The Curse of Chandu
There was a time, believe it or not, that you could rent a movie featuring two elderly Chinese men, one without legs and the other without arms, teaming up to fight evil by getting one another to display their peculiar form of kung fu. While you may suspect such an amazing, powerful movie would be in abundant supply at every video store in town, constantly flying off the shelf, you'd in fact be wrong.
In fact, most major chains have little or no desire to carry exploitative, illegally bootlegged movies in insanely bad taste. All right, it's no surprise to anyone. As anyone who's seen a John Waters film knows, the only place to rent films of this ilk used to be the Video Vault at Cut Corner, and with its disappearance last year, Lexington lost virtually its only outlet for films of a... quirkier nature.
Foreign films (other than Life Is Beautiful); "independent" films that didn't take $8 million to make; the uncut, letterboxed versions of the Italian horror movie renaissance - all could be found in the Vault. But no more.
"The video store [at CC] was probably the best store of its kind in this whole area of the United States," says Noel Reucroft, employee there from '94 till the store closed in '99. "When CC started, everyone was in agreement of what they wanted the video store to be. They were obsessive movie buffs who wanted the films for themselves. We knew people would rent these movies; it was not a stupid proposition."
Cut Corner would get psychotronic movies - that is, "anything off the beaten path, no matter the ostensible genre," defines Reucroft.
The store was committed to the obscure and out-of-print - this meant a lot of bootlegged titles and videos that cost $70. While Blockbuster, Reucroft explains, would pass on those because the profit margin would be too small, CC could eventually get most of it back, and the store's new releases section and abundant porn titles would help cover any loss. It was a great system that worked. "There was no problem with sales or rentals," Reucroft asserts. "We may not have brought in the dough, but the Video Vault was not in the red."
A year or so after its demise, where can the psychotronic films be found? Who's filled the void? Anyone? Time for definitive quality test on the availability of quirky, pseudo-obscure movies.
The five test rentals were, in no particular order: Pink Flamingos; Scream, Blacula, Scream; Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!; Drunken Angel; and finally, the 1932 mega-uber-blockbuster Chandu the Magician, starring Harrison Ford and Kurt Russell, effects by ILM, directed by John Woo - okay, it starred Bela Lugosi as some goofy-ass magician. No one was gonna have that.
But Pink Flamingos should be standard fare for any store with the slightest alternative to Schwarzenegger, and Scream, Blacula, Scream is the sequel to Blacula, which should be a pretty straightforward horror film. Faster Pussycat pushes the meter, but it was certainly a par-for-the-course type film that could be found on the shelves of the Video Vault. And Drunken Angel is a Kurosawa film, his first big hit, and while we knew no one was going to have it, they should, dammit.
Blockbuster, as the nation's largest and most financially secure chain, was the first stop. Going into the Blockbuster gives one initial hope, as the multi-hued assault of videos, stacked from wall to wall appears to indicate an enormous selection.
Until one realizes that every film in the store is a copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley. And most of them are checked out. It doesn't bode well.
It seems natural to start with Pink Flamingos, a well-known, if infamous, movie.
"No," says the doe-eyed clerk.
Scream, Blacula, Scream?
"You want Scream?"
No. The sequel to Blacula.
Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!? Drunken Angel, the film by Akira Kurosawa?
Chandu the Magician?
Of the two dozen plus movie rental stores in Lexington, there are exactly two copies of Pink Flamingos and two copies of Scream, Blacula, Scream, both sets found at the two West Coast Video outlets.
At the Richmond Road Blockbuster, there are approximately one zillion copies of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, conservatively estimated. Neither Drunken Angel nor Faster Pussycat exist to be rented in town. And the adventures of Chandu's heroic struggles to save the world from the evil Roxor are now totally forgotten.
Why do the Blockbusters and the Movie Warehouses not care about crippled, elderly kung fu masters the way Cut Corner did?
George Maranville, producer of the local film 100 Proof and avid psychotronic connoisseur, points out that the average Blockbuster patron isn't looking to get Kung Fu From Beyond the Grave. It's usually families and suburbanites looking for the newest releases and/or family fare. "This means deep shelving," intones Maranville flatly. "They bring in 50 copies of the Talented Mr. Ripley, make all their money off that. When that stops getting rented, they bring the next big movie in. Everything that isn't a new release is just set decoration. Someone might rent Grumpy Old Men because Walter Matthau died the other day, but that's pretty rare."
And for the major chains, at least, only the new major releases get rented. Laura Whiteman, of Video Supreme, says that her foreign and independent films don't get out of the store much. "Even Topsy-Turvy, which won an Academy Award, is hardly rented, and that's pretty high up on the chain of smaller films. Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown got a lot of press, it's new, and that doesn't go out at all." Whiteman has actually had people complain that Divine movies can be found in the store. "In the face of that, and [the fact] that no one checks them out, there's no reason to have them in. If there was a calling, we'd provide the movies."
Hancock's Home Video tried its hand at providing more alternative cinema, but it didn't work. Now they don't even have Eraserhead or Dr. Strangelove, while there's scarcely enough shelf room to accommodate all fifty copies of The Green Mile.
What's more, Blockbuster's drive for regular content has had far more serious repercussions. "Since Blockbuster won't carry anything above an R rating," says Jeremy Richey, manager at the Alexandria Drive West Coast Video. "They've had a lot of effect on the way movies are actually made. They represent the biggest share of the rental market, which is a ton of money. In order to get that money, directors have had to change their movies. I know David Cronenberg had to cut out scenes from Crash for that reason. [Director Paul] Verhoeven and Showgirls, too."
While the loss of even part of Showgirls may seem a blessing, serious cineasts advocate asking Blockbuster if the tape you're renting has been edited.
Blockbuster's deep shelving has meant little other than major releases get much rental time. While currently they provide sections labeled "Hot Singles" full of edgier fare, it usually consists of bargain basement titles, the more well-known but less popular foreign films, and a cornucopia of embarrassing soft-core porn flicks. It's a very acceptable mainstream-type alternative, devoid of John Waters, Russ Meyer and unheard-of Kurosawa. Thus obscure movie enthusiasts have had to turn elsewhere for their fix.
"The best place to get psychotronic movies in Lexington?" asks Reucroft.
"Ebay. But you'll still pay too much for them."
Maranville's fellow film buff Joe Turner swears by online renters and dealers. "Somethingweird.com is real good, because they have a lot on DVD. And Moviesunlimited.com has any film that's in print. At least that's their promise."
But perhaps the best place for movies of the Cut Corner caliber is the appropriately named Videovault.com, who guarantees "the worst movies in town." "It's an online rental store; they send you the movie and you have to send it back in time. It's a small hassle but worth it for the selection."
For those who need the physical joy of renting a movie, Turner and Richey both swear by Wild n' Wooly Video in Louisville, which has perhaps not such a particularly obscure collection as the Video Vault did (especially of bootlegs and so-forth), but it does have a larger collection of foreign, psychotronic, and independent films that have not seen the light of day in Lexington since the Vault shut its lid. Incidentally, Wild n' Wooly has all five test titles to rent, including, somehow, Chandu the Magician. The nefarious plans of Roxor might be foiled yet.
So alternatives are there for those looking for alternatives to the latest Sandra Bullock chuckle-fest. But the bottom line is that while Kurosawa's break-through film cannot be found to rent at any video store in Lexington, Dunston Checks In, starring Jason Alexander and an orangutan, was present at about 95% of all stores queried.
"The one with the monkey?" asked the Blockbuster employee excitedly. "I know we got that. Let me check on the others."
So go, my children! Rise from your couches, and ask for films! Search out the Jarmusch, the Kurosawa, the Alejandro Jodorowsky! Watch, and learn!!
So commands CHANDU!!!!