Toronto cult flick video store owner Luis Ceriz tells tales from his over 2 decades running the legendary SUSPECT Video.
Show me someone with an opinion and Ill show you someone who is not only offended by the opinion but feels that they should be protected from it.
When we opened Suspect Video in 1991 we developed a philosophy that outsider ideas and artistic movements had validity and should be represented in the store. The only censorship we would exorcise would be towards unoriginal, uninspired Hollywood fare.
Video stores at that time were middle-of-the-road, family friendly, inoffensive places with inoffensive, family friendly, middle-of-the-road films. The most alternative thing you could get there was ketchup flavored potato chips.
We started carrying books on the Church of Satan, anarchy, body modification, hydroponic gardening, fetish and bondage, punk rock, Lovecraft & Cthulhu mythos, true crime and more.
Blockbuster we werent.
We didnt want to appeal to everyone, we wanted the weirdos and the folks that were open to odd stuff. Of course one persons cool are another person’s disgusting.
One of our most popular books was Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook a book of graphic black & white photos of people who had died as a result of murder, suicide or accident. It was definitely not for the squeamish.
I remember having do defend it constantly. People would be shocked and offended that we carried and in fact displayed it so prominently. That it was so grotesque and morbid. I would argue that I saw it as life affirming. That to see lifeless bodies was to realize that life itself was fleeting and precious. To see bodies bereft of the spark that animated them, sometimes just moments before, reinforced the here and now. But you cant assume thats why people buy this kind of thing theyd counter. I would never presume to know why people buy it, only that it was how I saw it and I didnt think I was particularly unique was my answer.
I wasnt trying to be a smart-ass (though Im sure some people thought so) I was just trying to illustrate the problem of censoring. The basic issue to me is that you cant assume the context. You cant censor HOW people interpret something.
We see this constantly in the world of horror. Sure, when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD came out, some people saw it as an irredeemable gore fest that shattered the boundaries of decency. Now, most see the film as a brilliant social commentary that dealt with everything from class structure, gender politics, race politics and more. Of course all that stuff is in there but I bet a lot of people see it as a goddamn amazing zombie film and thats okay too.
What we dont need is interference between the filmmakers and the audience.
We always believed the uncut directors versions of things were the ones to see. This was a hard thing to do in puritan 1990s Toronto. Back then all films had to be approved by a review board before being available to the public or before even being imported into the province. Of course the genre that suffered the most from this review process was, you guessed it, horror.
You could only legally buy laughably cut versions of pretty well all the gore-fests we all hold near and dear. You couldnt get PHENOMENA, you had to settle for CREEPERS (a version so heavily cut the movie almost becomes a surrealist experiment) and wed have to consider ourselves lucky to even have it . HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, NEKROMANTIK, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, SALO and of course FACES OF DEATH and so many more were not permitted at all.
Was this fair? Did our poor innocent Canadian minds need protecting from the evils of extreme cinema by officials that knew better?
Hell no. We wanted those titles in our grubby little hands and on our dusty shelves so by hook or by crook we would get them (our nefarious means will be the subject of another column).
Ordering stuff from the states was always a tricky business. Our fingers crossed every time something was shipped to us.
Is Freddy Krueger a night owl?
Wed sometimes receive our order missing that all important unrated gem, in its place a hilarious government form telling us what title is being held and why.
On the form boxes would be checked off next to descriptions such as: Sex with Violence, Necrophilia, Cannibalism, Drug Use, and more, with an added blank space for whatever other reason the creative mind the border guard can come up with for not letting in the tape.
So wed order the title again and… BAM! It would show up and onto the shelf it goes! Screw you censor board!
The one time our openness almost got Suspect clipped was by a citizen’s group called Women to protect our children. The property manager came by with a letter hed received from WTPOC about us. According to the group we were a store run by degenerates catering to deviants and should be evicted. Just look at our Anti-Life section chock full of death films. We of course called it our documentary section full of war documentaries but, in a momentary act of cowardice we relegated titles like NEKROMANTIK FACES (and TRACES) OF DEATH, DEATH SCENES, compilation tapes called ‘Videoscamble’, ‘Video Scramble’, ‘Cathode Fuck’ and others to an under-the-counter-you-gotta-be-a-regular box.
That lasted a few weeks till our ca-hones grew back and we decided, hey, you cant please them all and put them back out. We are in a democracy after all and I don’t mind offending someone as long as it prompts smart discussion. If anyone objected to the presence of the content of the store I’d just make my ‘context’ argument for them. Just because someone likes to watch gory horror doesn’t mean they’re going to go out and cause violence.
Fashion shows are the most popular TV programs in prison. Doesn’t mean inmates want to become designers.
Context ya never can tell.