In the spring of 1993, at Westway and Royal York Rd. on the border of Etobicoke and York, a gas station was demolished and a new construction project started. Every day, as my mom drove me past, we monitored the progress. First came the off-white stucco walls… then the floor-to-ceiling windows… then the bright blue roof… Finally, when I saw that ticket-stub-shaped sign, bearing the glorious words “BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO®,” I knew my life had changed. That’s a pretty pathetic-sounding thing to say, but when you’re a small child, your world is limited, and my family’s Friday night visits to Blockbuster became the centrepiece of my weekend. I used to savour every moment, carefully considering every video in every aisle before eventually settling on one of the same handful of movies.
Because the ‘Buster is now dead and buried, and because it was the only option in most neighbourhoods, there’s a temptation to eulogized it as some lost Mecca, where weirdness lurked in the margins for any budding cinephile who cared to find it. In truth, Blockbuster was a horrible, arch-conservative chain whose prudish policy against NC-17 and unrated movies was artistically devastating, and whose crummy stock kept renters’ horizons limited, and whose mighty brand crushed so many better independent stores. Film culture is better without it.
However, Blockbuster did have some advantages. Unlike Netflix, it had shelves to fill, and wasn’t subject to the whims of licensing, and didn’t spend money producing its own content, so its stock was a mostly-unchanging, indifferently-curated mass of studio detritus. Here is a canon of videos that were important to me in those early years, and which I only ever would have found in a Blockbuster era…
The Caddy (1953)
My parents exposed me to black-and-white entertainment at a young age, and this Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis laffer was probably my most-rented movie. It’s nobody’s favourite Martin and Lewis film, but it and The Nutty Professor were the only Lewis joints at the store, and when you’re a small child it’s all the same. I haven’t seen this since the mid-‘90s, but I have strong memories. I remember the part where Jerry showers and gets soap in his eyes, and wanders into a fancy party at the golf course. I remember the scene where Jerry accidentally demolishes a department store and gets fired. I remember when Jerry imagines a human eyeball on a golf ball. And I remember that the “real” Martin and Lewis appear towards the end, which blew my mind. I liked Jerry because he was awkward and boyish and made funny faces. Dino, I was completely indifferent to.
The Best of Saturday Night Live: Mr. Bill’s Greatest Hits (1993)
I was introduced to the concept of Mr. Bill—the long-suffering Play-Doh man from the early seasons of SNL—through Ernest Rides Again (Cherry, 1993), which was preceded by a short film entitled Mr. Bill Goes to Washington for its theatrical and video releases. The short depicted Mr. Bill as the President of the United States, and climaxes when he is trampled by congress in a scene parodying Battleship Potemkin, of all things. The idea of a Play-Doh man being tortured was wildly funny to me at age six, so you can imagine my excitement to learn of an entire video full of such shenanigans. Despite my repeated business, Blockbuster ultimately deemed this tape unnecessary, and put it up for sale in the Previously Viewed section. Luckily, I snatched it, and it currently resides in a box in my parents’ basement—a little piece of history.
As portrayed by Jim Varney in 10 feature films and literally thousands of commercials, Ernest P. Worrell was a wacky southern man who irritated his neighbour “Vern” and often fell off rooftops. As a child who loved the Wacky-Guy-Who-Makes-Funny-Faces genre, I adored Ernest like family. This peculiar tape, with an enigmatic cover bearing only Varney’s grinning mug and the title “KnoWhutImean?”, was a potpourri of Ernest miscellany: a handful of the best Ernest commercials, followed by an unsold TV special, Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album. We learn about Ernest’s relatives, who range from a Mississippi card-shark (“Rhetch Worrell”) to a Wolfman Jack-like carny (“Billy Boogie Worrell”) to a frontiersman (“Davy Worrell”) to a WWII flyboy (“Ace Worrell”), in rambling, moody vignettes that are ripe for rediscovery as anti-comedy. All the characters are played by Varney, and you’ve gotta hand it to him—the guy was a virtuoso.
Captain America (1990)
In this age of superheroics, it’s fun to remember a time when a Marvel Comics movie could be directed by Albert Pyun, produced by Menahem Golan, and star Matt (son of J.D.) Salinger. Completed in 1990 before slinking shamefacedly onto video in 1992, there is reason to believe that this was supposed to give Captain America the dark-and-adult treatment Tim Burton gave Batman. Alas, this mostly manifests itself in the Captain’s dumb rubber suit. The movie opens with a poor family being slaughtered in Fascist Italy, which I found very upsetting as a child. Even though he’s Captain America, he spends most of the time trying to save Italy. This is the only movie in this canon that I only rented once, but I have seen parts of it many, many times on low-rent TV channels.
The Flash 2: Revenge of the Trickster (1991)
This was one of several makeshift “movies” stitched together from episodes of the short-lived 1990 Flash TV series. It chronicles the Flash’s battle against the clown prince of crime, “The Trickster” (Corvette Summer’s Mark Hamill, in an alarmingly form-fitting leotard)–two episodes ingeniously linked by a “Three Months Later” title card. I was intensely fascinated by Mark Hamill’s over-the-top performance, which was much closer to Jim Carrey’s Riddler than his soggy-milquetoast work as Luke Skywalker. I asked Santa for this long-out-of-print video for Christmas, and my parents made a bootleg copy when the store wouldn’t sell it to them (Mom says she offered as much as $100). It came with a letter from Santa explaining that the original cover had been damaged in the snow, and that I should be thankful that I have such great parents.