In this multi-part series, NEMMC sits down with Brendan Evans, curator of curios and creator/owner of one of the few independent multimedia shops left in New England, Strange Maine. An unassuming honey hole of obsolete media, found photographs, and punk rock t-shirts, Strange Maine has been a local Portland staple and out-of-towner “must-see” since April 2003.
In Part I, Strange Maine founder, Brendan Evans, sheds light on how a compulsion for collecting and binge watching horror movies on VHS led to the creation of a tiny storefront that has grown into a small mecca for those determined to feed their passions for collecting all things local, independent, and offline.
NEMMC: What was the genesis of Strange Maine? How and when did it first open?
Brendan Evans: When my friend, Shea Mowat, and I were in our early 20s we were diehard movie junkies. We watched videos until 6am almost every night–with heavy a emphasis on horror, low budget, and art films. During the day we would drive all over Maine and New Hampshire visiting mom and pop video stores–which back then could be found in every New England town. Around that time they were all upgrading to DVD and selling off their VHS tapes for $1 each, 2 for $1, even 4 for $1–and these were gems! There were so many obscure 1980s horror videos in particular. We would fill Shea’s trunk with bags and bags of horror tapes. We had shelves, milk crates, stacks of these things. In fact, once a cop pulled us over at 2am for having a tail light out and he noticed all of these suspicious looking bags in the back seat. We told him they were all full of horror videos but he really didn’t understand what we were doing.
At some point we started talking about opening our own video store–even though we really didn’t have much money. I was working as a projectionist at a third-run movie theater in Portland while Shea worked in a group home with schizophrenics and the mentally ill. Between the two of us we only had enough money to buy mountains of tapes that no one else seemed to want. Initially, we thought we would buy an old van and drive around southern Maine like a bookmobile and rent these tapes out to people: drive a circuit and come back to each town at the same time every week to recollect our tapes and rent out more, etc., all the while continuing to scour thrift stores and yard sales for new inventory.
But we never got the van.
It was an idea that we knew was absurd and, though we were sincere, it just never really took off. But the seed was planted and we had acquired all of this stuff and wanted to spread it around to people. Meanwhile, after four years I quit my projectionist job. It had become very routine. After taking a month off (and watching more movies than ever– sometimes ten a day or the same one three times in a row) I realized that I couldn’t get another job. No one wanted to hire a high school drop out with no phone, no car, and dreadlocks down to his butt–just an overall bad looking dude.
But I tried. I applied to be a parking garage attendant, a night watchman–any low impact, menial labor–but the no phone, no email thing was a major stumbling block. So, I started looking at store fronts that were for rent. Even though this was 2002, rent was still pretty pricey: it was looking like $1,200 – $1,500 per month for second story office spaces or out of the way storefronts which I would have had to take a bus to get to. It was all pretty discouraging. But then one fateful day I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of a place right in the middle of downtown Portland (and only three blocks from my apartment.)
By that time I realized that I would need to sell records, too, in order to make a shop feasible, so Shea and I decided to open a kind of media thrift store with no particular emphasis on any format. Strange Maine was born.
NEMMC: And this was back in the early 2000s?
BE: Right. We signed a lease in February 2003 and had the keys on March 1. We worked seventy hours a week for a month and had our grand opening on April Fool’s Day of that same year. In those days, most of the contents in the store I had hauled over hundreds of separate trips from my overflowing studio apartment–from my place to the shop and back again. Over and over. Pile by stack by crate by sackful. This was all during the US invasion of Iraq and my route went straight through an occupation of anti-war protesters who were camping out in Monument Square. Most days I’d take a minute and add my voice to the chorus of the disaffected–it was an exciting and emotional time for me. I felt like I was joining society for the first time in my life.
NEMMC: So, was the majority of what was sold at Strange Maine originally from your personal collection?
BE: Early on we put a sign on the door stating that we were buying records, tapes, videos, DVDs, books, etc., and that folks should just drop in while we put the shop together. A lot of the early content in the shop came from those drop-ins, most of whom were willing to trade for store credit. Tons of punk rock kids would drop by with their hardcore 7-inch records and zines, which were previously collecting dust in their closets because no one would buy.
When we finally opened for business on that Tuesday, April 1 in 2003 there was a line of people waiting to get in–many of whom had credit slips and wanted to scoop up the stuff I had been putting in the window display in order to generate interest in the shop. Most of those things were from the cream of my own collection. I had emptied my apartment in order to jumpstart the shop and many of those records, books, and videos I sold I still miss today. But, of course, it was worth it to have some cool stuff in the shop.
I was 23 years old and only wanted to make enough money to pay my rent and eat three or four 7-11 hot dogs a night.
NEMMC: It seems like, even today, that Strange Maine leans a little more heavily on cult and horror films and music. Was this always the case?
BE: I did notice that some people were really excited about particular records and movies; passionate about books; thrilled to find 80s punk demos on cassette for $1, while other folks had the look of sharks or vultures when they’d find something they could flip for a profit on the Internet. But I think the punks who came to the store really dug the socialist approach I had toward that stuff and they really championed the store. I was there five or six days a week, noon until midnight, sometimes later. It was a great time.
My vision for the space and its contents continued to grow and I became very possessive of the shop–it became my world and Shea, who still had a day job, felt excluded and left about six months after it opened. Occasionally I would close for a day or pay a friend to man the shop so I could have a day off, there were a couple of occasions where I handed over the keys to a regular who’s name I didn’t even know with the hope that they wouldn’t do anything too heinous. I didn’t have a computer still, or a cash register, and I didn’t accept credit cards…but I was proud of the fact that if the power went out the only real affect it would have on the store was that it would be marginally dimmer (though it was already the darkest record store I had ever been in, having just three or four 60 watt track lights for illumination).
Back in those days it was a very simple, funky, rinky-dink place. Some folks still view the shop this way–but now it’s very tidy, organized, efficient, and much more of a capitalist venture now than it was back then.
In Part II, NEMMC and Evans discuss the darker (at times morbid) side of Strange Maine. Coming soon…
Back in 2010, Chris Nichols, originally from Massachusetts but now residing with his wife in New Hampshire, was searching for a new way to satiate his appetite for creative output after his days performing in local Boston area bands had come to an end. As an enthusiast for not just music but also film, specifically cult, horror, and genre films, Nichols launched The Trash Pile–a blog dedicated to finding, reviewing, and in some cases re-releasing obscure and forgotten films. But Chris isn’t all that keen or interested in releasing hard-to-find weirdo gems on digital platforms like YouTube (though he isn’t against other people doing it). Instead, Chris’ allegiances lie with a format that holds much sentimental value to hoards of likeminded collectors (including the founder of this blog): the VHS tape.
NEMMC spoke with Nichols earlier this autumn and asked him to rewind for us the story of The Trash Pile–the idea idea turned web show turned blog/podcast–and to share with us what motivates him to act as one of many faithful believers in the VHS format.
NEMMC: While getting to know you over this past year it’s evident that the VHS format holds a great deal of meaning for you. Can you talk about how being an advocate and podcast figure within the niche community of VHS collectors has impacted you?
Chris Nichols: For years the VHS format was something my father and I shared and spent time enjoying together (although going to the theater was just as important to us). I started collecting VHS around 1991 and for years in my neighborhood the kids and families would ask if they could “rent” the movies I owned. Back in the early days of Excel, I would print out spreadsheets with details about what was my VHS inventory. I suppose that’s what led to me searching out more and more movies that I hadn’t seen before–this is also where the podcast came into play a couple of years ago. The podcast (and our old web show) were all about starting a dialogue around movies that had somehow skated under the radar of fandom or had never received a proper release here in the states.
NEMMC: This web show sounds intriguing. What was that all about?
CN: The show was done online and it followed the format of the podcast with the addition of covering new releases on DVD and Blu-ray (as well as comic books). We didn’t really have any guests to speak of–just likeminded friends. Mark Anastasio from Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre called in once to hype their annual Halloween Horror Marathon.
NEMMC: The Trash Pile has had some stops and starts over the years. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping it going?
CN: The biggest challenge I’ve faced in the last six years of doing The Trash Pile is maintaining my own drive–having the will to do it. I’ve experienced instances of bad luck, I guess, in my personal life that has left me feeling depleted creatively. The co-host of the podcast, Jason, moved from Massachusetts to Georgia late last year, so having the ability to sync up and to record has been tricky. Really, it’s all bullshit excuses because I should just write to write, or podcast to podcast–for the enjoyment of it.
NEMMC: Can you talk about some of The Trash Pile’s limited edition VHS releases? Have you encountered any rights hurdles with talent or production/distribution houses? If so, how have you navigated those hurdles?
CN: Most of what I do is on the grey market [unofficial buying/selling/trading areas that exist outside the perimeters of authorized manufacturing channels] and my re-edits and re-releases are always of films that are not available for purchase in the States. If something has been released here [the United States] and is currently in print, I don’t touch it. In terms of the titles I’ve done small batches of, it really just comes down to if it’s a title I, personally, enjoy. The whole idea of the grey market was something that fueled my love of international and genre films. When I was in high school my friend, Jason, and I would attend comic conventions in Boston every few months in order to search for and pick up new movies. Without those conventions we wouldn’t have been able to see a lot of these films that never made it to the States by that point (e.g., VERSUS, BATTLE ROYALE, etc.) or special edits of films that were very hard to come by (e.g., the x-rated version of ROBOCOP). Of course the distribution arena has changed dramatically over the years and a lot of these once hard-to-find titles are now popping up on sites, like YouTube, for free.
NEMMC: Has the increased availability of rare and offbeat titles on places like YouTube and via other grey market retailers that are flooding the bootleg scene making your work harder and/or is it changing the focus and scope of The Trash Pile?
CN: For me, it’s all about increasing the exposure of these films. So, if there’s a rival way for people to view it (YouTube, other grey market outlets, etc.) that’s all the better. The Trash Pile was never a money or business orientated venture, but instead a way to share fun movies with people interested in seeing them.
NEMMC: I’m fascinated by your work involved with the release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN (1993). Can you talk about the experience of both discovering and, ultimately, releasing it on VHS?
CN: Like a lot of video collectors, I try and visit weird thrift stores and yard sales, year round. You’re never guaranteed a hit every time, but it’s all about the thrill of the hunt. As far as finding THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN, I was visiting a church book sale in southern New Hampshire when I saw the film while poking through any banana boxes stuffed with analog. I had never heard of it before, though that wasn’t a new thing as there’s always going to be something you’ve never seen before–but MACKLIN was different.
I’m a sucker for ghost stories, so, the film seemed like one that was worth the .75 cents. After taking the film home I looked for whatever information was available about it online, but couldn’t find a damned thing. I then looked up information on the director, Bob DuBois, and learned he was still around and living in the same Colorado town where he shot the film. I sent him an email and began a back and forth with him about how much I enjoyed his subtle little ghost story. I’ve always believed that no film should be lost and forgotten, so I asked Bob if I could do a small batch release of the film, and he agreed.
NEMMC: What do you think the value is in chasing down and re-releasing films considered by some to be lowbrow or trashy? What excites you about this flavor of cinema?
CN: It all comes down to one thing for me: entertainment. As I said before, I don’t think any media should be lost or forgotten, so a lot of what I’m doing (reviewing, watching, re-releasing) is an effort to not let a movie be forgotten. Believe me, there are a plethora of titles that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on, but I know that there is an audience for each and every one of those films regardless of whether or not I like them all.
NEMMC: Jumping off my last question, what is the value for you of collecting and distributing films on the VHS format?
CN: There will always be a new movie waiting if you continue to dig into past releases that may have missed the digital boat. There are a lot of solid digital distributors putting out titles for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray. However, there are still thousands of films that haven’t seen the light of a commerce shelf in decades and unless there is a push from fans a lot of these movies could cease to be. That’s really what collecting/distributing is all about to me; making sure that the right entertainment finds the right person. Life’s too short not to be entertained.
NEMMC: Do you think the VHS format will ever experience a resurgence the way vinyl has been experiencing over the last decade?
CN: That’s a tough question as a big part of the modern renaissance in vinyl can be attributed to, in my opinion, the fact that production of turntables never really stopped altogether. Manufacturers like Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha and Sony never ceased production on their turntables. It wasn’t long after VHS stopped being produced that the production of VCRs slowed. For a few years the DVD/VCR combo sold moderately well, but finding that option in stores is not an easy task nowadays. A VHS resurgence would require a company to start manufacturing new players, similar to what Crosley is doing with turntables. If we get to that point I believe you’ll see VHS again.
NEMMC: What does the future hold for The Trash Pile? What are some of your goals going forward?
CN: Honestly, I’m not sure. 2016 has been a ridiculous year for me due to a number of life-changing events, so, doing anything creative like podcasting and generating more VHS output seems like a real challenge for me emotionally. I have been focusing on doing some manufacturing of VHS for directors and distributors who want their titles on an analog format. For example, I just did a batch of VHS for an awesome indie film currently hitting the festival circuit called, MUTE, by A Color Green–a production company out of New York. And I’ve also had directors ask me to give their films a VHS release, like Jason Stephenson, who ask me to release his film STRIP CLUB SLASHER earlier this year. His film is now part of The Trash Pile catalog. That was a really fun project because I had the chance to reuse ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ pink clamshell cases for the release.
Chris Nichols and The Trash Pile project are a fun and creative insight into one of the many different ways in which collectors and VHS enthusiasts are keeping the format alive while simultaneously introducing or re-introducing the public to a variety of largely forgotten films of yesterday. Those of us who share their passion hope that Nichols can keep the creative juices flowing and continue to expose us to more analog craziness in 2017 and beyond!
“The equipment is a connection to the past. A projectionist from the 1920s could come in here and run this. Nothing has changed.” – Rick Shamel on the film projection booth,THE DYING OF THE LIGHT
As someone who grew up in film projection booths, Taylor Umphenour knew he wasn’t going to merely be a passive observer to what has been the slow, yet steady, conversion to digital projection. So in 2011 the Providence-based projectionist launched The Cue Dot, a multifaceted effort to capture the look, feel, sound, smell, and history of the film projection booth and all that dwells within them.The Cue Dot is a portal to another time when physical film ruled and the idea of living in a wireless world was still a thing of science fiction. NEMMC recently caught up with Umphenour to learn more about The Cue Dot project and to better understand how he’s taken his love of film and film projection to new, artistic heights.
NEMMC: Can you talk about the various phases you’ve established for The Cue Dot project and what influenced you to start all of this in the first place?
Taylor Umphenour: The Cue Dot started back in 2011. I’d been working professionally as a projectionist since I was seventeen: all through college, and after. I kind of grew up in the booth. I always had my own projects and side businesses going on, but working as a film projectionist was the one stable constant in my life over about nine years full of change and growth. I started seeing news stories about projection booths closing as they fell, one by one, to an industry-wide conversion from film to digital projection. I had a moment of recognition: the world of the booth, as with all things, wasn’t going to be around forever. So I put my other projects on hold and set myself to capture the energy and life of that special world before it changed forever.
Capturing the booth took four months of principal photography: with both film and video shooting, and sound recording. This was followed by many months of photo editing. The project is being released in phases mostly because it’s a personal project that cuts across multiple mediums.
The first phase was driven by gathering a group of likeminded people on social media: an audience for the project. I knew there must be other people out there like me who’d enjoy taking a trip into the world of the film projection booth, and I found them one-by-one on social media.
The next phase focused on creating physical pieces of art that tied into the main project. I wanted a way for people to bring the feeling of this magical cinematic world into their own lives. I released the first edition of photography from The Cue Dot and sold archival prints from the site to people all over the world. I can’t tell you how many people have written in expressing their gratitude for my making this project. It’s been inspiring to hear from so many along the way—and it’s what has kept the project going.
Beyond this, I wanted to take the physical film—the lifeblood of the projection booth—and find a way to repurpose it for a new generation. This became an entire apparel collection calledFilm Leader.
The next big phase of The Cue Dot will be to build a solid community from the audience of social media followers. This work will begin with the opening ofFilmProjectionBooth.comas a new expanded home for the project. My focus there is on creating a place for anyone who loves the world of the booth to come and experience it whenever they so desire. While social media is full of lively conversation and interaction, it’s very easy for work to be easily buried in an avalanche of distraction. My hope with this third phase is to create a web-based experience that allows people to get as close as possible to the experience of what it was like to be a projectionist in the old carbon arc film projection booth.
If FilmProjectionBooth.com is a success, it may pave the way for some surprise phases I’ve already laid the groundwork for—but those will have to remain surprises for the moment since each phase depends on the completion of the prior one in order to move forward…
NEMMC: Are there other ways of capturing the essence of the projection booth that The Cue Dot is not yet doing?
TU: Absolutely. There’s technology that’s around now that wasn’t around when I shot The Cue Dot. I still think someone could do an amazing VR project taking people back into the booth. And there are potentially thousands of untold stories. When I first started the project back in 2011-2012, this was a story that hardly anyone was telling. But after the widespread conversion of theaters from film to digital projection, the story has become part of the zeitgeist—with quite a few other projects and pieces out there that have been made about this particular transition point in cinema history. It’s great to see so many people trying to tell this story in different ways—whether in short videos, feature films, articles, and so on. One of my early insights when I started making this project was how sad it was for something so beautiful to slip quietly into the past when so few people had a chance to appreciate it and experience it. It was as if the film projection booth was a special exclusive world that very few people were even aware of—and then one day, it was gone.
NEMMC: What kinds of challenges have you faced and anticipate facing as the project evolves?
TU: Funding is always the biggest challenge for personal projects that cut across multiple mediums. But the core challenges of this project are the same as with any project: keeping it compelling, telling a good story, being specific and clear, and creating an emotional connection with the audience. I tend to find that most projects have the defects of their virtues: that is, the very things that make them challenging are also the things that make them compelling to begin with. With The Cue Dot, I’ve chosen to focus on a place, a feeling, an era, and a process. It’s a challenge because there isn’t a main character to piggyback on. I’ve chosen to try to create something that stands at the crossroads of many different mediums, symbols, and historical shifts: mechanical vs. digital, human vs. machine, film vs. video, past vs. future. And yet to do this without focusing on a singular main character who can take us all through it has been quite a challenge.
NEMMC: We’re living in an era of remakes, reissues, and pop culture resurgences. Do you feel film projection will ever see a mass rebound the way vinyl records and other formats and mediums have?
TU: I’m a romantic about the subject matter of The Cue Dot, but a pragmatist when it comes to the economic reality facing many theaters, especially single screen operations. I don’t think film projection will ever see a mass rebound, but the key word there is “mass.” The economic model of theatrical exhibition has remained essentially unchanged for decades, and it’s now being forced to evolve, confronting real challenges with deeply rooted issues that go way beyond film vs. digital projection.
That said, no technology ever invented by humans has ever gone away entirely. People are still making all sorts of things by hand that can be made with machines. And there are still a core group of theaters out there running films, some of them with reel-to-reel projectors. More important than a mass rebound, I think it’s important to keep the culture of it alive through storytelling, which I believe to be the foundation of community building. I do think there’s space in the market for a loosely affiliated network of film-based theaters, and that the novelty of such a thing will only grow, further adding to its appeal. My hope is that these theaters find a way to band together, pool resources, and create a strong film culture around what they’re doing. It’d be very gratifying if The Cue Dot can help inspire people who want to be part of keeping that culture alive.
NEMMC: Is the act of repurposing (or recycling) and possessing a willingness to adapt critical to keeping something–like the physical medium of film–alive? Have these approaches been part of your work with The Cue Dot?
TU: Repurposing and adapting is critical to keeping the medium alive, both in the big macro paradigm and at a smaller scale. The film medium and arguments about whether or not it’s “dead” are largely an issue of point of view, where in the chain you spend most of your time and focus, and how close you are to it. I’ve personally grown tired of these debates because they miss the point: from an aesthetic standpoint, film and digital are capable of being symbiotic… as symbiotic as painting and photography or television and radio. It’s also important not to confuse the medium for the economic model that has been built around the medium. This frequently gets lost in the debate about the way in which film technology needs to adapt for the future.
The Film Leader T-Shirt
Film Leader Phone Case
When it comes to The Cue Dot, I chose to shoot a lot of what I created for the project digitally. Ironically, it was done this way for the same reason the theater I was photographing was converting from film to digital: economics and flexibility. I knew that for the amount of material I wanted to shoot, I’d have to stop and spend six months raising money to buy the film stock I wanted. Only, we didn’t have six months to wait. A date had already been set for the theater’s conversion. If I’d waited until we had the funds to shoot on film, there would have been nothing left to photograph.
I’m interested to see how the economic model around theatrical film exhibition can be adapted, now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century.
35mm Canvas Tote / Film Leader
B&W 35mm Leader Stripes Summer Dress / Film Leader
NEMMC: Of course filmmaking has long been considered an art form, but the way you write about film projection may lead some to think you view the film projection process as another type of art form…
TU: Without getting deep in the weeds of semantics or touching off a huge comment thread about what constitutes an art form, I’d say: yes—I absolutely believe there’s the potential for film projection to become an art form. Whenever a technology or practice reaches the end of it’s “useful life” for its original purpose, you reach fertile territory for a new art form to emerge. When painting no longer had to shoulder the weight of capturing a likeness in vivid detail, it was able to evolve and grow in ways that created a new aesthetic vocabulary. When LPs were no longer the medium for listening to everyday music, DJs repurposed them and a new art form was born. Film projection—especially dual carbon arc reel-to-reel film projection—has that potential. As for the expressive potential of the medium outside the context of a cinematic theatrical presentation, who knows what the boundaries are. I’ve often thought it’d be fascinating to have a stage show where a team of a dozen projectionists used a dozen on-stage projectors to mix between different reels and create a kind of hybrid cinematic/dance piece.
As it originally existed, and as I captured it in The Cue Dot, I believe there was an art to being a good projectionist. A skill, but also a sensitivity. You were part of the performance. You were the last person whose hands were entrusted with those ribbons of celluloid. As time went on, the responsibility of that performance was gradually shifted from the human to the machine… until in the end, it was the machine’s responsibility entirely. At some point along the line, the sensitivity required of projectionist was shifted and the art was lost. At some point, it had more to do with the machine’s performance than with the projectionist’s. I’m not sure if that was when platters were added, or perhaps earlier with the end of carbon-arc… but at that point, a bit of the “art” of film projection died.
NEMMC: Has your geographical location of Providence, RI, played a role in the creation and evolution of The Cue Dot? If so, how?
TU: Providence is a great place to live for all sorts of reasons, but it’s most lasting contribution to The Cue Dot is that Providence is the home of the Avon Cinema. The theater opened in 1938 and has been run by the same family for three generations. Almost eighty years of continuous operation meant the projection booth at the Avon was unique. My friendship with the owners and their willingness to let me turn this project into such an elaborate endeavor played a determining role in The Cue Dot being as thorough and substantial as it was. I should also say that great credit is also to be given to the other projectionists, who happily allowed me to photograph and film them for months on end while they worked. The booth is a solitary place and that kind of invasion—with the lights and gear, and everything else—can be overwhelming. Those guys were troupers and their patience with the whole process is part of what makes this little time capsule so special.
NEMMC: On your website it states, “The Cue Dot is far from over.” What does the future hold for The Cue Dot?
TU: The future is all about expanding the audience for this story and telling it in increasingly complex ways without losing the soul of what makes it so special. FilmProjectionBooth.com will be undergoing an expansion as the next phase of this project starts to click in to gear. I continue to receive messages from people with deep roots in this world, and that only reminds me that there are lots of people out there still waiting to hear this story and experience the world of the film projection booth and everything I was able to capture there.
Interested in more stories about film and film projection? NEMMC has you covered! Check out these links below:
All of us have a memory of a moment that we’re not entirely sure actually occurred. A blurry instance that we think happened but that we can’t corroborate with someone else or find evidence of no matter how sophisticated the keyword search in Google.
With this in mind, is it likely one might have a childhood memory of sitting inches from a television set and watching a giant, man-eating alligator burst from the depths of a sewer onto a public thoroughfare? Doubtful. But maybe?
That’s the scene childhood friend, Zac, describes of his first viewing of the 1980 cult classic, ALLIGATOR, directed by Lewis Teague, starring Robert Forster and Robin Riker, and written by the man who also brought us PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), John Sayles. Originally from Massachusetts and now residing in Chicago, Zac and I shared in a screening of this film at a young age – perhaps too young to be watching the likes of an animatronic monster devouring unsuspecting pedestrians left and right – in his North Attleboro basement.
Zac recalls viewing this oddity, “My first memories of seeing the movie are burned into my brain. I was far too young to watch it, maybe six or seven (ca. 1991-92?), and I was downstairs watching it on TV in the basement by myself. The image that is forever etched into my mind is the scene where the alligator bursts out of the street where there is a manhole cover and comes above ground. It was terrifying…”
Clearly the film made an impression on Zac, as it did on me the first time I saw it (Zac’s 2nd go around with it.) Twenty years later that experience with Zac is somehow both vivid and largely unclear in my mind, much like a memory of an experience you can’t quite decipher or confirm. Zac again: “I had that memory of the movie [the alligator bursting from underground] and it had an impact on me for years, but it wasn’t until the two of us connected over it later that I realized it was a real movie in the world. I think I always half-thought that I had imagined it and made it up. Lo and behold, on a second viewing as a teen or adolescent, the same scene came up and it was all confirmed as a real thing in the world.”
Indeed, these bizarre memories of reptilian horror were, in fact, real, and in the two decades since, Zac and I have sporadically cobbled together other memories of the film through various email and Facebook message exchanges. It has been – as these things often are – very enjoyable to wax nostalgic for a pleasant time (albeit foggy) in my adolescence. Of course, if you’re someone who happens to suffer from both nostalgia and an urge to collect, the buck does not, as they say, stop there.
In the years since first seeing the film several things happened: I exposed many friends and family (much to their indifference or outright displeasure) to ALLIGATOR. In 2014 I met the film’s director, Lewis Teague, at a convention in New Jersey and had him sign my original Egyptian ALLIGATOR poster [see photo below]. But it was even earlier, in elementary school that I learned of a rare movie tie-in game produced by the IDEAL company, appropriately called ALLIGATOR – The Game. And in the years since its limited release it has become somewhat of a coveted piece by many horror fanatics and board game collectors alike.
Truth be told, since those elementary school days I’ve kept an eye out for any relics from ALLIGATOR (copies of the film on any format, original one sheet posters, etc.) but it was the IDEAL game that continued to elude me no matter how savvy my search. This all changed when I discovered a seller from North Kingston, RI, selling the alligator piece from the game. No other parts of the game were included, but I didn’t care. The cool part of the game was always the 27″ long alligator itself – in all of its forest green, plastic glory.
The complete game with original box commands a high dollar (upwards of $100 or more) — so to find even the lone alligator in decent condition and under 100 miles from my home in Boston should be deemed a lucky, if not an improbable, find.
But could I really sink my teeth into it and seal the deal?
After some good-natured back and forth regarding price I was able to round third base and slide directly into the jaws of this delicious piece of 1980s nostalgia. After years of wondering when or if I would ever find it, it was mine.
On a warm, Sunny Sunday in February I made the trek south to North Kingston, RI to collect my treasure. Almost immediately after breaking through the East Greenwich/North Kingston town line I felt as though I had stumbled into the most rural part of the state. Not much separatedthe modest cottages from an antique store (with a fabulous bathtub propped up proudly on the front porch) and some railroad tracks. The owner of my beautiful beast lived in (what felt like) an abandoned farmhouse. Kids toys and rusty farm equipment littered the property. I rang the bell.
A woman cracked the door open and peered out at me. Children could be easily heard running around and yelling in the background. “Hi, I’m here for the alligator toy…” I said.
She quickly called to one of her children to fetch the gator. “Here you go,” she said. I gave her the $15 I had haggled her husband down to and went about my way.
Victory was mine and I couldn’t have been happier. Years of hunting were over. Not dissimilar to how I have felt over the years collecting other memorabilia, I now felt closer to a film I’ve appreciated for years. It’s a true sign of a collector when it’s not enough just to admire something from a distance – we must connect with it in a tangible, realtime way. Somehow it satiates our hunger for the past while justifying the effort exerted on the quest itself to find whatever it is we’re hunting for.
It’s funny how things like films (and certainly music) have a way of not only binding themselves to us but also binding us to others in our lives. My pal Zac and I never see one another, and yet we carry this bizarre little connection with us through life. I can’t pass his old street in North Attleboro or even see a status update of his on Facebook without thinking of ALLIGATOR. What’s more, I can’t see the VHS cover in my collection or catch the film on late-night TV without thinking of Zac. It’s strange, yet also strangely comforting.
The rush. There’s a rush you get when you’re rifling through boxes and crates of VHS tapes hoping to stumble upon that rare gem you’ve been looking for since high school. These boxes seem to always have a similar scent, that faintly familiar smell of a basement closet or a relative’s apartment (and that relative is always a heavy smoker.) The hunt is something I know all too well about. Since middle school I’ve obsessed over horror films and have spent (and continue to spend) hours researching, hunting for, and collecting movies on a variety of (mainly now obsolete) formats: laserdisc, betamax, VHS, and more recently DVD and blu-ray. (I also have some Video 8s tucked away.)
In my seventeen years of collecting I’ve come to realize that certain movie genres have greater appeal than others with respect to those diehard collectors: horror, exploitation, sci-fi, action and kung, and the more vague drive-in style trash/cult genres typically from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Like many others, I wax nostalgic about being a wide-eyed kid in our local rental store (American Video) browsing the horror aisles. (Certain VHS covers are permanently burned into my brain.) Indeed, it seems as though even within a relatively small subculture of collectors there exist distinct subgroups who favor or specialize in specific areas from genre to case style (clamshell vs. slipcase, for example).
Below are some favorite hard-to-find tapes from my VHS collection. (Top, left to right: NUKIE (1987); GANJASAURUS REX (1987); WHEEZY! (asthmatic dragon video for kids, date unknown); THE BRAIN (1988, Greek version). Bottom, left to right: SLITHIS (1978, aka SPAWN OF THE SLITHIS); TREMORS (1990, screening tape with alt slipcase); TO CATCH A YETI (1995).
These fetishists fall into two broadly defined camps: the nostalgists, who are looking to relive childhood memories, and the aesthetes, who are drawn to the roughhewn beauty of low-budget horror. Both, like any group of collectors, err on the completist side—collecting every title from long- defunct distributors like Unicorn Video and Midnight Video is a common goal—and live to unearth hard-to-find or undiscovered videos that will make fellow hobbyists seethe with jealousy.
But regardless of your collecting preference, one needs outlets and venues in which to share, trade, buy, sell, collect, and get educated. Today, with so many subculture communities meeting and exchanging information via the Internet, finding these kinds of opportunities to meet fellow collectors in the physical world has become rarer and rarer.
Thankfully, however, there are people like Joe Fay at the Lyric Hall theater in New Haven, CT, who recognize that there’s not only a lingering interest in the VHS format but also a need for events and opportunities for collectors to come together to share knowledge and search for that long lost copy of something strange, or bizarre, or maybe even beautiful. So, when I learned about a VHS swap meet and screening event, Magnetic Fest, happening at the historic Lyric Hall theater (once home to regional vaudeville shows and variety acts) this past fall, I made sure I was there. After the event NEMMC caught up with Joe to talk tapes, Lyric Hall, and the increasingly fascinating world of VHS collecting.
NEMMC: How and when did the idea for Magnetic Fest originate?
Joe Fay: As soon as I started programming for Lyric Hall in October 2014, I wanted to host a VHS swap at the theater. It’s a grand old dame of a place, really a one-of-a-kind setting for watching movies, music, theater, dance, and other creative arts. But I really thought that a VHS swap and screening day would work well in the theater, to mix some old with some older, in terms of the age of the theater compared to the age of the VHS format. Somehow it made sense, to roll in what is essentially a dead format to many people, and give it new life at a place that has survived for over a century. I had attended VHS swaps in Texas, where I lived for most of my life.
Then, last year, a friend and I drove to Pennsylvania to attend SEVERED, pretty much the premier VHS swap in the country. I think it was about two weeks after SEVERED that we had MAGNETIC FEST on the schedule.
NEMMC: There were some special events scheduled throughout the Fest. Can you tell us about whom you asked to curate these events and why they were asked?
Artwork for Frankenstein (I Swear On My Mother’s Eyes)
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR was distributed by Vinegar Syndrome, based in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had met some of the fine folks who run Vinegar Syndrome at Connecticut HorrorFest, then worked with them at Lyric Hall on some screenings, including the amazing RAW FORCE (1982)!
They’ve been amazing partners, and hopefully we’ll continue to see the partnership between Vinegar Syndrome and Lyric Hall blossom. The third film was released through LUNCHMEAT Magazine, whose owner, Josh Schafer is just the best we have going in the world of VHS. Josh is one of a handful of people who truly lives the life of VHS, and he’s a wonderful champion of the format. When I was trying to fill out the screening schedule for Magnetic Fest, I needed a third screening. I actually announced the festival without a third screening. I billed it as “COMING SOON” or something like that, and was confident that I would find somebody to screen something in the meantime.
No more than fifteen minutes after I posted the initial rundown of Magnetic Fest, Josh contacted me to see if I wanted to run a movie as a SECRET SCREENING because the movie was about to be released on VHS as a surprise offering, and it was too early to announce the title of the movie. I jumped at the chance to show the movie, and of course did so sight-unseen. If it was good enough for Lunchmeat, it was good enough for me. We were able to tell people a day or two before the festival, and it turns out that the movie, FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) had its world theatrical premiere at Magnetic Fest in little ole New Haven. Subsequently, the movie was released on VHS by Lunchmeat.
NEMMC: How did you solicit vendor involvement for Magnetic Fest? Who were some of the vendors that participated?
JF: Vendor involvement was all solicited through the Lyric Hall website and social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. I personally emailed several prominent VHS collectors in the New York area, but not one of them was able to come. The lion’s share of vendors were local, which pleased me to no end.
We had one vendor from Massachusetts and a late entry from Long Island, but the rest of the vendors, including me, were from the New Haven area. Interestingly, one of the vendors from the New Haven area just happened to come to one of our weekly exploitation movie screenings, and saw the poster for the event in our lobby. Turns out she worked for CBS Fox video in the ’80s, and she brought original production pieces and other marketing materials from RAISING ARIZONA.
NEMMC: What (if any) sort of feedback did you receive about the Fest?
JF: I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews about the event. If we do it again, I will tweak the amount of time we keep the vendor’s room open, because I think seven hours was too long. Also, we’re toying with the idea of opening the vendor’s room for free, and charging for the screenings. But, we’ll play around with it if we decide to do it again. I’m assured that everybody who came had something good to say about the affair, so keep an eye on the Lyric Hall calendar.
Magnetic Fest 2015 (Courtesy of NEMMC)
Magnetic Fest 2015 (Courtesy of NEMMC)
Magnetic Fest 2015 (Courtesy of NEMMC)
NEMMC: Lyric Hall is clearly a historic space and therefore a fitting venue for those interested in VHS and obsolete media to congregate. In the past it served as a vaudeville outlet and silent movie auditorium for those in the New Haven, CT area. Can you tell us about the history of Lyric Hall and how you became involved with it?
JF: Lyric Hall opened as a silent movie theater in 1913, and later served the vaudeville crowds until, I think, the ’30s. At some point, the theater fell into disrepair, then served as an antiques shop for awhile before John Cavaliere bought it about eleven years ago now. John has lovingly restored the Hall to its present glory, and continues to tweak its look and feel.
Lyric Hall, exterior (Courtesy of the Lyric Hall website)
Lyric Hall, interior (Courtesy of Chion Wolf)
My involvement with Lyric Hall started with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL in August 2014. I had just moved to New Haven from Texas, and was looking for a movie theater to get involved with, to do some, any kind of programming. I saw a listing for a screening of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL that I had just missed that previous weekend at the Hall. I called up and talked to John, explaining that I wanted to schedule and host movie screenings, something that I had done in my backyard in Texas, and always wanted to do in a more formal way. From the start, we were a match made in heaven. He pretty much left me free to schedule whatever I wanted. We did a month of Vincent Price movies
Death Collector (1988) poster art
Death Collector screening event ad (Courtesy of Lyric Hall website)
around Halloween, a month of rock musicals of the ’70s, a special screening of the New Haven movie DEATH COLLECTOR with the director, Tom Garrett, LIVE in person, and a bunch of other cool movies. Magnetic Fest was a logical extension of the movie programming, and fit alongside it just perfectly.
NEMMC: There seems to be a small yet passionate subculture of VHS enthusiasts who live and breathe collecting and trading. In your opinion, why do you think interest in the format has persisted well after its heyday?
JF: It’s one part nostalgia, one part preservation, one part community, and two parts fun. Nostalgia: most people who collect VHS want to remember the thrill of the video store. Preservation: there are hundreds, even thousands of movies on VHS that have not graduated to later formats, so it is absolutely vital that we have collectors out there sourcing and preserving these movies. Community: serious genre movie nerds feel very comfortable with their own kind. It’s just like any other subculture, where people find meaning, identification, and self-worth in knowing that there are like-minded people out there pursuing the same “dead” technology that they love.
I don’t think this current trend for VHS will last long. In fact, it’s already on the decline, if you ask me. What will be left is what is always left after a trend goes away: the truly serious collectors. And thank God for them.
NEMMC: Jumping off the last question, what do you think are the primary drivers for VHS collectors? It’s certainly not for the superior visual quality!
JF: See above for most of the answer here, but the question of quality is a good one. I don’t understand people who, given the choice between a high definition, widescreen version of ALIEN or the pan-and-scan VHS of ALIEN will pop in the VHS of ALIEN. I don’t get that. Have you SEEN the blu-ray of ALIEN!? It’s AMAZING! To watch ALIEN on VHS today seems to me to be nostalgia just for nostalgia’s sake, and that doesn’t interest me. In the recent Noah Baumbach movie, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, there’s a scene where a Brooklyn hipster played by Adam Driver pops in a tape of THE HOWLING. This character is really into vinyl, VHS, and other retro stuff, and so naturally he enjoys THE HOWLING on VHS. But why? Shout Factory just released an amazing blu-ray of THE HOWLING, and it’s GORGEOUS! Yet, this chump still finds value in watching this great movie on VHS. To each his own, I guess, but that’s not for me. Give me the better picture quality and sound, and leave nostalgia at the door for movies like ALIEN and THE HOWLING.
Now, I would think differently about watching something like NIGHT VISION (1987) on VHS. The movie itself was SHOT ON VIDEO, so it’s natural to watch it on its original format. As my friend Zack Carlson is fond of saying, “Why would you want to watch a movie shot on a camcorder, on blu-ray?” And he’s absolutely right.
There is also one other issue to me that helps me forgive people watching sweeping epics on VHS, and that concerns access to and availability of titles on home video. Many, many people have built large collections of movies on VHS $1 at a time by shopping at Goodwill and other thrift stores where VHS is cheap. You can certainly amass movies much faster this way than buying blu-rays at $20 or $25 each. And that is certainly understandable as a way to enjoy movies on home video. You just have to stop caring about presentation, which isn’t such a big deal to most people, sadly.
NEMMC: Are you a VHS collector yourself or do you merely admire from a distance?
JF: Yes, I am certainly a collector of a sort.I’ve always had some sort of video collection, going back to my dad buying two VCRs and dubbing movies in the ’80s. Just because ofmy age, I started collecting movies mainly when DVD hit, so most of my collection is composed of DVD.
I was one of those format snobs who left VHS behind for the greener pastures and correct aspect ratios of DVD. I wish I had tempered that transition more. At the present time, my focus on VHS collecting lies in two main areas: shot-on-video movies and movies not available in any other format. In that direction lies salvation.