The Staff Picks Shelf — Summer of VHS

As every movie buff knows, the best way to enjoy a season of beautiful weather is to hide in the basement with the drapes shut, popping VHS tape after VHS tape into an ancient top-loading VCR. In celebration of this special, especially sweaty time of the year, we asked some of our resident contributors here at Canuxploitation.com to tell us what their favourite tape is to curl up with on an uncomfortably humid summer evening.

What better Canuxploitation flick to celebrate 2012’s sweltering summer than THE HEATWAVE LASTED FOUR DAYS? Riding a wave of rear-guard feature film investment by the National Film Board in the pivotal tax shelter year of 1974, Doug Jackson’s film achieves a fascinating balance of old-school social realist values and film noir cynicism. Heading an archetypal Canadian cast, Gordon Pinsent’s rowdy cameraman is a perfect noir shmoe — cynical, greedy, philandering, and in way over his head as he tangles with ulcerous escaped con Lawrence Dane, down-to-earth femme fatale Alexandra Stewart, nice guy boss Al Waxman, and the great Jon Granik as the elusive Mr. Big.

Set in the thick of another seasonal scorcher, Jackson’s script is terse and compact, and his direction teases some impressive details out of an entertainingly cheesy, macramé-owl 1970s milieu. And yet, the film’s flat documentary-style cinematography, plus the laid-back performance habits of the cast, turn this into a viewing experience more DRYLANDERS than DETOUR — human-scale not mythic, trading in existential despair for a stealth moralism. And speaking of cheese, how about Ben Low’s folkie-strummy Greek chorus of a soundtrack, too Canadian by half. Out of such cultural conundrums, in this case, arises a very fun night of summer cinema, perfect backyard fare for the slumming cultural nationalist.

During summers in the Mott household, I did everything I could to avoid going outside and begged and borrowed (but never stole—that would be bad) to get the cash I needed to rent tapes from the local Video Station. At a certain point (which—purely coincidentally—occurred at the same time the family’s old VCR found its way into my bedroom) my selection criteria had less and less to do with finding quality entertainment, as it did find anything that might prominently feature naked ladies in it.

In those pre-Internet days, this was often a crapshoot, so certain tapes that delivered in this area were rented more than once. Of these, none was rented more than SCREWBALLS—the Roger Corman produced PORKY’S rip-off that I vastly preferred over the original. Even at that age, I recognized it as being highly dubious in actual entertainment value, but in terms of naked ladies, it delivered in ways that made my heart soar (among other physical reactions). Though I probably only actually watched it all the way through once during all that time, I found that I remembered it virtually scene-for-scene when I picked up the DVD a couple years back.

Now, that’s my idea of a perfect Canadian summer VHS title.

As a Texan there are few things I dread more than the brutal Summer heat. When this time rolls around, I usually cool off with a cold brew and my favorite Canadian slice of incomprehensibility, SCIENCE CRAZED. There are few experiences more refreshing than sitting in an air-conditioned room and watching legs move through a hallway for 45 minutes. Many VHS-era titles specialized in the “all filler, no killer” approach to filmmaking, but SCIENCE CRAZED elevates it to an art in a way that will redefine all your accepted notions of what is/isn’t a movie. In place of character development or complex plotting we are given a mix of slasher conventions, indelicately recycled footage, and otherworldly post-dubbed dialogue. The result is the most singular and fascinating motion picture I’ve ever had the opportunity to lay eyes on. Other recommended seasons for viewing SCIENCE CRAZED: Spring, Autumn, Winter.

Having myself just returned from a mini mid-summer departure where I spent plenty time being the ball and put up the Donkey Kong high score at a Regina Saskatchewan arcade, PINBALL SUMMER hits the nostalgic bull’s-eye and wins my Summer of VHS trophy. The only thing that could (and still can) tear me away from those ol’ horror or raunchy comedy video store value racks in the middle of the sweltering prairie sun would be a trip to the corner store for a little Double Dragon action.

When pretty cheerleaders, delicious, unhealthy grub, campfire light and an authentic combo of all my favourite hobbies isn’t even enough; Germain Gauthier’s iconic synthesized rock masterpiece theme song brings the film full circle with the catchiest tune ever to roll during the opening credits of a teen comedy. While modern home video hasn’t been kind to this upbeat summer pinball tournament adventure, I always welcome my worn tape-quality copy to “just come as you are” and remind me exactly what the true spirit of summer is all about!

For me, summer isn’t complete without a viewing of the 1980 slasher, PROM NIGHT. Starring a pre-NAKED GUN Leslie Nielsen and scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, the film is a great summer fright flick in that it takes one of the pivotal summer experiences for North American teenagers, the high school prom, and turns it into a night of terror.

The first time I saw PROM NIGHT was in February 1981, when it made its network television debut. The broadcast premieres of HALLOWEEN and THE FOG were still several months away, so it was PROM NIGHT that put me on the road to becoming a big Jamie Lee Curtis fan. The film would be a television staple during the ’80s, and I’d find myself watching it whenever stations like WUTV Buffalo 29 would show it. Later, I’d go on to buy it on VHS, then DVD, where I’d play it once a year on a warm, summer night. I still find myself doing that.

Over the years, PROM NIGHT has been referred to a HALLOWEEN rip-off and criticized for its polyester fashions and disco music (some of which I quite happen to like, by the way). It may not be the best movie ever made, but I love it to death. And the fact that it’s still one of the better-known Canuck horrors is a testament to how entertaining it is.