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Frightful Destinations: Seattle’s Legendary Rental House, SCARECROW VIDEO, Thrives In The Era Of Streaming

Saturday, February 4, 2023 | Frightful Destinations


Last summer I had the great fortune of catching a 40th-anniversary screening of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing, at a small independent theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a sold-out show, and the house percolated with every flavor of film enthusiast. I saw AARP card carriers sitting shoulder to shoulder with tattooed hipsters and teenage skate punks sharing nachos with khaki-clad grandparents. It was a beautiful distillation of the moviegoing universe under one roof. 

Moments before the houselights went down, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a young boy, probably 10 or so, wearing a vintage black Star Wars t-shirt and devouring popcorn by the fistful. As the lights began to dim, I thought about how I’d been around the same age, nearly 40 years ago, when I first saw Carpenter’s classic. The difference, of course, for me and most of my friends, is how that initial encounter with the gruesome goings on at U.S. Outpost #31 came about. It didn’t happen at a state-of-the-art cinema hosting a brand new print in wide-screen glory but rather in a much more humble scenario – on a 13-inch Zenith System 3 color television.

It was the summer of 1983, and a newfangled contraption called the video cassette recorder (VCR) was all the rage in living rooms nationwide. Thankfully, my dad fell prey to the trend, and one evening, after receiving precious intel that a lone remaining Betamax unit had been left orphaned at the local Sears, he returned home victorious, with a box containing that magical machine under one arm, and two cassettes tucked under the other: a double bill, featuring John Carpenter’s aforementioned The Thing, and the other big budget haunter from the summer of 1982, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.

 It’s difficult to overstate the impact those two seemingly benign, black plastic cartridges had on my bubbling pre-pubescent brain. They were like mini-Kubrickian monoliths, full of mystery, danger and the secrets to the universe. 

And I wasn’t alone in that cinematic awakening. 

For many of us hailing from the pre-Internet era, particularly those who developed a love affair with movies during the 1980s, video cassettes represented much more than disposable weekend entertainment – they were vessels for cinematic enlightenment, gateways to a wider congregation. And video rental stores were our holy temples, where we learned the syntax of filmmaking, basked in its lore, and became fervent devotees of such sacred auteurs as Carpenter, Argento, Friedkin, Hitchcock, and countless others.   

This era also pre-dated the rule of Blockbuster Video, and the independent shops that cropped up all over my hometown went by many names that still live in the dusty confines of my childhood memory: The Video Library, Sunset Video, Video Maxx, Video Magic. Even now, while tapping this out, I can vividly recall their storefront locations and the crackling anticipation of discovering which new releases would be available for the weekend. Years later, as a teenager, I’d find myself working weekend shifts at one of these hallowed establishments, engaging in the occasional heated debate with co-workers on the artistic merit of favorite films and filmmakers, and trying to sell skeptical patrons on the sure-fire entertainment value of Buckaroo Bonzai: Across The 8th Dimension, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and other underrated treasures (with varying degrees of success). 

Of course, that was then – the heyday, the golden reign of physical media. 

The world has traveled around the sun many times since then, and though one would have more luck encountering Sasquatch than tracking down a brick-and-mortar video store in this modern era of smartphones and streaming options, there are still a handful of outliers scratching for survival. One of the most renowned, Seattle’s Scarecrow Video, has not only survived in this distribution climate shift but is a thriving mecca for lovers of all things cinema. 

Kate Barr, Scarecrow Video’s executive director, believes the hallowed hub’s success can be attributed to two “C’s” – collection and community. 

“At the heart of everything we have done since Scarecrow first came into being in 1988 has been connecting people with film,” she says. “We love movies and cinematic storytelling, and this love has pushed the collection to be one of the largest video libraries in the world.  We are currently approaching 145,000 titles, and we bring in 3,000 – 4,000 additional titles every year.” 

Yes, you read that correctly 145 thousand titles. 

Barr adds that the “community” part of the equation is equally integral to Scarecrow’s success. 

“From hardcore cinephiles to someone just looking for a movie or television show they haven’t been able to find, we strive to have a collection with enough depth and breadth that we can safely proclaim there is something for everyone,” she adds. “There is no better feeling in the world than when we can help someone find a cinematic story that moves them, makes them think, connects them with an earlier time or a different place, or just gives them unabashed enjoyment.” 

Vashon, Washington-based film critic and long-time Scarecrow board member Robert Horton believes the store’s existence is a testament to how crucial physical media is to the cultural landscape. 

There is something democratizing about having Scarecrow’s tens of thousands of titles available to anyone who walks in the door,” he says. “A streaming culture is one in which access to media is limited by what the corporation decides will be available. 

“We shouldn’t accept those terms.”  

It’s difficult to articulate the sensory overload of simply walking into this place. Simply put, it’s floor-to-ceiling nirvana. We’re not just talking about three floors of cinematic history, but three floors of organized cinematic history – by director, genre, country and format. With its staggering payload of titles, Scarecrow is difficult to digest in a single visit, and after my first go-’round, I recall dragging my jaw out the exit door with my eyes looking like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon. 

Barr says she also found herself overwhelmed during her first encounter with the shop and ended up coining what she now calls the “Scarecrow Challenge”. 

“The ‘Scarecrow Challenge’ is to think of an obscure or hard-to-find movie and see if Scarecrow has it,” she says, laying down the ground rules. “For me, that first challenge was to see if we had Malcolm (1986), an Australian comedy that was also the first foreign movie I have a clear memory of renting – and we did! It was an old VHS tape. In 2020, we were able to bring in an Australian DVD of it, and last year it was released on Blu-ray. It’s just such a wonderful experience to get to relive a time in one’s life through a formative movie – no matter what physical media format it is in.” 

It’s not at all surprising to learn Scarecrow has a VHS copy of an obscure Australian comedy in stock. The selection is peerless. No genre is left unrepresented, and the “brow” gamut runs effortlessly from low to high. Looking for that rare Blu-ray import of a Takeshi Kitano film? Check. Ready for a fully caffeinated deep dive into the fathomless crevasse of Psychotronic VHS rentals? Buckle up. They have it all, and then some. Added to the mix: a vast array of movie collectibles, rarities, and a host of educational programs and local outreach efforts that ensure the connective tissue between the store and the Seattle community remains strong and active. 

Like most film lovers, Barr has great reverence for the big screen experience, but she says having access to such an eclectic library of film history on physical media affords burgeoning filmmakers an opportunity to study the art and craft of the medium in a way other formats can’t. 

“There is nothing like watching a movie on the big screen, especially on film,” she says. “I will never forget seeing Casablanca (1942) in a big old theater on 35mm; it was breathtakingly beautiful. But what video has to offer is the ability to return to scenes, or entire movies, over and over again for any number of reasons – to better understand the craft that went into it, to peel back layers of the story that may have been missed the first time, or just for the sheer pleasure to experience that moment of art again and again – and this is just to name a few.”  

Though Scarecrow now enjoys a globally renowned reputation and remains a Seattle staple for film lovers, its profitability hasn’t always been assured. Thankfully, the business’s non-profit status, along with donations from generous patrons, has helped ensure Scarecrow’s survival.  

“Becoming a non-profit has been fundamental to our persistence,” says Barr. “We had to shift our mindset from that of a business model to one where we utilize our collection to serve the public, which we are currently doing through community outreach programs that benefit seniors, families, and all sorts of film lovers. An even more significant part of [a] change in mindset is that we now view every title in our collection as a valuable cultural asset, and ones that we need to fight to preserve.” 

In addition to Seattle’s robust film community playing an integral role in the store’s success, the city is fortunate to be home to a cadre of local supporters who simply respect and appreciate what a business like Scarecrow means to local culture and the region’s fervent filmmaking heritage. 

“The fact that Seattle has its share of movie fanatics is certainly one reason for its continued existence,” Horton notes. “But many of its most vocal supporters are non-film-community people – folks who get what Scarecrow is about, and who understand how deep its range is. Many people grew up with the store and want to keep it around. They appreciate that it’s part of Seattle’s film culture, and is not replaceable.” 

Reflecting on that idea of irreplaceable culture, my attention returns to the kid I observed at the screening of The Thing last summer, a box of popcorn half his size wedged between his knees, his eyes electric with anticipation as the foreboding currents of Ennio Morricone’s score rattled the theater speakers. It’s a moment drenched in both warm nostalgia and a sense of melancholy, knowing the communal magic of the theatrical experience may be fast approaching its expiration date. 

Though I hope that day never comes to pass, as long as institutions like Scarecrow Video exist, I’m confident my inner 10-year-old will always have a place to roam, find inspiration, and explore the aisles of cinematic discovery, over and over again. 

Learn more about and support Scarecrow Video:

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