Where to get discount videotapes -- Ty Burr goes looking for cheap video thrills and makes a review of the best and worst places

Where to get discount videotapes

There’s a twilight zone of videocassette sales — a dimension not of glitzy video specialty stores like Blockbuster or Tower Video but a strip-mall discount centers and five-and-dimes like Kmart and Woolworth. In these low-rent, one-stop ”shopping environments,” Video occupies the racks between Housewares and Automotive, offering a strange cornucopia of recent hits, obscure exploitation flicks, instruction tapes, and family fare, all for rock-bottom prices.

You never hear much about these bargains, though; the discount chains constitute an unadvertised, underground agora for your VCR. So in the spirit of video injury, I hopped in a card and headed for New Jersey’s mall-heavy Route 4, seeking the answers to two questions: Exactly what videos can you buy for under $10? And would you ever want to watch them?

I was prepared for the traditional problems of the territory: For one thing, it’s hard to shop for a particular title, since stock varies widely from store to store (and branch to branch). Moreover, a copy of, say, The China Syndrome that you find at a grocery chain like Kroger is not necessarily going to look as good as a copy you rent at a major video outlet. That’s because many video companies catering to mass merchants dub movies onto cassettes at either the extended-play (EP) or long-play (LP) speed — a process that uses less tape, saves money, and noticeably lowers the image quality. Our recommendation: Weigh the tapes by hand. The heavier ones have better pictures.

In addition, I knew to watch out for used rental videos in new shrink-wrapping. Reputable outlets put ”Previously Viewed” stickers on their product, but not everybody’s a prince among chain stores. Keep an eye out for used-tape-tip-offs like scuffed or torn cassette boxes underneath the shiny wrapping.

The first stop on my road trip was the local Caldor, a cut-rate mecca roughly the size of a small state. The videos here fell into two categories: cheap and dirt cheap. Some good deals larded the wall rack at the back of the store: For $9.98 you could buy anything from Meatballs to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo — all dubbed at EP speed, of course. Overall, the selection seemed random compared with what I’d find later in other stores. I purchased a copy of Platoon that had no video distributor listed on the box, a Three Stooges Collection Vol. IV (the label claims it’s ”Uncensored and Uncut”), and Porky Pig Vol. 2 with microwave popcorn packaged in the box. Back at home, Platoon and the Stooges tapes look good enough, but Porky Pig is a mess: four scratchy, fuzzy-looking shorts. The popcorn tastes like linoleum. Video Shopping Experience (VSE) grade: C+

Next was Kmart, where the selection was even more random than at Caldor, but it was joyously, anarchically random, with real discoveries hidden among amazing tripe. Where else could you find Chaplin’s The Gold Rush for $5.50 next to Sport Legends: Pete Rose for $5.97? Here were two versions of the original 1960 Little Shop of Horrors, one colorized, and other black and white. I loaded up on tapes classy (Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, Olivier in As You Like It) and déclasé (Nancy Reagan — The Unauthorized Home Video, Elvis, Playful Puppies, and a kung fu double bill of Shaolin Red Master and Two Crippled Heroes). The classy tapes, while featuring old, scratchy prints, are watchable, but the others are scams of varying degrees of ineptitude: Elvis is a bogus bio stitched around clips from his movies’ trailers, and Playful Puppies is just that — video footage of cute pops rolling around someone’s yard. VSE: B-

It was worse at Walgreen. Asked where the videos were, a surly teen clerk pointed out a dismal pile of used kidvid tapes. They didn’t have used-tape warning stickers, and they didn’t need them: They were unwrapped and in terrible condition. One, an hour-long Hanna-Barbera Christmas cartoon called Silent Night, Holy Night, has a piece of chewing hum stuck to the box. For $1.99, it was all mine. When I tried to put it in the VCR that night, the cassette broke apart in my hands. VSE: F

As a nice way to end my trip, I landed at Bradlees, where the video folks obviously know what they’re doing. Used tapes, clearly marked and in new shrink-wrapping, offered plenty of recent movies for under $10. For those willing to spring, unused tapes of MGM classics were available in the $20 range, pristinely recorded at SP speed. And there where surprises: Spencer Tracy in Father’s Little Dividend for $3.99 and Mon Oncle (called My Uncle on the box) from French slapstick genius Jacques Tati, for $5.99 on the Video Yesteryear label! In SP! It turns out to be a dubbed, faded, reddish print, but who cares? It’s Tati, and it’s hilarious. Everything else on my trek proved the old retail maxim ”You get what you pay for.” This one find, though, bolsters Jagger’s postulate: You can’t always get what you want in a chain store, but if you try sometime, you just might find the tape that you need. VSE: A-