There used to be joke going around in our office about Vestron Video in the wild and wooly days when VHS ruled the roost. A trade publication had voted them “the video marketing company of the year,” so whenever they came up with a unique marketing concept—a plush doll with a kids’ release, a contest, etc.—we would say “No wonder they are the video marketing company of the year.”
A little video humor there. Very little.
But it does bring to mind, in Movies Unlimited’s 35th anniversary, how many video enterprises have come and gone over the years. Some were here and made their mark only briefly; others stayed in for a longer haul, only to be sucked up by bigger companies and have their libraries “repurposed.”
So, let’s not shed a tear for the passing of another era, another format. Instead, let’s recall in joy, the thrills they gave to us, these long-defunct video companies.
Media Home Entertainment: A very early video supplier launched as “Meda Home Entertainment” by movie entrepreneur Charles Band, the man behind Full Moon Entertainment. There were questionable releases in the early days with some music rights problems, like Magical Mystery Tour and other Beatles programs, but the company really specialized in “B” movies like Band’s Laserblast and Tourist Trap, the original Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Groove Tube and a lot of the early Nightmare on Elm Street films, as well as classic films from Nostalgia Merchant. The company changed hands a few times and eventually went out of business in the early 1990s.
Magnetic Video: Another early player, this company was the work of Andre Blay, who decided to make a groundbreaking deal with 20th Century Fox and license their films for the new home video market. The Sound of Music, M*A*S*H, Patton, The French Connection and the King and I were just a few in the earliest agreements. Blay also made deals with the Charlie Chaplin Estate, Avco-Embassy, United Artists, ABC Pictures and ITC to put stuff on the market. Fox eventually bought out Blay, morphed Magnetic Video into 20th Century Fox video, then teamed for CBS for CBS/Fox Video.
Paragon Home Video: If it’s schlock you wanted, Paragon had it in spades, specializing in oddball genre pictures and grindhouse-styled releases. The company was based in Las Vegas and was part of King of Video, which offered older Hollywood “B” pictures. Among the movies Paragon issued were Navy vs. the Night Monster, Dr. Butcher, M.D., New Year’s Evil, Just Before Dawn, and Night of the Strangler with Micky Dolenz of The Monkees.
Video Gems: This outfit specialized in schlock cinema, 1970s style, packaged in oversized cushiony clamshell boxes. Here was the original home of The Gates of Hell, Funeral Home, The Severed Arm, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Slime People, Octaman and kung-fu flicks like Jaws of the Dragon, plus Marty Feldman in Sex with a Smile and Joan Collins as The Bitch. Occasionally, you would get an off-the-wall effort disguised like a horror from Video Gems. An example: The Second Coming of Suzanne, a weird 1974 hippie drama with Sondra Locke as a woman believed to be a messiah by an obsessive filmmaker. Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Barry also starred in this downbeat effort with expectedly appropriate music by Leonard Cohen.
PM Entertainment Group: This company came around later than the others mentioned here, launching sometime in the early 1980s. They specialized in action films—often starring the likes of former TV stars Todd Bridges, Charlene Tilton, Lorenzo Lamas and, yes, O.J. Simpson. The people behind the company, Joseph Pepin, a refugee from the XXX world, and Richard Merhi, a former pizza restaurant owner, must have had a thing for blood squibs, because most of their low-budget actioners featured lots of plasma squirting all over the place during the plentiful gunplay sequences.
Unicorn Video: If it was yet-to-be-rediscovered Euro-horror films, drive-in favorites, spaghetti westerns or Blaxploitation goodies you sought, Unicorn Video had them from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Fred Williamson’s Death Journey and Mean Johnny Barrows, The Witch Who Came from the Sea and Simon, King of the Witches, Paul Naschy in The Fury of the Wolfman and Larry Buchanan’s Beyond the Doors (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were killed as part of a government plot!) were among the Unicorn library.
Vestron Video: From 1983 through the mid-1990s, Vestron was the gold standard when it came to video independents. The studio licensed some big movies to start off with, like The Cannonball Run and Fort Apache: The Bronx, and over the years peddled a steady stream of supreme schlock (Bloodsucking Freaks, Blood Diner, Squirm, House on the Edge of the Park). But perhaps the ambitious indie was too ambitious, opening supplemental lines (Lightning Video), and getting into the production of exercise and children’s releases, as well as theatrical films, with Dirty Dancing proving to be their only big hit. Other signature videocassette offerings included Charles Band’s Empire Pictures (Trancers, Re-Animator), trashy Linda Blair vehicles (Savage Streets, Red Heat), Ken Russell ventures (Lair of the White Worm), Orion Pictures films (Platoon, Gorky Park, Best Seller), Michael Jackson’s Making of “Thriller,” a plethora of sci-fi/fantasy action opuses with scantily clad women (Deathstalker, Warrior Queen); and Caligula.
This is the latest in a series of recollections being featured on MovieFanFare in honor of Movies Unlimited’s 35th Anniversary.
A few more articles looking back on the VHS Tape and the early days of video: