Suspect Video & Culture opened 20 years ago this month, catering to Toronto’s cult film community in the pre-Internet, pre-DVD era. What kind of changes have you seen?
The biggest shift is the amount of graphic detail in movies that you never would’ve gotten away with in the 1990s and certainly not in the 1980s. I remember having to import uncut copies of Dario Argento’s Suspiria from the U.S. because it was just impossible to get it here. Nowadays, a movie like Hostel comes out, and it’s pretty brutal. There’s stuff in there that would have been banned decades ago. Today, it gets passed by the Ontario Film Review Board without a problem.
What do you think led to that shift?
The Internet must have played a part in it. Once that took off, provincially-regulated censorship didn’t really make a whole lot of sense any more. Because all of a sudden you’re censoring things people can easily order online or download.
But at the time, these were films you generally couldn’t see elsewhere?
A customer once referred to us as “the Internet before the Internet.” We’d look through underground magazines and order rare stuff from mail-order services. We became the place where you could find what you’d seen in those magazines.
We’ve also seen shifts in technology, from DVD to Blu-ray to online streaming.
We tested DVD early on, offering all the classics – the Kubricks and Altmans – but Blu-ray hasn’t made such a big impact on us. It seems to work better as a consumer item, for sale.
The home video market was in its relative infancy when you opened, correct?
It was. Nowadays you can buy a movie for $10, but when we first opened, VHS tapes easily cost $90, and we’re talking regular Hollywood films here. Initially we only bought them used because we couldn’t afford those prices. Every time something rare was rented out, we’d just hope it came back in one piece.
Several independent stores have closed in Toronto, most recently Marquee Video on College St. and West Side Stories on Dundas West. Why has Suspect survived?
I think the key was being more than just a video store. When we opened, it was really unheard of to also sell books, magazines and toys.
The books rack catered to Toronto’s ‘zine culture. Has that changed at all?
Years ago I could have said Toronto’s film scene was pretty vibrant just by the amount of ‘zines coming out, but I guess they’ve been replaced by blogs. There were some great film ’zines, like Trash Compactor, Asian Eye, Killbaby.
So the ‘zines are long gone. What fills the shelves now?
There are only a few left, like Cinema Sewer, but we carry all the horror magazines like Rue Morgue and Fangoria and things like Video Watchdog. There’s still plenty to see.
What’s your take on Toronto’s current film scene?
There’s a lot of activity. I mean, there are film festivals happening all the time, but I don’t think there’s as much community. Rue Morgue magazine certainly has their horror community, but it’s difficult to say overall because so many other stores have closed. So much of it has moved online.
Another recent casualty is Blockbuster. Where did they go wrong?
Tons of places. It’s incredible. They were the biggest player and could dictate a lot of things to Hollywood. Not starting Netflix was one. They had the muscle to do that. Another horrible decision was getting rid of late fees. That cut a billion dollars of annual revenue.
Did you ever consider cutting late fees?
Never. But people in Toronto – at least our customers – have never made a fuss about it. It’s a means of making sure things come back in a timely span so you can rent it again. We generally only stock one copy of a film.
Plenty of rare films were lost when your Queen St. location burned down in 2008. How did the fire impact you?
Immediately it didn’t impact me too much because there was so much work to do. But the period afterwards was like death by a thousand cuts. Memories of what was lost would come back to me: A signed poster by Russ Meyer, a scrapbook full of pictures, clippings and photos with celebrities, like when Quentin Tarantino visited. Many memories.
What’s your fondest ?
Probably the first time I overheard someone speaking into their cellphone, saying: “Yeah, I’m at Suspect. Meet me here.” I thought, wow, we’ve become a meeting place. That’s really something.
This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on August 5, 2011.