A few decades ago, I did something that I’ve never told anyone. I broke into a Blockbuster Video store.
In the small hours of that mid-January morning, the unseasonable Carolina warmth painted a shimmer on the roads, like it had just rained. North Carolina is like that. I stepped from my Honda CRX, which I had parked in plain view in the strip mall parking lot, grabbed my backpack of VHS tapes, and walked around to the back of the store, past the Kroger and the Little Caesar’s pizza. The cartoon “Pizza, Pizza” guy gave me a thumbs up front the window.
At the backdoor, I pulled out the set of lock picks that Smitty gave me. Michael “Smitty” Smith consulted on a movie I directed - maybe you heard of it - The Astro Village Caper. Haven’t heard of it? Most people haven’t. But not because it wasn’t any good. It was a misunderstood masterpiece, if you ask me. I don’t think the average person has the mental capacity to appreciate the sheer genius of it. I mean, it’s easy to miss the cultural subtext of a heist movie set 4,000 in the future on a village colony on Enceladus. Anyway, Smitty taught us how to pick locks and gave me this set of picks as a souvenir. After pushing the pins and turning the tumblers of the Blockbuster Video lock, I opened the door.
The beeping of the alarm system startled me. In Astro Village, the hero - Dirk Magnus - cracked an alarm system by observation. The key pad ink had rubbed off the most on the first number in the alarm code and then a little less in subsequent numbers. The trick, Smitty showed me, was using a magnifying glass to infer the pass code—the sequence is fairly easy to spot upon closer inspection. Here, a three second evaluation at 10x magnification told me the order was 2-4-3-7-#. Problem solved.
What really irked me about public reception to Astro Village was that no one got the Hitchcock references. Nobody. If Siskel and Ebert had taken the time to review it, I know they would have caught on to the dolly zoom, the point of view editing, and way the film makes you feel uncomfortable. Ebert would have loved it. Not sure about Siskel.
Hitchcock did it all. Really, no one had to make any more movies after Hitchcock. The main reason I made Astro Village was because I wanted to pay homage to his greatness. But nowadays, whenever I watch a Hitchcock film, I am reminded just how derivative most other movies are. When, for example, people tell me about how awesome Jaws is, I know that everything that was cool about Jaws, Hitchcock did in Vertigo. When my grandkids talk about Star Wars like it was manna from heaven, I am reminded how much better The Birds is as a morality play. I guess you could say that I’m obsessed with Hitchcock. At least, that’s what my ex-wives say about me.
On the evening I broke into Blockbuster Video, what was really pissing me off at the time was all the second rate horror movies. Everyone talked about these films like they were great films. But, c’mon, you could put Hitchcock’s Psycho up against any 80s horror movie and it would win every single time. If Freddy Kreuger spent five minutes in Norman Bates’s head, he’d want to jump out of a window and fall fifty stories rather than stay there one second longer.
The way Blockbuster Video worked was that they had videos for rent out on a show floor. Rows upon rows of shoulder high display shelves let you know what was available for rent. They were organized by genre. You had your Richard Gere romances, your Humphrey Bogart noirs, and your horror section. Behind each tape display box was a number of rental cases, each with a copy of the movie enclosed. You’d take the rental copy to the front desk, they’d scan the UPC, and you’d pay 5 bucks for three night’s rental. If the display copy had no rental copies behind it, you knew that Blockbuster was out of stock of that movie.
Back in the 80s, my son used to love to walk through the horror section because the video tape covers looked “so cool.” Whenever I’d try to get him to walk over to the Hitchcock section, where the real movies were, he’d snub me and pull a tantrum until we went home with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. I wish that film ended up being the final chapter. They made like ten more of those crappy movies since then.
I made my way to the horror section. Three rental copies of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter lay behind its display box. I pulled a copy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo from by back pack, removed a rental copy of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter tape from one of the three copies, and replaced it with Vertigo. Take that, son. Take that, everyone who didn’t see Astro Village. I slipped the copy of The Final Chapter in my back pack.
I chuckled at the thought of some kids renting The Final Chapter only to find they actually rented Vertigo. When they’d call Blockbuster to complain, it would look like an oversight. Now a days, it’s possible that kids wouldn’t know the difference, what with them all looking at their phones all the time. They might be halfway through The Final Chapter before realizing that Jimmy Stewart isn’t Jason Voorhees.
Now, I confess—the first Friday the 13th wasn’t bad. It’s when the series gave the antagonist a machete and a hockey mask that it all started to go south. I guess that’s what I really hated about 80s horror movies. Once something worked, the studios milked it until far beyond when it stopped making sense. Hitchcock never made a sequel. Never. Not a one.
One row down, I came across the Halloween franchise. The first two Halloween movies were pretty good. Not as good as The Birds, but not bad either. The third Halloween, although weird, got to that level of existential terror that Hitchcock did so well. It’s the fourth installment that was unconscionable. It promoted franchise over story, brand over technique. I slipped a tape of The Birds from my bag, removed Halloween IV from its case, and replaced it with The Birds.
To me, the Boogeyman has never been that scary. You just turn on the lights and nothing’s there. Whatever you thought you heard was just your imagination. But a flock of killer birds—that could happen. The world of dreams isn’t that scary either. I appreciated A Nightmare on Elm Street for its new spin on the Boogeyman—Freddy Kreuger. There, the sins of the parents revisited the children in a place from which they couldn't escape. That’s kind of scary. But what wasn’t scary was how this franchise devolved into camp and a parade of “dream kills” rather than true terror.
I grabbed a rental copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street. 4: The Dream Master and replaced it with a copy of Rope. Rope is terrifying because you know through the whole thing that there’s a body in the trunk. The single shot, 10 minute long scenes make it all the more real, too.
What was that sound? Did I hear something hit the ground? I turned the corner from the horror section and saw Michael Myers standing at the end of the row. My heart skipped a beat, but then I realized I was looking at an end cap cut out. Ok, Michael Myers was scary, but not as scary as Normal Bates.
The 80s was also the beginning of the gore-for-gore’s sake movement. One weekend, my son showed me this tasteless movie called The Reanimator. It was kind of like a foul version of Frankenstein. Some guy was carrying around his own head. Not for me. Nope. I found Reanimator two shelves down from Elm Street and replaced it with a copy of Psycho.
Phantasm was another film that irked me. Again, it wasn’t the first installment that sucked as much as the sequels that capitalized on the Tall Man and the Ball of Terror. I replaced Phantasm II with Rear Window.
Having finished my errand, I nearly forgot to see where this Blockbuster Video kept Astro Village. I made my way to the beginning of the horror section and it wasn’t there. I checked drama and no luck. I went to comedy and it wasn’t there either. Finally, I found it in the romance section. Astro Village is about as much of a love story as Nightmare on Elm Street was. What gives, Blockbuster?
Did you hear that? I heard something else fall from a shelf, but this time it sounded like someone picked it up, rustled a bit, and then returned to silence. I walked over to the Michael Myers end cap. His butcher knife had fallen from the display. Rather than put it back, I let it lie there. I put my hand on Myers’ shoulder in a sort of there-there gesture and ouch! I got a paper cut from the display. I put my cut finger in my mouth. The fresh blood tasted oddly sour.
Before leaving, I had to see if Astro Village had its tape in place. Opening the one rental case behind its display box, I was sad to find it was empty. It looked like no one cared to put the rental copy back.
I had outlasted my welcome five minutes ago, so I headed to the rear exit. I pulled the five 80s horror tapes from my backpack and laid them on the intake cart in the back of the store by the door. I was a prankster, but I sure as hell wasn’t no thief.
I reset the alarm and exited through the back door. The door locked by itself and I began to walk around the building to where I had parked. But then, I heard a scraping on metal. It was almost like fingernails on a chalkboard. No, it was more like knives on metal. It was almost like the sound Freddy Kreuger made when he ran his knives along a pipe.
I turned to look behind me. I saw a man, about fifty yards in the distance dressed in a fedora had and a green and red striped sweater. He was running his hand along the steel bicycle rack. The fog obscured his presence, but he looked like he had been badly burnt. It was Freddy. I stood frozen in my tracks.
Through the fog, I next saw a man who looked just like Michael Myers standing next to Freddy. They were now walking towards me. Then, Jason Voorhees—complete with hockey mask and machete—walked beside them, as did the Tall Man and the headless man (who was holding his own head).
My feet unfroze and I took off running. I rounded the corner, ran the short distance to the strip mall’s frontage, and straight to my CRX. The parking lot lights were bright and I couldn’t see at all past the lit area. The “Pizza Pizza” guy still approved. I started the car and sped out of parking lot as fast as a Honda could go.
The next morning at breakfast, my son asked me about the weird paper cut on my finger. I looked at it, red, puffy, and infected. I told him that I must have gotten it at work at the hardware store. He shrugged.
A few years later, Zane, my son, had a bad acid trip. He had to go to the hospital for a week. He told me that he had taken a tab that tasted sour and that tasting anything on acid paper was a sure sign that it's laced with something you didn’t want. Maybe that night, someone had drenched the Myers cut out in bad acid. Probably not, though. Maybe it was my guilty conscience for pulling the prank the way I did. Maybe the boogeyman really is almost as scary as Hitchcock. Maybe. Almost.