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Sunday, November 7, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scarecrow Video expands reach into cult-film niche market

Seattle Times DVD writer

Staff picks


If it's anywhere to be found, it's at Scarecrow. Treasures from the vaults include some hard-to-find and otherwise emblematic flicks from its collection, as picked by the staff:

"El Topo" (1970) and "The Holy Mountain" (1973) from Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky.

"Until the End of the World" (1991) "and other hard-to-find Wim Wenders."

"Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1980), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15--hour miniseries.

"Perdita Durango" (1997), from Spaniard lex de la Iglesia: "The far-superior, uncut version of 'Dance With the Devil.' ."

"Point Blank" (1967): The Lee Marvin crime classic, "gloriously letterboxed on laser disc."

"Rubin and Ed" (1991): Offbeat buddy comedy with Crispin Glover and Howard Hesseman.

"City of Lost Children" (1995) and "Delicatessen" (1991) from "Amlie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro.

"Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" (1992).

"The Samurai" or "Lone Wolf and Cub" series.

"Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) and "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988) from Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" director Hayao Miyazaki.

"Ashes of Time" (1994) and "Happy Together" (1997) from Hong Kong director Won Kar Wai.

"Cannibal Holocaust" (1980): Italian Ruggero Deodato's notorious jungle gross-out.

"Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971): "The one film Scarecrow helped influence a studio to put out on video."

Every movie-loving geek who steps into Scarecrow Video has a discovery story.

Mine: After more than two decades of searching, I found in the spy section — giddy that they had a whole spy section — a copy of "The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World." I'd been looking for the 1965 Bond knockoff since a childhood friend saw it and tantalized me with descriptions of its coolness.

For "Ain't It Cool News" geek Harry Knowles, it was Orson Welles' "Don Quixote" completed in 1992 by cult hack Jesus Franco.

Director Quentin Tarantino's discovery day has become local lore. He wanted to walk there from downtown on a hot summer day. When he arrived several miles later, sweaty and sunburned, he found Filipino exploitation director Cirio H. Santiago's 1973 "Savage!"

If the building at 5030 Roosevelt Way N.E. has become the Alexandria Library of offbeat flicks, drawing pilgrims from points near and far, it's branching out in a couple of ways that allow you to discover its treasures without setting foot inside: The mammoth new "Scarecrow Movie Guide" (Sasquatch Books, 808 pp., $24.95) and a new cult DVD line called Subversive Cinema.

The book and DVDs aren't likely to make Scarecrow follow in the steps of Starbucks, and the staff wouldn't want that anyhow. But the eclectic store — where American pulp auteur Samuel Fuller and Italian gore-hound Lucio Fulci are neighbors in the directors section — already had a national reputation.

Film critic Roger Ebert recalls by e-mail from Chicago, "Back in the days when I was involved with Microsoft Cinemania, I discovered Scarecrow and was amazed by its selection and the knowledge and passion of the staff. They don't settle for putting a display of the latest big hit inside the door, but attract the curious, the adventurous and the obsessed movie buffs. The store is not only a resource, but a social center, where you can discover you are not the only person who loves Ozu, or Guy Maddin."

The Movie Guide aims to re-create the store's vibe in all its idiosyncratic splendor, starting with chapters divided like sections in the store (directors, documentaries, foreign, Psychotronic, sexploitation, silent films). The 4,000 reviews from staff and friends of Scarecrow are just a sliver of its staggering 80,000-title inventory, and veer from sharp and insightful to awkward know-it-all. Some reviews even come with rebuttals.

And while customers often complain that they could use a sherpa to find things in a store with such sections as "Vengeful Acts of a Wrathful God," the book blessedly comes with an index.

Assembling the book was yet another hard learning experience for the business that's survived plenty of them since its 1988 opening — including its near-extinction and rescue in 1998 by Microsoft-flush buyers Carl Tostevin and John Dauphiny, and the death last year of founder George Latsios.

"We're not in the publishing business, so there were a lot of things that were not foreseen," says inventory manager Kevin Shannon.

Film geeks, not writers

Scarecrow paid $3 for each capsule review from employees, ex-employees and local film writers, while larger articles highlighting genres and directors were negotiable.

Editors had to wade through as many as five reviews for a single film.

"We had a lot of people for whom it basically became, 'This is my favorite film, so I'm going to write about it.' One thing would lead to another and another. We were stumbling and fumbling and not having anything coordinated. One cell at a time sort of metastasized," Shannon says.

The result: "At a certain point we made an effort to say, 'Wait a minute, there's not a single Charlie Chaplin film on the list. Let's get someone on that,' " Shannon says. No William Wyler. No Buster Keaton.

Eventually, a database that contributors could access remotely cut down on the duplication snafu. But after the quantity issue, there was one of quality. Crafting a skillful paragraph is different than offering an opinion over a counter.

The end product is a volume that could be a distant cousin to Michael Weldon's "Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film," absorbing enough just to pick up and go trolling aimlessly through, but with more material that could start arguments. Take, for instance, this blurb for 1981's "Halloween II":

"Watching this film, I can clearly see why slasher movies have turned to [expletive]. The problem's roots are very evident. The film is just too complicated. The first "Halloween" works so well because it is so simple. Just a few locations, very straightforward plot, not many twists or turns, just teenagers getting killed with chills, thrills and gore."

And the top-heavy introductions show a slightly remedial tone, such as this segment leading into Sexploitation: "So, if you are inclined to explore this realm of cinema, don't let us stop you. But be responsible about it, OK? Be mindful of others, don't do anything they don't want you to do or go anywhere they don't want to go. Be healthy and careful. And have fun!"

Jen Koogler, store co-manager and book co-editor, admits, "We're not professional writers for the most part. A lot of people maybe had newspaper experience in school, but not anything where you could just sit down and write."

The real key was to differentiate Scarecrow's book from all the other video guides, including Ebert's, now clogging bookstore shelves.

"We tried to really skew it toward a lot of things that wouldn't show up in your basic guide. We do have the classics, Oscar-winners, but also stuff that people come into Scarecrow looking for," Koogler says. "We approached the book as: It's a Saturday night and you're working at a counter, and — this happens all the time — people will come up to you and say, 'I need a movie, I need something really scary, I need something really funny.' What would you say to them about those films, and maybe add something about that plot? That's what we were trying to go for."

Sating lust for obscurities

What they're going for with the new Subversive Cinema DVDs is the exploitation and horror that have become some of Scarecrow's most popular rentals over the years.

Scarecrow's Norm Hill says its first title, the 2000 Japanese shocker "Living Hell," has sold 15,000-20,000 copies since its Aug. 31 release, on the strength of the Asian horror wave that's stretched from "The Ring" (aka "Ringu") to "The Grudge." The cheapie contains some inspired moments, as a young man in a wheelchair is tormented by the old woman and her granddaughter who move into his family's home.

Its next release, coming Nov. 23, will be the obscure 1976 cult oddity "The Witch Who Came from the Sea," starring former "Diary of Anne Frank" actress Millie Perkins as a castrating psychopath whose delusions spring from childhood sexual abuse.

"These are two prime examples of what Subversive is about: 'Living Hell' is Asian horror with lots of deleted scenes, it has a cult following, and it's difficult to see in the States. 'Witch' is one of many films George stuck in my hand and said, 'You must watch this if you want to be a manager here at Scarecrow.' It's been out of print for years and years."

Why call the label Subversive instead of Scarecrow? Hill says it's mainly because the line is a partnership with www.pokerindustries.com. And also to protect the store.

"One of George and [his wife] Rebecca's many follies was starting a VHS line years ago with an Indian film called 'God Is My Witness.' Because of problems, it never went beyond that first release," Hill says. The main problem: They had spent too much developing it in the mid-'90s and didn't sell enough copies.

The process for producing and distributing the DVDs is painstaking. "We have to get hold of the film elements, get them into a lab, have an assessment done. They're smaller films, so the elements are not in good shape. And another challenge with low-budget movies is lost film elements, footage needing to be restored back. It's a nightmare."

Other Subversive Cinema DVDs down the line include "Metal Skin," the 1994 follow-up from "Romper Stomper" director Geoffrey Wright; and "Battlefield Baseball," a 2003 Asian flick about baseball players and zombies — with musical numbers.

They ain't blockbusters, but Scarecrow ain't Blockbuster. The DVDs and the movie guide are the kind of niche products that made Scarecrow's name in the first place. And for Hill, they also represent being out of the red and into the black, maybe for good. Business has steadily increased since Tostevin and Dauphiny stepped in, and now at its high point is closer to the store's original vision.

"It's the best time I've ever seen for the video store since its conception," Hill says.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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