order dupe operation in Melbourne, ran by Gregg Lewis from the mid 1990’s-early 2000’s. Gregg was manning the stall that day, along with Adam Lee, who helped stocked Phantastique with its jaw-dropping range of titles (everything from uncut Fulci, Franco and D’Amato to XXX fare to at the time banned cult classics such as A Clockwork Orange, Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2).  Being low on cash I was only able to purchase a copy of Last House, but I made sure to take a catalogue before I left and over the years I must have spent thousands of dollars on dupes of everything I wanted to see (seeing The Beyond and Zombi Holocaust uncut was a revelation – no jarring cuts before eyeball and cranium violence!) I also kept in touch with Adam, who boasts possibly one of the best Eurohorror soundtrack collections in Australia, including a near-complete set of Goblin and solo ex-Goblin member vinyl albums and currently runs the brilliant blog ‘Spasmo Mixtape’ (which before the demise of Megaupload contained a wealth of tracks from Adam’s collection).
Also in 1996 I discovered Polyester Books’ stash of bootlegged tapes, which gave me access to my first viewing of Cannibal Holocaust. Needless to say I was shocked and stunned by Ruggero Deodato’s brutal masterpiece – the film has lost none of its power even after at least a dozen subsequent viewings – and the tape’s nth generation quality and Venezuelan subtitles only added to its devastating effect, giving it a ‘snuff movie from bedlam’ feel.
Occasionally I’d dig up a cheap $5 ex-rental tape of interest (The Ghastly Ones, Moon of the Wolf) from long-gone outlets such as Vidz of Oz in Thornbury and The Video Collection on Elizabeth Street in the city. Or I’d venture into the odd suburban Cash Converters every now and then (the original release of Evil Dead was a regular site there). Unfortunately I had no idea of the profits old K & C, Star Video and Video Classics titles would snap up on Ebay two decades later, not to mention Evil Dead – if I did I would have taken these video hunts much more seriously and not have ignored snapping up these old tapes I’d regularly bypass!

Upon turning 18 I set about joining a number of video stores around Melbourne, the jewel in the crown for me being Video Busters in Collingwood. A goldmine for more obscure titles, the store housed a huge cult movie section and even sorted the genre’s well-known directors into categories. I was happy to regularly catch a bus, a train and a tram from where I lived at the time to get to the Collingwood outlet, always returning home with a backpack full of tapes. The store was instrumental in enabling me to delve further into the Mario and Lamberto Bava and Jess Franco catalogues, and to catch up with viewing essential ‘controversial’ titles such as The Driller Killer, Nightmare and Pieces.  As well as providing some ‘memorable’ viewings of irredeemable crap like the excruciating Christiane F cash-in Hanna D – The Girl from Vondel Park, Killer’s Moon and Dawn of the Mummy. Video Busters Collingwood is still around today, however its incredible VHS library has been sold off and the shelves are now dominated by far too many glossy but mostly forgettable big-budget Blu-Ray and DVD new releases.
Video Busters Collingwood in all its pastel-coloured glory
International mail-order outfits were also big business in the 90’s, including Florida’s Video Search of Miami. VSoM had a 60 page catalogue offering an incredibly vast range of product. I was a little apprehensive about having to initially pay a $10 ‘non-refundable initiation fee’, and the tapes themselves weren’t exactly cheap ($ 25 a pop) but figured it was worth it as I naively assumed I’d be getting, at the least, decent quality tapes. I ordered the David Cronenberg documentary Long Live the New Flesh, the Cronenberg-starring short Blue, and the ‘Argento Collectors Package’ (a compilation tape consisting of two Dario Argento interviews and a fashion show he directed for Italian television in 1986). Several weeks later Australia Post delivered the tapes to my door, and I immediately loaded up the VCR with the Argento cassette. And much to my surprise instead of the Argento programmes appearing on my TV screen I got some European porno flick instead! (I was so pissed off I didn’t bother to find out what it was). Either this was a genuine error (uh huh), or more likely someone who thought they’d get a laugh or their jollies with this pathetic stunt. Fortunately the other tapes had the content they were meant to have, but I was far from impressed. Not only with the ‘mix-up’- but with the shitty, barely watchable muddy quality of the dupes. I never expect perfect quality from bootlegs, but after paying extortion, oops a ‘membership fee’ and more than above-average prices I expected better.  Needless to say, I didn’t waste my time ordering from Video Search of Miami again.
Attending a record fair in 2000 I discovered on the flyers table an advertisement for a shop called ‘Inferno Video’ in the city on Elizabeth Street, specialising in horror, cult and exploitation movies. As soon as I could I found the address and found myself outside a door with fluorescent ‘THIS IS NOT A SEX SHOP’ signs plastered all over it. Somewhat tentatively, I opened the door and ventured up the narrow staircase that awaited me, entering a room chock-full of rare tapes. This one space contained many of the most hard-to-find and sort after VHS titles in Australia, such as The Lonely Violent Beach, Hitch-Hike, To be Twenty, Island of Perversion, Primitives, Farewell Uncle Tom and many more .....and the best thing was that they were available to rent. In the early days of Inferno, Peter (the owner) was happy to loan out his truly amazing collection but he ceased rentals a few years later.

Another fondly-remembered Melbourne mail-order (and subsequent online) store of note was author John Harrison’s ‘The Graveyard Tramp’ , specialising in dupes, ex-rental tapes, books, magazines, posters, and KISS memorabilia. Along with top-quality service, John always offered a consistently varying range of product, including a great mix of local and international zines.
In the Noughties and beyond, the introduction and subsequent popularity of DVD’s, torrents, streaming video and Blu-Ray discs has effectively eliminated having to leave the house or tracking down the right contacts to search for formerly elusive films, save for the most obscure titles. Pretty much everything I used to have to wait weeks for though the post, or spend years searching for, is now available within minutes online. Which of course is fantastic for accessibility and convenience, not to mention the far superior quality of Blu-Ray compared to VHS, but the sheer thrill of scouring random video outlets and discovering lonely copies of Bloody Moon, Murderock and Dario Argento’s World of Horror emblazoned with $1 Weekly Hire stickers, pouring over the goodies in mail-order catalogues, and reading about formerly mythical films not touched by the mainstream horror press like the early works of Michael and Roberta Findlay in ‘labour of love’ zines, is something that can never be replaced.  

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