Aisle remember you: the 90s video store

With a new installation at BFI Southbank celebrating the 90s video store, we asked our writers to share some nostalgic memories of their choice picks from hours spent in the aisles.

Browsing the VHS collection in a Blockbuster store

With online streaming platforms multiplying and expanding at a seemingly unstoppable rate, we thought we’d take a look back to the days of dial-up internet, when the only way to watch a film from the comfort of your home was to leave it first. As BFI Southbank mounts an installation in honour of the long-lost pleasures of trawling the aisles of the local video store, we tasked BFI staff to come up with some nostalgic memories – and choice DVD and VHS picks – from their many hours spent finding that perfect film for the night in question.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch (1969) VHS packshot

My local video shop: Jay’s newsagent and two other nameless video shops in south-east London

What it is now: Newsagent; Barbershop; Local food deli

The six-week school holidays in the pre-Blockbuster era were filled with underage video rentals from the local newsagent, where my dad let me rent absolutely anything rated 18. Back then you could rent a VHS for a week, and this is where I was schooled in film: the genius of Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, classic comedy, musicals, exploitation, horror.

One of the joys of renting a VHS was the artwork. You’d sometimes base rentals on the cover art – for exploitation films it was more often than not better than the film itself.

Unless you’re a certain age you wouldn’t understand the trauma of reserving a VHS and anxiously waiting for it to be returned, the horrendous worn out copies where you’d sit for hours messing with the tracking, the bad manners of a previous renter who did not rewind the VHS, and, worst of all, the wrong VHS in the case – labelled incorrectly and leading to a three-week wait because someone ‘forgot to return it’. I was such a regular in the video shops that the staff would always give me old posters, which I still have to this day. And when these glorious dens of childhood film delight closed I was lucky enough to inherit a ton of those huge VHS tapes to add to my ridiculously large collection.

Standout VHS cover: The Wild Bunch (1969)

  • Victoria Millington

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) VHS packshot

My local video shop: Global Video, Milngavie (Mulguye), Glasgow

What it is now: an Oxfam charity shop

Friday night in Galbraith Drive was ‘film night’. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, while my younger brother and I cosied up to watch a video, my parents ate their meal together in a kitchen without the interruption of any wee intruders.

At the end of each week, my mum, usually, would take Donald and I to Global Video on the high street. I remember circling the stands that I was most interested in at least three, four, five times before sitting on the shop floor, laying out my top picks on the fuzzy industrial carpet.

After lengthy debate with my brother we would (somewhat democratically) decide which to take home to watch that evening. He preferred animation and cartoons; I always liked videos that had animals – talking dogs if possible. It’s unsurprising, of course, that we both adored the Muppets. 

We rented The Muppets Take Manhattan so many times, knew all the songs and could quote our favourite scenes. Mum would buy us microwave popcorn, and we were allowed to drink the tiny mixer cans of Coke and pretend that we were at the pictures.

Standout VHS cover: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

  • Gabrielle Smith

Critters (1986)

Critters (1986) VHS packshot

My local video shop: Universal Video

What it is now: Running shop

When Universal Video opened at 186a Upper Richmond Road in the early 1990s my own little universe expanded too. My parents weren’t interested in cinema, so I was allowed to grab whatever took my fancy off the shelf (within reason) while they waited, patiently, in the car. I was a three-video-a-night kind of kid, and once I had my own rental card I gorged indiscriminately. It was strictly Hollywood for me and for a short period of time I was hooked on broad and wacky comedies like The Naked Gun, Hot Shots and Chevvy Chase’s Fletch. But there, always there, was the horror section. 

Sat under the strip lights and beckoning quietly were the likes of Pennywise, Hellraiser, Freddie and Chucky, their demonic faces front and centre on those reassuringly sturdy cases. I wasn’t allowed them, which made me want them even more. Eventually I came to an accommodation with my parents: Critters, a ludicrous 1986 horror-comedy about vicious furballs that arrive from space and demonise a town somewhere in the US. I was 10, I wasn’t ready, and I had to sleep at the end of my parents’ bed for over a year. Eventually, Universal Video was bought out by Blockbuster, and now it’s a shop selling running gear (the irony). But every time I pass, I hear a critter growling.

Standout VHS cover: Critters (1986)

  • Will Massa

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987) VHS packshot

My local video shop: Blockbuster Halifax

What it is now: SNAP FITNESS 24/7

We were never allowed the popcorn or the chocolate at the till. Too expensive, mum said, but it was that much more appealing than anything Woolworths had to offer. We were never allowed anything above a PG certificate either. That didn’t stop me lingering in the horror aisle, wishing I could pluck its forbidden fruit from the shelves. Even if I did, the cases were empty, and there was no way the attendant would allow an eight-year-old to rent Children of the Corn, Scream, Candyman, or even Gremlins.

The pull of that deep, blood red 18 certificate at the bottom of the box held fast in my consciousness, strong and enduring as any of the film artwork. How lucky, I thought, were those with less scrupulous parents, who let them rent ‘an 18’ without second thought.

In an age where kids can access any film instantly, the prohibitive power of a number on a box seems a quaint anachronism, but it was an immensely powerful symbol. It promised transgression. It promised swear words. It promised sex and violence, and all the things I wasn’t allowed to watch. In Halifax Blockbuster on a Friday night in 1999, staring at the box of Hellraiser, a film I have still never seen, it was the promise of a life of film ahead of me, as yet unlived.

Standout VHS cover: Hellraiser (1987)

  • Harry Pasek

Curly Sue (1991)

My local video shop: St. Joe Video in St. Joseph, LA, USA

Curly Sue (1991) VHS packshot

What it is now: A gift shop on main street

In Summer 1997, I was eight years old. I would bike to St. Joe Video, rent the ’93 Disney film Hocus Pocus for a weekend, return it and rent it again, week after week. I was a big kid, grabbing the empty box off the shelf, brandishing my $1 – thrilling! This continued until my mother called the shop and asked them to gently steer me towards other films (for her sanity). The shop obliged, but I was a relentless child apparently, as I came home with the film for the rest of the summer. My dad recorded it off TV, but it wasn’t the same with commercials. I’m sure I spent enough to buy the film, but that wasn’t like going to the store – that was part of it. The movie scared me, but it was so funny and vivid I couldn’t stop watching. That summer fostered a love of horror I’ve carried into my MA and beyond.

Standout VHS cover: Curly Sue by John Hughes. I had very thick, curly hair similar to the titular child, so I was always drawn to it but was told the movie wasn’t appropriate for my age. I’ve still never seen it.

  • Bailee Grissom

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) VHS packshot

My local video shop: Choices, Cherry Hinton

What it is now: Ladbrokes

The golden age of suburban VHS rental began for me when Choices replaced Rogers’ Electrical (who had a small selection of expensive videos to rent).

The covers were crucial in decision making, but ultimately the weekly rental would be selected by tagline. My strongest memories are of titles we weren’t allowed to rent, and some parental vetoes now seem reasonable, such as Stephen King horror Thinner (“Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it”), or the vaguely erotic CGI of Lawnmower Man (“God made him simple. Science made him a god”).

But for an unknown reason my parents also decided A Nightmare Before Christmas was not appropriate, despite its Parental Guidance rating and intriguing lack of a tagline. The frustration of the PG rating would play out in the same weekly drama (“But it has songs”, “It’s about Christmas”, “You let us watch Batman Forever!”), before we settled for Casper (“Seeing is believing”).

Standout VHS cover: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

  • Chris Trowell

Con Air (1997)

Con Air (1997)

My local video shop: B&C (World) Film, Reading

What it is now: Rizz Beauty

It was a bit predictable. I was studying film and broke, so I got a part-time job in a video store. It was a good one too, a true independent with an impressive range of world cinema, but it had seen better days. It was run by two very different brothers: one a laidback reggae musician, the other a buff model who’d just been on Gladiators. Every night the takings were handed over to their tiny mother, a midwife with a terrifying stare but a kind heart.

After graduation I worked longer hours, sometimes 12-hour shifts that became a blur: constant pressure to push the ‘3 for 2’ offer, being made to open the store as the rest of the street closed for Princess Diana’s funeral, letting the Domino’s moped gang borrow from the adult section in exchange for free pizza. After 18 months I got a real job. Three years later I got a job at the BFI. All thanks to B&C (World) Film? Not really. But I guess it didn’t hurt.

Standout VHS cover: Con Air (1997). We never had enough copies of Con Air.

  • Jez Stewart

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

My local video shop: Blockbuster, Wolverhampton

What it is now: Staples

Friday night at Blockbuster in Wolverhampton, 2-4-1 rental on all videos. I would pick a film; my boyfriend would choose the other. He insisted on gritty action films with big guns and brain-dead heroes who killed everything, got the girl and grunted clichés. I was determined to find the total antithesis of those films and make him sit through it. Quid pro quo, baby! Losing hope, I drifted over to the ‘Indie’ section. The boyfriend was getting impatient as he’d found some gung-ho shoot ’em up ages ago and I could feel him staring at me across the shelves. If I didn’t find anything, he’d pick the second film, and that was not going to happen.

And then I saw it – the perfect film: an overweight loser, a Busby Berkeley dance sequence, and it was all about bowling!

Boyfriend pulled his face: “The big what?”

I stood firm: “It’s got that man out of Roseanne in it. D’you want some Revels?”

We watched my choice first, and I fell in love; the boyfriend didn’t. He complained throughout, but I didn’t care. I wanted green nail polish, a White Russian and Jeff Bridges.

The store eventually became a Staples and I dumped the boyfriend. However, as a lactose-intolerant fan I did discover Black Russians – not truly authentic, but I reckoned the Dude would have been cool with that.

Standout VHS cover: The Big Lebowski (1998)

  • Eleanor Watkins
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