The television at Blast Off Video is on the fritz. Noah Young, the wiry 20-year-old purveyor of some of the freakiest, creepiest, campiest, and trashiest films in the history of celluloid, fidgets in front of the battered Squareview set. He stares at a purple horizontal line stretching across an otherwise dark screen. “Well, it’s art,” he says, “but we need a TV!” Behind the quilted vinyl counter, stationed beneath the David Hasselhoff air freshener, Young’s perennially sullen 21-year-old “business associate” Paul Pefferman looks up from a book he’s reading and sniffs.
Judging from appearances, a broken television is a crisis at Blast Off. The place opened a few weeks ago a half block from my apartment, and every time I passed by the only people inside were Young and Pefferman, always slumped in front of the Squareview. One evening I head in out of sheer pity. The thick black carpeting smells like a 900-square-foot wet dog. “A lot of people have said that,” Pefferman shrugs.
I grab a Ren & Stimpy cassette, hoping to get back into the fresh air as soon as possible. But then something catches my eye: a copy of my favorite mid-70s blaxploitation film, Coffy, starring Pam Grier. Any place peddling Coffy must have other hidden gems I shouldn’t pass up, so I ask the lads for something short and odd.
“Short and odd, short and odd,” Young mutters, fingering his lower lip and scanning the 831 videos (almost all from Young and Pefferman’s personal collections) arranged in neat rows against blood-red walls.
“Have you seen Apocalypse Pooh?” Pefferman asks.
“Uh, no. What’s that?”
“Winnie the Pooh cartoons dubbed over Apocalypse Now. It also has Peanuts cartoons dubbed over Blue Velvet and the Archies playing the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen.'”
“Who made it?”
“We don’t know.”
“It’s a free rental. It’s terrible quality.”
Young and Pefferman met a few months ago at the original Blast Off in Atlanta, where they used to hang out. Young was studying philosophy at Emory, and Pefferman was pumping gas until that gig went sour. “They worked me two days straight, 24 hours a day,” he says. He quit and took up a paper route. “What else was there to do?”
Around the same time, Young decided to take a break from college. “I think I was somewhere in the middle of my junior year, maybe,” he says. “All that credit-hour stuff, I never paid much attention to it.” He hit on the idea of opening a Blast Off in Chicago and teamed up with the store’s 21-year-old manager, Sam McAbee, who he didn’t actually meet in person until the day they left for Chicago. “It’s the Blast Off way,” says Young. “Don’t ask too many questions.”
They brought Pefferman along not only for his trusted friendship but for his extensive video collection, including the 16 Godzilla films now lining the top two rows of the science fiction section. Pefferman assures me that when McAbee returns to Chicago in a few days with the other half of their inventory they’ll have all 39.
Over in the splatter section the films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci abound. “This is becoming our Italian splatter section,” Pefferman explains. Prominently positioned are several Ted V. Mikels films, including Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, the box ornately decorated with gore. “It’s rated PG,” Pefferman apologizes. “It’s a deceptive box.”
“Sometimes it’s in splatter just because of the box,” Young jokes.
“It doesn’t have to be blood and guts,” Pefferman says. “If it makes you sick, it’s splatter.”
Around the corner from the music, mondo, film noir, and fetish sections is “the world’s largest secret agent section,” according to Pefferman. Included are 19 James Bond films as well as all the episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Prisoner.
“And here,” Young beams as he snatches a box from the shelf, “is Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm. The drunker he gets, the more dangerous he becomes. Just look at the cover art and watch him deteriorate.” Indeed, on the cover of the first Matt Helm flick, The Silencers, made in 1966, Dino looks tanned and trim; three years later in The Wrecking Crew his weary paunch is unmistakable. Even the smiling face of Sharon Tate, his bumbling sidekick, can’t compensate for the liver damage.
I try to move on to the juvenile delinquent and biker sections, but Young stops me. “You missed the Mexican wrestling section, which is very important to Blast Off.” He points to a row of films starring wrestling superhero Santo, with titles like Santo Attacks the Witches and Santo vs. the Diabolical Hatchet.
Finally we reach the sexploitation section. “‘Vintage burlesque’ is how we like to refer to it,” Young says with a smile. Included are Grandpa Bucky’s Naughty Peeps & Stags of the 30’s and 40’s and Nudie Cuties, in which naked women frolic with various zombies, mummies, and werewolves.
The wet-dog smell has dissipated, the television has magically repaired itself and is now playing Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, and I can’t resist another trip to the blaxploitation section. Pefferman points out Jamaa Fanaka’s impossible-to-find Soul Vengeance, about a black man castrated by police. “He goes to a voodoo priestess,” Pefferman explains, “and she gives him–can I be graphic for a second?–she gives him this huge dick, and he goes out and strangles people with it.”
“You want it?” Young asks. “On the house?”
Well, who wouldn’t want to see the penis-strangling sequence? Pefferman grabs the tape from behind the counter and peers through the cassette’s window. The tape is nowhere near rewound. “I think maybe it’s queued up to that scene. Lucky you.”
Blast Off Video is at 2939 N. Broadway; call 773-529-1650 for details. –Justin Hayford
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): video cassette covers “The Wrecking Crew” and “Blood Orgy of the She-Devils”/ Noah Young photo by Nathan Mandell.