Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Writer and the Movie - A Love Story

One of the things I've noticed, after reading many different authors' memoirs on the craft of writing and the effects of childhood experiences, is that most, if not all, were influenced in one way or another by film.

When I say film, I'm not talking about the standard musicals, romances and Disney children's movies of the mid twentieth century. No, everyone saw those, and while they had their squeaky-clean moments of whimsical charm they did little to flesh out the imaginations of young, impressionable writers-to-be.

Every author, especially those easily classified into the speculative genres (science fiction, fantasy, horror and their derivative subcategories) seem in one way or another to have been captivated, usually at a very young age, by the grit, gore and sleaze of the “B movie,” the “exploitation flick,” the “grind house picture.”

Call them what you will, as they go by many names and often defy outright categorization, but these were the films that ran at cheap theaters, drive ins and screens dedicated to second runs and small-budget shockers. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, sums up the youthful obsession well when he says “Never mind sweet; never mind uplifting; never mind Snow White and the Seven Goddam Dwarfs. At thirteen I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.”

Now, that's what I'm talking about.

By the time my own coming of age was taking place, most of the drive ins and all of the studio-specific theaters had faded into obscurity. I've often complained that perhaps, despite my fondness for all things new and battery-powered and cutting-edge, I was born a few decades late. I missed the rise of the horror film, in all of its shocking black and white glory, I missed the birth of Technicolor, the ritual of necking at the drive in, the heyday of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

What I did have, by the time I'd blossomed into a hardcore lover of all things gross, creepy and subversive, was the neighborhood video store.

Back in the days before DVD, before Netflix, before Redbox and Blockbuster and the concept of streaming video, there was the neighborhood video store. Every small town had one, and, for the lover of horror films at least, they were head and shoulders above the chain stores like Blockbuster and their clones.

The independently-owned stores were the best. They had at least one VHS copy of pretty much every vampire, ghost or monster movie that came out each year, plus (if you were lucky) older movies and skin flicks. During my teenage years, I would rent a movie at least once every two or three days, usually for ninety-nine cents and always something my parents would have preferred I didn't have any interest in. So long as you were careful not to try renting anything X or NC-17 rated, you could get away with going above your approved age group. I saw a lot of stuff I wasn't (at least in the eyes of the law) ready to see, several of which I still look back and remember fondly to this day.

I remember watching To Sleep With a Vampire, a romance/horror hybrid starring 80s straight-to-video heartthrob Scott Valentine and Charlie Spradling, about a suicidal stripper and a really hot vampire getting it on before one of them has to die. The sheer amount of bare flesh and cheesy, though not completely uninspiring, dialogue involved was mind bending.

I rented Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs enough times to memorize the entire script, and the number of f-bombs dropped would eventually find it banned from our house once my mother's patience for it wore thin. Along with the film itself, I fell madly in love with the music, and one day I walked out of our house and all the way across town to National Record Mart to buy the soundtrack. Once there, the sky opened up and dumped gallon upon gallon of cold rainwater onto the city, and I was forced to call the lone taxi service from a grocery store pay phone and schedule a ride home. Neither the stores themselves nor the taxi company exist anymore.

When I was seventeen and my brother only thirteen, I came home with a copy of Natural Born Killers secreted away in my backpack. He begged me to let him watch the movie with me, and seeing as our parents were gone for the evening I didn't mind breaking the rules a bit to accommodate him. I sat there with my mouth agape as a scene of oral sex atop a car turned into a murder, followed by more deaths than we could count, and the entire world went crazy for two homicidal redneck lovers. Again, I had to own the soundtrack. It was my first exposure to Leonard Cohen, and I still remember some of the lyrics to his song “The Future” - “Give me crack and anal sex/Take the only tree that's left/And stuff it up the hole/In your culture.”

I got quite the education from the video store. My brother probably did as well, just by associating with me. Most of the screwed up things that happened to him as a kid, as far as I can tell, originated with me. One of these days I may have to issue him an apology.

Sometimes my friends and I rented older movies. I remember seeing Blacula for the first time and, afterward, running the plot through in my mind as if written on paper and thinking “Hey, this actually kind of works.” We sometimes rented 70s and 80s splatter classics, and by the time I actually went out and purchased the damn thing I'd seen Halloween more times than I could count. I saw Halloween II, several of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, a handful of Friday the 13ths. I saw lesser-known movies I forget the names to, graduating to the VHS-only, blood-filled, low-budget junk food movies of the late 80s and early 90s.

I barely remember anything except Harvey Keitel’s exposed genitals from The Bad Lieutenant, a movie my friend Christine and I picked up and dragged over to our friend Kristie’s house one weekend.

My friend Chas and I saw all of the Leprechaun movies one summer, sitting in his basement. We also rented a movie about hookers and murder called Zipperface, probably that same year. I'm fairly certain, looking back on it now, that we were trying to root out and expose the worst films we could find, just for a laugh.

My friend Lydia and I, once we were legal adults, marched triumphantly into the video store and into the back corner, eyeballing the pornos with hysterical, lecherous eyes. It would take us years from that point to reach adulthood in any terms not federally mandated. We flipped each case over, read the synopsis, burst out with nervous laughter and moved on to the next one. At one point in our ritual, some poor guy a few years older than us edged into the section, probably wanting to get his dirty movie and get the hell out without much trouble. Being the jerk I was, and already a fan of irritating and making uncomfortable people I barely or don't even know, I slowly turned my head, raised an eyebrow and asked him, “You got any recommendations?” while sweeping my hand across the section.

It's always the same. I only act like a jackass when my girlfriends are around. Corner me alone and you get a stuttering, yellow-bellied wreck of a girl unable to even put together a witty reply. Lydia and I went back to my house that night with a completely unremarkable soft core video about poker players and roulette wheels, though we watched it from beginning to end without much use of the fast-forward button. That guy had some crappy taste in porn.

This went on even after I left my hometown for college. In my new town, there were two video stores to belong to, and I weaseled my way into both despite one of them being strictly for year-round residents. I believe I had to pay an extra twenty-five dollars for the membership, seeing as how so many university students took off with the tapes, never to return.

Somewhere along the line, I was reacquainted with Vincent Price, his amazing voice and inimitable sense of style and humor. To this day, The Abominable Doctor Phibes is one of my favorites of all time, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

My life has pretty much gone the same ever since, though the small video stores have faded from the landscape one after the other over the years. Now, instead of browsing shelf after shelf of empty cases with lurid cover art, I read synopses online and put them into a queue. I wait, sometimes for days, sometimes for months, depending on the film's position on the list, before I can sit down and enjoy it. It's not the same, and it never will be, but progression comes whether you want it or not, and all you can do is accept it and keep going.

I'll never ask for porno recommendations again, though. Once was enough.

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