Odd Obsession Movies is underground in more ways than one. The rental store and screening room, which specializes in unreleased, foreign, and extremely rare films, is squeezed into the small basement of an old house across from Steppenwolf Theatre.

The store’s Hollywood stock is spotty at best (Gremlins but not Gremlins 2, Ghostbusters II but not Ghostbusters), but it’s beside the point. Low-budget Turkish remakes of Star Wars, E.T., and The Wizard of Oz (the Cowardly Lion is played by a guy in brown pajamas) sit next to a completist’s collection of Tokyo Shock and French New Wave flicks. There’s rare footage of a befuddled James Brown ranting on a talk show in the late 80s; even rarer behind-the-scenes footage of Siskel and Ebert calling each other assholes between takes; Corey Haim: Me, Myself and I, a video diary by the former star; and an extensive Jesusploitation section (including J.C., a film with the thrilling tagline “J.C. preached love…lived violence!”). If that selection seems weirdly specific, as though catering to one person’s very ironic taste, that’s because it’s the personal collection of 25-year-old rare-movie geek Brian Chankin, who opened his doors in August.

“I think a lot of people think Brian’s quirky and kinda weird,” says Melina Paez, his 29-year-old girlfriend, who quit a marketing job to help with the store. “He is pretty obsessed with film. I think he’s obsessed with the character Ferdinand from Godard’s Pierrot le fou.” The Odd Obsession Web site features a picture of Chankin in blue face paint as Ferdinand, a character Chankin describes as someone “just searching for his ideals,” at a Halloween party last year.

“I’m still not completely sure why he dressed up like that,” says Paez. “It’s a little disturbing. I think he has a crush on the character. I think he wishes he were that character, except for the part where his head blows up.”

“The French New Wave is my baby,” says Chankin, who grew up in New Mexico. “I rented 10 to 15 movies a week from an indie video store in Albuquerque. I’ll be impressed if you can get me to talk about anything other than movies.”

An avid collector of action figures and baseball cards as a kid, Chankin found his interests shifting toward cult films in his teens. “I just saw that there were a few movies that only a few people had and I was able to get my hands on them and I felt special,” he says.

“I worked my darnedest to get in these strange social cliques in order to get a lot of out-of-print and unreleased movies. They consist of lots of comic book aficionados, longtime pirate-video bootleggers, and others obsessed with recording anything they find even meagerly interesting or rare.

“I’ve paid for things and they weren’t sent to me because they were banned in America that very day,” he says. “Like this one version of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Richard Carpenter lobbied the FCC to get it banned and cancel all eBay sales on the movie.”

Chankin won’t say if he owns a copy of that 1987 Todd Haynes short, which uses Barbie dolls to illustrate Karen Carpenter’s struggle with anorexia. All he’ll offer is that if he does have it, “it’s not for rent.”

He moved to Chicago in 2002 after earning a BFA in photography from the University of New Mexico. He managed Antique Resources on Belmont for a while, then about eight months ago he got the idea of turning his vast movie collection (about 4,000 titles) into a video store. But he admits the store is mostly an excuse for him to get his hands on even more movies. “I know this is nothing that’s gonna make me a rich man,” he says. “Just as long as I have the money to keep on buying movies, I’m content. That’s basically my whole philosophy. I can’t just borrow movies. I have to have everything. It’s a personal thing.”

Though the store’s been operating in a limited capacity, with 3,000 titles and no sign, since late August, the “grand opening” is on Friday, October 1. That’s when Chankin will bring 1,000 more movies out of storage and put up a sign. He’ll start screening rare movies on the store’s 42-inch TV set in a couple weeks (suggested donation: $5).

To pay for the place Chankin took a cue from Robert Townsend’s 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle, which was partially funded using ten credit cards taken out in the director’s name. “I took out 15 credit cards to open the business,” Chankin says, giggling. “I had virtually no money at all. They don’t let me take out credit cards anymore.”

He got a good deal on a space in the high-rent neighborhood around Steppenwolf “because it’s a basement and the ceilings are kinda low. I’m paying the same as places I looked at on the west side,” he says. Last week he and Paez moved from a Wrigleyville apartment to the small living quarters in the back of the store, which they share with three cats, a finch, a sparrow, and two giant African millipedes.

Independent video stores have a mixed track record in Chicago. Cult-oriented stores Blast Off Video and Big Brother lasted only a couple years before closing in the late 90s and early aughts, respectively. Chankin is friends with Jason Mojica, former co-owner of Big Brother, and has been seeking his advice about his own business.

The fact that Chankin is the only person making management decisions should work in his favor, according to Mojica. At Big Brother, he says, “there were three partners, and each person had their own ideas about how things should run.”

He also offers Chankin this advice: “You can’t be afraid to assume the position of greedy capitalist business owner. We found it too easy to relate to our customers, being that we had all been avid video renters ourselves. It’s hard to keep the business running while also trying to be the cool guy who sympathizes with certain things like late fees. We all understood the misery of paying late fees. Our best friends would keep movies for months at a time and never return them. We were not able to stand there and charge them $80 in fees.”

Memberships at Odd Obsession are free (though a paid premium membership service is in the works) and rentals cost $3 for three nights, with a late fee of $1 per day. In the month or so the store’s been open it’s attracted about 100 members. One of those charter members is Miguel Martinez, a Pilsen resident who drives up to Lincoln Park just to go there. “Films I’ve been searching for for four or five years are here,” says Martinez. “Like Godard’s La chinoise and the Apocalypse Now work print. Facets is so big, but this place carries harder-to-find films.” (Chankin regularly buys films from Facets, which is less than two miles from Odd Obsession, and Odd Obsession carries the Facets newsletter.)

“The bottom line is I want the store to be in business a very long time,” Chankin says. “I’m gonna try my best not to let my personality get in the way.”

Odd Obsession Movies

1659 N. Halsted

Hours: Tue-Fri 1-11 PM, Sat 1 PM-midnight, and Sun 1-10 PM

Info: 312-573-9910 or OddObsession.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.