Part and parcel of loving cult movies is a profound sense of nostalgia. This melancholy ache for the past is not necessarily limited to periods one has actually lived through. The shape of the nostalgia also takes on different forms, and can often wind up feeding on itself. This is a phenomenon that the bargain-basement DVD can help perpetuate. Allow me to attempt to explain myself a little more clearly.
Our starting point is the grindhouse cinema of the 1970s. As Iâ€™ve mentioned before, I was too young to actually go to any of those dubious houses, or ever see any of their offerings theatrically. But I am just old enough to remember the ads for these films in the paper. As my friends and I started going to movies on our own in the early 80s, the grand days of exploitation were drawing to a close (and we were still too young to be allowed in to many of the titles out there). So that is Stage 1 of the particular form of nostalgia Iâ€™m tracking today: the longing for a past that was witnessed from a distance.
One of the main reasons the grindhouses died was the arrival of home video. And that, paradoxically, opened doors that would otherwise have been shut to me and my peers. Films we couldnâ€™t see in the theatres could be rented. Most of us didnâ€™t have VCRs, but these could be rented too, and the enormous hunger of the home video market meant that movies that would otherwise have played in the dying theatres found a welcoming home on home video. These were the days when you could walk into a rental store (long before there was a Blockbuster or a Rogers) and see the likes of Massacre at Central High, Microwave Massacre, The Toolbox Murders or The Burning staring at you from the shelves. And this is the foundation for Stage 2: longing for a misspent youth that is one remove from the Stage 1 form.
Stage 2, for me, anyway, properly manifests as we move into the 90s. Now the subject has disposable income, permanent access to a VCR, and an obsessive collectorâ€™s mentality. By the mid-to-late-90s, the product that once had pride of place on rental shelves is now going for next to nothing in the discard bins, and the search for the lost gems is on. Now the goal is to find the titles one saw ten or fifteen years before, or dreamed of seeing. Now is when half-remembered newspaper ads suddenly appear in lurid colour on dusty used VHS boxes in Honest Edâ€™s (hey look: Screamers!). This is also the era of watching otherwise inaccessible films on crappy, multi-generation bootlegs. So what if the picture quality is so poor the actors barely have eyes, let alone facial expressions, at least weâ€™re seeing the movie!
But now even that period is a decade or more ago, and so it now qualifies as a legitimate object of nostalgia itself, thus triggering Stage 3. And this is where the cheapjack DVD comes in. Sure, the obsessive collector will gravitate first to the pristine releases of the likes of Blue Underground and Dark Sky Films, but there is also the appeal of grubbing through bins at the dollar store or Wal-Mart, nabbing the grotty public domain release. All of this was brought to my mind as I looked over three more of Mill Creekâ€™s 50 Movie Pack sets: Drive-In Movie Classics, Tales of Terror, and Chilling Classics. As Iâ€™ve said with regards to previous releases in this series: at 50 cents a movie, youâ€™re getting what you paid for. Nevertheless, thereâ€™s plenty of viewing pleasure to be had, of a certain kind. So yeah, Phantom of Soho (in Tales of Terror) has a transfer so shoddy and soft as to be essentially unwatchable, but Savage Weekend (in Drive-In Movie Classics) is just the ticket. The print is plenty scratched and grainy, but somehow this just completes the sleaze experience, and the damage isnâ€™t quite bad enough to get in the way of viewing. The boxes are enormously mixed bags, then, but look at plowing through the titles as the equivalent of rooting through a somewhat grimy bargain bin without having to leave the comfort of your couch. Nothing wrong with that.