And now for something completely different… While an undergrad at The University of Texas (Austin) (2005-2009), my saved dollars went to Vulcan Video—a purveyor of cult films (science fictional, foreign, unusual). Between Vulcan Video and the university audio visual library, I spent the majority of my free time transported to unusual worlds. I asked a friend, Christopher Giles, who returned to Austin after college to work at the store to write a guest post on the intersection of science fiction cinema/fiction and Vulcan’s last days, a victim (at least partly) of Covid-19.
And as always, I look forward to your thoughts.
The Last Video Store on Earth
Vulcan Video was an independently owned video rental store located in Austin, Texas. Enjoying a stock of literally thousands of titles, with a focus on classic, foreign, and rare genre oddities, Vulcan stood as a beloved cinematic hub in a town uniquely suited for such a space, one of the few remaining businesses of its kind left standing. Unfortunately, recent years dealt Vulcan with the twin blows of increased rent prices and decreased customer traffic in the age of digital streaming, and the unavoidable realities of COVID-19 forced the store to permanently shut its doors in early April 2020.
Working at a video store, one grows accustomed to seasonal rushes on particular genres: lots of romcom rentals in February; the Horror section picked dry by the end of October; frantic, last-minute requests for It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) the week before Christmas. It’s to be expected, and can often lead to opportunities for customers to discover overlooked gems. When all copies of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) are predictably checked out weeks prior to the titular holiday, a slasher-starved customer might instead leave the store with Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) in hand, none less the richer for the alternative. As video store clerks, we looked forward to these days on the calendar and prepared for them accordingly.
Even the occasional curveball of unexpected news could be met with quick action, like, say, the untimely death of a beloved actor; when Burt Reynolds passed in 2018, the Vulcan Video staff quickly put together a tribute section for the mustachioed icon. This allowed for grieving customers to easily locate and snatch up copies of tried and true favorites like White Lightning (1973) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977) , but to also hopefully make time for deep cut curiosities: Paternity (1981) or Malone (1987), anybody?
The onslaught of COVID-19 was less an unexpected curveball and more a slow-moving, impossible-to-stop battering ram. Vulcan Video, alongside all other non-essential businesses in Austin, Texas, ultimately shut down until further notice for the sake of employee and customer safety – in fact, we voluntarily locked our doors with a few days to spare before local shelter-in-place restrictions would have forced the issue, and we were happy to do it. Prioritizing health over DVDs isn’t exactly a head-scratcher.
Nevertheless, the month leading up to the emergency closure allowed for a uniquely busy, bizarre, and beautiful period for Vulcan’s books. Preparing for the impending, indefinite shutdown, Vulcan’s regular customers attacked our rental shelves with a renewed vigor and purpose, making damn sure their homes would be well supplied with plentiful movies alongside the requite canned goods, toilet paper, and booze. The essentials!
Encouraging our patrons to stock up and stay home, we increased our maximum number of allowed rentals for each customer and let them have at it. People were leaving the store with literal stacks of DVDs in their arms, and we couldn’t help but take curious note of what sorts of titles were prioritized. There was the expected run on popular, well-loved comfort movies; think The Princess Bride, Back to the Future, the original Star Wars trilogy, and so on. Understandable. Those films have endured for good reasons, not least of which is their effective endorphin delivery capabilities – a reliable balm against coronavirus-related anxieties.
More interesting were the customers who took the opposite approach, and instead of curating their film selection to distract from the pandemic, they decided to lean right into it, with the Vulcan Video clerks following suit: we hastily threw together a special “seasonal” section of films focusing on plagues, viral infections, apocalyptic fears, and crippling social isolation. Y’know, “feel good” flicks! To be perfectly honest, such a silly (and arguably distasteful) project was, paradoxically, a welcome distraction from the encroaching reality of COVID-19. By diving into fictional and futuristic depictions of pandemic panic could we perhaps exorcise some pent-up stress about the very real one stretching over the world.
I don’t have the records in front of me, but if we were to run the numbers from the final month of Vulcan’s business before the shutdown, the most frequently-rented title would likely be Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: if this coolly intelligent medical thriller was seen as a plausible-but-purely-speculative piece of entertainment upon its release in 2011, it now plays as an unbearably prescient illustration of societal collapse in the wake of a deadly pandemic, not even its roster of A-List movie stars safe from a fast moving, respiratorily-spread virus. The renewed popularity of Contagion in a COVID-19 world became a kind of gallows-humor joke between Vulcan clerks, our multiple DVD and Blu-ray copies frequently re-rented by one customer almost immediately after being returned by another. Rewatching the film myself, I couldn’t help but wearily sigh at the one glaring bit of optimistic Hollywood fantasy: ruthless as Contagion is, it nonetheless demonstrates an unsentimental humanism towards its cast of characters, portraying medical scientists and even government representatives as hard-working, intelligent, noble professionals who carry out their jobs with efficiency – in other words, Contagion actually believes in a functioning government bureaucracy. Dare to dream.
As much as I admire Contagion, my own COVID-19 cinema syllabus took a less literal focus. As it turns out, the sturdy cinematic legacy sprouted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend provided this video store clerk with unexpected solace during these fraught times. Originally published in 1954, Matheson’s striking tale of Robert Neville, an apparent lone survivor of a brutal pandemic with vampiric after-shocks, led to no less than three unique cinematic adaptations over the following half-century: 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price as Neville; 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charleton Heston; 2007’s I Am Legend, with Will Smith. We’re a long way from the zombified vampire apocalyptic wasteland illustrated by Matheson, but Robert Neville’s plight – typified by ceaseless stress and profound loneliness – takes on particular resonance during our present reality of anxiety, social distancing, and self-isolation. Matheson’s novel and all subsequent film versions also include flashback passages to before the vampire plague destroyed civilization, with increasingly panicked characters at a loss as to how the virus spreads and how to properly contain it. It’s impossible to not pick up on some unsettling parallels.
With a quiet obsessiveness, I read the novel and watched all three films over the past month, which are worthy adaptations and unique showcases for their respective stars. The Omega Man might just be the most singularly bizarre adaptation of the bunch, including a memorable opening with Charleton Heston cruising around a desolate Los Angeles and rewatching Woodstock (1970) for the umpteenth time – that a conservative icon such as Heston would take solace in footage of the iconic counterculture music festival is a solid gag. I Am Legend, containing perhaps Will Smith’s finest screen performance, relocates the action to New York and, for the first half at least, offers a surprisingly bleak and effective version of Matheson’s story, at least for a Hollywood blockbuster. The film unfortunately runs off the rails in the back half, its admirably pessimistic tone at odds with the studio-mandated happy ending, but Smith’s fine work is worth the price of admission. My personal favorite of the lot remains The Last Man on Earth, and I regularly screened it at Vulcan. Vincent Price fans should take particular embrace of this stark, low-budget film, as it’s essentially a one-man show for the beloved horror icon, his near-constant voiceover narration providing an oddly soothing soundtrack despite the film’s grim fidelity to the source material.
There are worse ways to bask in the apocalypse than spending it with Vincent Price’s velvety voice, and he made for much welcome company in the waning days of a struggling video store on its last legs.
Author: Christopher Giles is a former video store manager/current insomniac residing in South Austin, Texas. He spends free time playing with his dog and watching Bela Lugosi movies.
(Tony Gleeson’s cover for the 1980 edition)
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