The Last Video Store

The Last Video Store (2023)

The Last Video Store had its UK première on Saturday 28th Oct at the Halloween FrightFest

A bearded man sits on a sofa before a table piled with beer cans and VHS rentals with titles like Warpgate and Beaverlake Massacre 4. He picks up the remote, and we see, emerging from his old television’s static and adjusted tracking, a pink text scroll, which tells of how “long ago, video stores stood as beacons of the people”, before the ‘format wars’ and the ravages of time put their “keepers, guardians to a preposterous lore and era” out of business, leaving the “final keeper” to face a “cursed fate.” This, it will turn out, is a cheesey pre-film advertisement for holdout home rental store Blaster Video, whose owner and single employee Kevin (played by Kevin Martin, real owner of Edmonton’s last home video store, The Lobby DVD Shop) actually speaks in the tones of a voiceover artist for Eighties trailers – but it also establishes his back-alley shop, and indeed Cody Kennedy and Tim Rutherford’s feature debut The Last Video Store, as portals to strange fantasy worlds, where everyone can become the unlikely hero of their own mythic narrative. 

Nyla (Yaayaa Adams) enters the hermetic space of Kevin’s store to return an assortment of VHSes from her father James, who is Kevin’s best – and possibly only – customer. The tapes are overdue and unrewound, but Kevin, who has long since ceased regarding his establishment as any kind of going concern, agrees to waive any penalty fees, even as his eye is drawn to a mysterious cassette on the pile, the likes of which he has never seen before. Its weird, skin-like wrapping and obvious resemblance to the Necronomicon book from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) serves only to pique Kevin’s curiosity, and he naturally puts it on, only to realise, too late, that it is the lost, evil and cursed ‘Videonomicon’, a tape, as Kevin explains to Nyla, “that you should never play – but if you do, bad things happen.”

Now the front door to Blaster Video mysteriously locks, and the literally low-rent tapes that James had borrowed play one by one, making their worst villains or best heroes materialise within the confines of the store. There is a giant alien bug with hallucinogenic toxins in its stinger, there is a hockey-masked, Jason Voorhees-style unstoppable slasher called Castor Creely (Leland Tilden) and strait-laced, serial-surviving final boy Taggert (Matthew Kennedy), and finally there is third-ranking action lunk Jackson Viper (Josh Lenner). This is all Kevin’s dreams come true, as he gets to meet – and potentially be subsumed into the legends of – figures from his favourite movies, while Nyla, from a younger generation and dismissive of the marginal trash that Kevin loves, just wants to get out alive.

What ensues is a metacinematic merger of John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993), Joe Johnston’s Jumanji (1995) and Jon Favreau’s Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), as the forgotten, indeed invented, horror, sci-fi and musclebound action of a bygone era come to life in a form that is all at once knowing pastiche and in-your-face reality, unable to be contained by the video screen and crossing over, like Sadako from Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), into the world of the viewer. That, as Kevin would put it, is “the power of cinema”, touching, even changing, the lives of all who experience it. Conversely, we also get to see a hunky, hammy he-man break bad when he is confronted by his own negative press, and made to realise that the very best reception for which he can hope is heavily ironised approval of his awfulness. Castor and Jackson are both, in their different ways, representatives of monstrously toxic masculinity, although Kevin, too, is a broken man, retreating into solitude and niche obsessions as bulwarks against the reality of a world that has moved on and long since abandoned his own preferred format for mediating the world beyond.

The Last Video Store offers a sanctuary for those fantasists and dreamers – like Kevin – who still cling to the art from an era long gone, and the formative childhood memories that it recorded and reproduced for home viewing. Indeed, one might say that it is a film made by Kevins and for Kevins, lovingly recreating the lo-fi effects, garish lighting and ‘mannered’ performances of the straight-to-video genre fare from the Eighties and early Nineties that would prove the making of so many of us, for good or ill – while also bringing them into a chaotic collision with the present day. Like Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind (2008) and Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates (2016), this is an elegy for time past, filled with deep-seated nostalgia for the VHS age and the culture that accumulated around it. It is also, beyond a certain sadness of tone, an affectionately funny parade of geeky tropes and z-grade schlock, with an ending that stages cinema as a fully immersive medium. Here the mundanity of everyday life is trumped by myth, and the escapism of movies opens the warpgate to a stranger, weirder psychotronic universe of the collective imagination.

strap: Cody Kennedy & Tim Rutherford’s nostalgic feature debut brings the creatures and characters of bargain-basement VHS schlock to comic life

© Anton Bitel