There was no way of knowing how much that top loading Fisher VCR with wired remote control would change all of our lives. We were a family of movie addicts. We had a theater called The Kent two blocks away that showed double features and had a balcony where all sorts of shenanigans ensued, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. There was also the drive-in just ten miles away in Elmsford, a mecca for families and horny teens all throughout lower Westchester County.
But this VCR contraption, which my father brought home with a buzzing glee, was about to take us to a whole new level. We were the lone family on the block without cable. I was a kid addicted to horror, but if I wanted to watch something up my demented alley on TV, I had to wait for Monster Week on The 4:30 Movie or stay up and watch Chiller Theatre (where the six-fingered hand at the start of the show was more frightening than most of the flicks). The VCR my father had just shelled quite a few clams on would bring the movies to us whenever we wanted. It sounded crazy—too good to be true.
After hooking the new VCR to our old console television, where the color had faded to a kind of pale green, dad headed out to join the lone video store in the neighborhood, Video Visions. He came back with two movies, breathless with anticipation. One of them would suck me deeper into a genre I would one day make a career in, and, on the flip side, ruin my little sister for life. That movie was David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
I’m pretty sure my father caught wind of Videodrome by reading my issue of Fangoria, where it had made the cover, pink guts spilling out of a broken television screen. Why he thought this would be perfect family viewing on such a momentous occasion is anyone’s guess. This was 1983 after all, a time when parents kicked the kids out at first light and didn’t want to see you until dinner. It didn’t matter what you did, as long as your ass was in your seat at chow time and the police didn’t deliver you in the back of their squad car. Worry about young minds being too sensitive for something as silly as a movie just didn’t register.
My sister, who was eleven at the time, was on drinks and snacks duty. I watched my father open the plastic tape case. I can still hear the snap of the little fasteners giving way, and the sound of him sliding the tape in upside down, the loader refusing to accept this blessed gift as he pressed down oh-so-gently until he got it right. With glasses of off-brand, discount soda in hand and popcorn on the table, Mom turned off the lights and Dad pressed “Play” on the remote, the wire running over the coffee table.
Now, for those of you who have never seen Videodrome, let me fill you in. This very ’80s gem is full-on Cronenberg, the master of body horror and hallucinatory mind trips. James Woods stars as the executive of a sleazy cable TV channel that specializes in underground videos. We’re talking soft-core porn, torture, you name it. Exposed to a tape called Videodrome, he spirals into a world where reality and illusion blend into one bloody, bizarre mess. After learning that the mind bending tape will give him a brain tumor and kill him, he goes about finding the creators of Videodrome and setting things right. It’s way strange. Like, out where the buses don’t run. And pretty damn awesome.
Fifteen-year-old me was particularly excited because I knew my favorite singer at the time, Debbie Harry of Blondie fame, was not only in it, but naked! And, thanks to Fangoria, I knew it would be a rollicking gross out. It was all about the boobs and blood. Jeez, it still is for me. Nothing wrong with a little arrested development.
Well, the first thirty minutes of the movie gave me more nudity and S&M than any young man can properly handle. I can’t accurately describe the discomfort of watching all of this with my parents just a few feet away. I wanted to out and out drool when Debbie Harry was topless, but knowing the woman who birthed me was right there almost broke my mind. I was actually relieved when the nudity portion ended and the gore stepped to the fore. I didn’t give a crap what the crazy movie was about. Visually, I was enchanted.
My sister has a totally different view of that momentous night. The image of James Woods reaching into an illusory gaping wound in his gut that basically looked like a giant vagina, and losing his gun in it, finished her for good with horror movies. She’s in her forties now and the goriest thing she can watch is Blue Bloods.
With moaning, sexually heaving televisions, bodies falling apart at the seams and limbs fusing with weapons, Cronenberg left us wide-eyed and reeling. When it was over, we sat in stunned silence. No one was quite sure what the hell we had just seen in the privacy of our living room.
But oh baby, was it awesome. I asked my father if Video Visions had other horror movies.
“They have a whole wall of them,” he said.
I nearly wept.
The greatest thing since Famous Monsters magazine and Aurora monster model kits had just entered my life.
Even though it was early, my sister went to bed before the next movie, the far tamer Excalibur, director Jon Boorman’s wonderful, bombastic take on King Arthur. The damage was done. She would never again trust my father with selecting a movie. He’s gone but the tradition remains, as she’ll never watch anything I recommend. Mom stayed but it was clear she wasn’t thrilled with what dear old dad had exposed us to. (Cut to today and now I’m the one bringing her to crazy horror movies. I know Dad approves.) Fridays would become family movie rental nights, until I was given the Video Visions membership card and a few bucks and allowed to rent horror movies whenever I wanted. The VCR was the reason for the explosion of horror movies in the ’80s, the most glorious of all decades for gore hounds. And I was living it, eyes perpetually red from all-night marathons.
It’s true that you never forget your first. Videodrome popped my cherry and changed my universe. And that top loading Fisher VCR? We still have it. And it still works. If it starts heaving or growing appendages, I’m going to blow the bastard up and bury it.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com