Alamo Drafthouse aims to bring back old-fashioned videotapes with Video Vortex
Josh Schafer scanned the rack of video cassette tapes, looking for ... something. His gaze settled on a movie called "Ganjasaurus Rex," a largely forgotten 1987 cult comedy from the pre-internet days when VHS tapes ruled the home-entertainment universe.
"This is a weird weed-centric dinosaur movie," Schafer said, pulling the tape off the shelf. He turned over the box to the capsule description on the back.
"'When the federal government tries to eradicate the local marijuana crop, they encounter an unexpected problem,'" he read aloud. "'GANJASAURUS REX — a prehistoric 400-foot-tall monster who awakens with a healthy appetite for a particular strain of marijuana — cannabis sequoia!'"
"Awesome," Schafer chuckled in conclusion, putting the tape back on the shelf.
Go looking for "Ganjasaurus Rex" on Netflix in the U.S., and you'll get an error message. But you'll find it in the rack and available at Video Vortex, located in the lobby of the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where Schafer works as co-manager and has the title of "VHS Culture Captain."
Video Vortex is the video-rental arm of Raleigh's Alamo Drafthouse, which opened in April, although "rental" is a misnomer, because it's a loss-leader operation. You can check out two free titles per day free. If you need a VCR to play it on, you can rent one for $9.95 a week. If you stick around, there are 48 taps of beer.
"It's not a rental store so much as a library," said Skip Elsheimer, an underground-cinema connoisseur and consultant who calls himself Alamo's "consigliere." "We're not making any money renting videos, it's just an excuse to get people in the door. And once they're here, maybe they'll have a beer, or see a screening of something."
One of 2 in the U.S.
Of the 31 Alamo Drafthouses across the country, only two have video-rental operations: Raleigh and San Francisco. And with more than 70,000 video titles available, Raleigh has a much larger selection.
The bulk of Video Vortex's stock came from Le Video, a San Francisco video store that closed in late 2015. Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League bought Le Video's collection, and Raleigh is where the bulk of it landed. It's a cache that includes all sorts of long-gone titles available only on video, like "The Star Wars Holiday Special" — an anti-classic so bad, it's almost good.
"That one's an oddity that VHS is keeping alive," Schafer said. "I bet ('Star Wars' creator) George Lucas really wishes it didn't exist."
Raleigh's Video Vortex is such a big collection that all of it can't be on display at once. Schafer rotates titles through to keep the stock fresh, arranged by genre on shelves shaped like huge VCR tapes. Video Vortex has titles on DVDs and Blu-ray, too, but the allure of old-fashioned tapes is the drawing card.
Schafer, a 33-year-old New Jersey native, came to Raleigh to run Video Vortex, and it's pretty much his dream job. He grew up prowling around video stores enough for it to become a family ritual.
"Every Friday night, we'd get takeout food and rent videos, and that was family time," Schafer said. "We'd usually get a tearjerker for mom, a comedy for everyone else. And after mom retired to bed, me and my dad would watch spooky horror films or Kung Fu. I fell in love with it that way."
Out of high school, Schafer went to work for a record company and wrote about movies in its catalog. Eventually that turned into Lunchmeat VHS, a magazine "celebrating the obscure and esoteric" that he stared 10 years ago.
He still runs the magazine, and Video Vortex has a rack of suggested videos titled "Lunchmeat recommends."
Past meets future
As far as new releases go, video is pretty much inert in the movie business nowadays. And about the only time a current title comes out on VHS tape, it's as a promotional gimmick like the limited-edition version of "Deadpool" that was released exclusively at Comic Con in 2016.
From a practical standpoint, it's not hard to see why. Even at the best of times, video was an admittedly imperfect medium.
"VHS has idiosyncracies," Schafer acknowledges. "It skips or wavers, the pictures are kind of dingy. But there's a generation that still appreciates that, a staunch underground community that loves VHS."
For that staunch underground community, there's still no substitute for the experience of going to the video store to flip through stacks of movies. It's an experience that has been slipping away, as Blockbuster, North American Video and Avid Video have all closed in recent years.
Vortex Video aims to bring that back. When it opened in April, Cameron Kramer and TJ Lout were first in line — literally, the first renters — and they're still reliable regulars, despite living a 20-minute drive away.
"With Netflix, every movie on earth is at your fingertips, but it's too easy," said Kramer, a bartender and visual artist. "This way, you appreciate it a little more. If you drive all the way to the movie store to rent movies, you'll want to watch, pay attention, set aside time to enjoy rather than get distracted by the other stuff you have to do."
Plus there's just no substitute for the human touch when you're looking for a movie but can't quite remember the title.
"One time this lady came in describing an obscure children's movie," Schafer said. "She could tell me two things about it, and I was able to pull it out and ask, 'Is it this one?' And it was, a movie called 'The Sand Fairy.' She was able to revisit that moment from her childhood. That's what we're trying to do, explore the past, present and future of film-loving."