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Tales from the Video Store: The [R]ite of Passage

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Welcome to TALES FROM THE VIDEO STORE, where FANGORIA unspools their experiences in the eerie age of VHS. We’ll traverse our memories as if they were shelves filled with video insanity, and we invite you to join us in revisiting analog nightmares…

Chances if you’re a die-hard horror fan like myself, your obsession likely started fairly young in your childhood. And when you’re a young cinephile, there’s few things as alluring in your innocent brain as the R-rating. A symbol for fare that’s dangerous, unrestrained and totally wild, the R-rating is one young horror fans would duel all the time to get their fright fix, whether it would be at the theater, at home or, most commonly, at the video store.

Now, this writer is talking about the days after you’ve become cognizant of the R-rating, and I’m not talking about getting parental permission either. I’m talking about the days where strategy, wit and a hefty portion of luck was what brought you to an R-rated movie, not your own ignorance of the rating or a lackadaisical relative. The R-rating is almost like a rite of passage once you’re aware of it, and it almost become like a con once you’ve been denied the chance to watch it. While getting ID’d at the movies is one thing, and ultimately a harmless experience, you had to test the waters with certain unfamiliar video store clerks, hide the videos from your otherwise disapproving parents, watch it and then return it with no one being the wiser, and that took skill.

Once you realize and understand the struggling of seeing an R-rated flick underage, the decision then dawns on you to find which R-rated films are worth the hassle. If you’re a horror fan, you’re not going to go for the one that looks like a psychological thriller or that you see poorly dubbed on cable; it had to be something pretty damn bloody, or at the very least, the one that the kid in your middle school described as “totally fucked up.” You also had to moderate your own choices as well, since even the most relaxed video store clerk in the world might have an issue giving a 12-year-old a copy of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or MANIAC. So suddenly, the video store became a battle ground between what you could get away with and what you should get away with, and I remember my first battle as plain as the day it happened.

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The year was 1999; I was ten years old and had only become cognizant of the R-rating for about 2 years at that point, despite having unknowingly rented R-rated films with parents permission in the past. But this was my first out-and-out attempt to rent an R-rated film from under the nose of my parents, and doing so was no easy task since they’d almost normally check my purchases to make sure I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on them (which, to my credit, I didn’t normally do). But I had concocted a scheme that my decade-old brain thought was brilliant at the time: rent four movies, two of which would be of a series (like, say, Ernest or STAR WARS) and rent two R-rated horror movies, which I would put between them as to kill all suspicion.

With my plan mapped out, I took the dive into Merchant Square Video, and began my search. At the time, I remember craving something new, since most of my horror input was fairly old, and I was only able to see recent bloody releases via my totally awesome babysitter. I also remember at the time that I had a fascination with animal horror movies; I remember being enticed by the original trailer for CONGO years back, which led me to see ARACHNOPHOBIA and, later, ANACONDA, which was one of the first PG-13 films I was allowed to see on my own while my parents were in another theater with my younger brother. Therefore, my eyes landed on one I had seen previews for and had great interest in seeing: Renny Harlin’s DEEP BLUE SEA.

For the second choice, I had a little more blood on the brain and decided I wanted to pick up a vampire film. I had recently seen John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES with my babysitter, and that set me on a path to check out as much late night fanged cable fare as ever. Of course, content restrictions kept me from seeing the really bloody stuff, so I picked up the newest vampire release I could find: Robert Rodriguez’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. Now, to be honest, I had no idea there even was a strip club element to the film, although I’ll admit it was a perk for ten-year-old me.

The first hurdle was obviously the register guy; at that age, I wasn’t fooling anyone, so I either needed to have a cashier that would endorse my horror consumption or frankly didn’t give a shit. I’d faced cashiers before who would even be skeptical of renting to my parents for me, so this was all-in-all a dice roll, and one I was prepared to accept in case of if I lost. So I picked up whatever other family-friendly fare I chose and I bit the bullet. Sure enough, the register guy didn’t care, as he was strictly business and any dollar he made there wasn’t going to the bigger Joe’s Video in Chester. But I knew that was the easy part; the real challenge was yet to come.

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The one thing about video store bags at the time was they were often custom made if they were smaller chain stores, made out of thick, milky-white plastic that could hold videos despite their sharp, plastic containment cases. But, nevertheless, even the white plastic was transparent enough to see through when pressed up against a title, and that was my main concern. I made my way back to the car, where immediately I was greeted with the standard “What did you get?” from my parents. I held up the first family friendly title, explaining I got the whole series on recommendation from a friend at school. I made sure to hold the bag in a way so that they could see the second title front and center, and as shockingly desperate as it all sounded, it actually worked.

Later that night, once the family all went to sleep, I took out the tapes and decided I’d stay up extra late to watch them; even at that age, midnight was the latest for a weekend night, but for my plan to work, I’d be pushing 1:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. But I came that far, and there was no reason for taking on the risk if I couldn’t reap the reward. So I turned down the volume and charged at these flicks head on, and luckily, they were everything my young brain expected and more. They were bloody, they were confidently directed and, most importantly, they were tons of fun; both of those films likely informed my love for pick-’em-off horror and definitely paved the way for my appreciation of lighthearted, campier fright fare.

Truth be told, I was probably too young to watch those films, but at the same time, that experience was an extremely important one for me. I was able to face the stigma of the R-rating with relative ease, which reminded me that, above else, an R-rated horror movie is simply a movie, which didn’t make me feel offended or corrupted in any way. If anything, my first R-rated rite of passage helped establish how much fun cinema could be without constraint, especially when you’re villains are nude vampires or super-smart sharks.

But when I went to school that following Monday, I was able to share that experience with my friends, and realize that it was a fairly common experience; one that I’m sure many, many readers can relate to. So whenever this writer hears about a new horror film being sanitized for PG-13 audiences, I always come back to that day and think about how much more fun those same teens would have picking that R-rated film off the video store shelf and taking a fucking risk for a change.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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