Features & Columns

The Legendary Video Mania

No place offered more guilty pleasures than the legendary Video Mania
LOST WORLD: Video Mania went the way of the dodo bird and most other movie rental stores.

With Cinequest nearly upon us, the anti-man-about-town needs to shatter spacetime and reflect on a legendary San Jose institution that originally taught him about movies. We're not talking about academic institutions, PBS, Gill Cable, or even books. We're talking about Video Mania, the greatest VHS movie rental store in San Jose history.

Way back in the last half of the earth-shattering '80s, and located in a cookie-cutter stripmall at the northeast corner of the monolithic intersection of Branham and Almaden Expressway, Video Mania was, literally, a-maze-ing. One could easily get lost in the place and we often did. Comprising two stories—unheard of for a video store at that time—Video Mania featured thousands of movie boxes stacked floor to ceiling in a labyrinthine setup, with alleys going every which direction. It was an exotic shangri-la in the middle of suburban wasteland America.

And they stocked material no one else in the Bay Area would carry. It was at Video Mania that I first discovered The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, the celebrated Ray Dennis Steckler abomination from 1964. They also carried everything by Herschell Gordon Lewis, the "Godfather of Gore," the one who singlehandedly invented the splatter flick. Stuff like Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, The Wizard of Gore, and Color Me Blood Red—Video Mania had 'em all. I can say with a high degree of confidence that Video Mania carried more horror films than the entire total collections of most other video stores at that time. It was fantastic.

Underground Wrestling AllianceVideo Mania

As soon as one entered the establishment, a stairway to the right led up to the second story, where they kept all the horror stuff. Worn '80s carpeting and ramshackle wooden shelving made it look like someone's grandfather had built the place out of his garage, but countless posters and all those movie boxes transformed the scene into paradise. The original movie covers sat on the shelf for anyone to look at, and then the tapes themselves were in plastic boxes behind the covers. If the plastic box wasn't there, it meant someone had already checked it out. The customers simply browsed until they found a few films they wanted, and then brought the plastic boxes with the tapes downstairs to the counter. The price was usually three movies for three days for $9.99, a smokin' deal.

"They were the first store I'd ever heard of that actually rented VCRs," recalls August Ragone, who worked at Video Mania before going on to an established path as an author and Japanese monster movie expert. "They were a one-stop shop. A lot of people remember Tower Video in the 1980s, so that sticks in their minds, but people were driving a long ways to go to Video Mania. There were people coming from Mountain View and Fremont. Because [the store] would get multiple copies of any new movies that came out."

Best of all, I could go in there, under the age of 18, and Video Mania would rent me any R-rated horror flick. They didn't seem to care. If I wanted Dr. Butcher, M.D. or Jaws of Satan, I was home free. In fact, my entire knowledge of below-budget Z-grade atrocities began with Video Mania.

Even though one of the owners was a diehard horror fan, the store also carried an obsessive science fiction collection, an entire aisle of mysterious kung-fu stuff and tons of Japanese and other foreign films. At that time, no one else stocked Yojimbo or Seven Samurai.

Older generations fondly recall how they rode their bicycles to go pick apricots from vast orchards in the previous decades. Well, I fondly recall driving my shitty, beat-up Datsun down Branham Lane, past a dive 7-11, a few vacant lots and the cultural Mecca of Orchard Supply Hardware, straight to Video Mania, just so I could snare a copy of Redneck Zombies. That store was the Promised Land.

"It was like the Xanadu of video," Ragone says. "It was this weird place you went into, and once you walked in, you were just staggered by the magic of this place, which was in this tiny strip mall, in a pocket of San Jose that most people would ignore."