by Gerry Conway
If you’re as ancient as I sometimes feel I am, you’ll remember the early days of VHS home video rentals– Mom and Pop local stores, pre-Blockbuster.
In that prehistoric era before the concept of “sell through” (meaning, “making VHS tapes affordable enough for families to purchase), local video rental shops like the one in “Clerks” would buy a handful of popular studio titles, which were ridiculously expensive at $99 a pop (in early 1980s dollars) and filled the rest of their shelf space with whatever cheap crap they could dig up.
Some of that cheap crap was quite excellent– public domain movies from the late silent era, foreign films– and some of it was literally cheap crap: exploitation horror, low-end spaghetti westerns and lesser Italiam crime movies, junk that barely would have filled the bottom half of a drive-in movie double bill.
With the rise of Blockbuster those Mom and Pop local video stores slowly went bust, and the market for cheaper and weirder and less family friendly video fare disappeared with them, relegated to specialty video stores like the esteemed Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood.
Until Amazon Prime Video came along.
Let’s face it, Amazon Prime Video is kinda the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” of streaming video. Unlike Netflix, it doesn’t have a huge catalog of “originals”, and unlike Hulu it doesn’t have next-day access to some network TV, and unlike Fandor, Shudder, Mubi, Sundance Now, et al, it isn’t what you’d describe as a “curated” streaming service.
What it is, bizarrely for the offspring of a multi billion dollar company, is the modern equivalent of an early 1980s Mom and Pop video store.
Here’s where you can find late era silent films, public domain thirties and forties movies from Poverty Row, offbeat film noir, foreign films, cheap drive-in exploitation crime and horror, spaghetti westerns and Italian crime films, and some of the strangest sh*t this side of the back row of Lenny’s Van Nuys VHS Repair and Video Rentals.
I love it.
If you’re a millennial and want to know what the early days of home video were like for your parents, take a scan through the Amazon Prime Video catalog. If you’re old enough to have experienced those days personally it’s a bath of nostalgia. Stream some of the titles you’ve never heard of starring actors you can’t find in IMDB. Watch some incomprehensible foreign films with incompetent subtitling. Dig through that pile of no-name westerns from the 1950s. Wade through some pre-production code gangland thrillers from 1931.
It’s glorious, really. You’ll find some diamonds in there, and even when you don’t the experience itself is instructive and inspirational. Somebody somewhere thought the crap you’re watching was worth spending money to produce. If that doesn’t give you hope that your own dreams are possible to achieve, nothing will.
I love Amazon Prime Video because of the crap that fills its shelves, not in spite of it.
Maybe you will too.
Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.