A Quarter Century of Suspect Video
A tribute, or perhaps a requiem, to the Mirvish Village institution.
On August 4, 1991, Suspect Video opened its doors in the southwest corner of Honest Ed’s with an auspicious event: an autograph session with the late Gunnar Hansen. Following a busy day of meeting fans, the immortal Leatherface took some of the Suspect staff for a night on the town, climaxing with a visit to another local institution, the Brass Rail.
“The first thing he wanted to see was the strip joint,” remembers Glenn Salter, one of Suspect’s longtime register jockeys, “so, that’s where we went! Gunnar was a real hit with the strippers—they swarmed all over him. A lot of strippers are horror film fans—that’s what we figured out that night. A lot of them were really impressed, including the DJ. He specifically asked, ‘Were you the Leatherface in the original film or the second one?’ and Gunnar was like, ‘The original of course!’”
“The second one is pretty good, though,” I say.
“Yeah, I like the second one. Initially I was iffy about it when I first saw it, but the second one has really grown on me,” says Luis Ceriz, Suspect’s owner.
“The second one has more of a black comedy edge to it, and the first one is darker and straight,” says Salter.
“Yeah, that’s why I was kind of iffy about it when I first saw it, because I thought, ‘This isn’t Texas Chainsaw…’”
“A lot of people were iffy on it. It’s like the second Evil Dead. People saw that and said, ‘Ehhh, it’s a little too slapsticky,’ whereas the first one…”
“And the third one…”
“…was ridiculously stupid.”
“Really?” I ask. “You don’t like Army of Darkness? It’s got a following.”
“I love it,” says Ceriz.
“Hey, I like the Harryhausen skeletons,” says Salter, “but beyond that, not really into much of it…”
Salter worked fill-in shifts in those early years before joining the staff on a more full-time basis in 2002. I ask what has kept him at the store so long. “I guess there’s the lazy thing—too lazy to look for a new job,” he says. “But also, these are the kinds of people I like to be around. I like the discussions that come with this kind of job. That sense of community: the camaraderie of people who share similar tastes. … I think the real value—if there is a real value—to having a store is just that sense of community you build with the customer base. But obviously it’s a smaller customer base. It dwindles as the years go on.”
Suspect celebrates a quarter century this year, but this auspicious anniversary will also likely be its last. Along with the other businesses in Mirvish Village, it will have to shut its doors at the end of 2016 to make room for a new real estate development. The Mirvish Village bubble has so far insulated Suspect from the near-total collapse of the video store industry, but the store looks unlikely to find as fortunate circumstances elsewhere.
I ask Salter if he has any future plans. “Not really! Not at the moment. Find another similar job to this kind of job. My whole life has been slacker jobs. I’ve worked in bookstores, record stores, comic book stores, video stores… that’s what I know.”
“Lots of people would say those are dream jobs.”
“I like to look at it that way. Some people look at it as, y’know, low expectations, but I’m fine with that too. I can live with that.”
“The reality is, the rents are just insane,” says Ceriz. “There are options: there’s a possibility of going with a smaller place and just doing retail, or getting a smaller place and just doing horror and exploitation. But it does point more towards closing than anything, and just doing conventions and going online.”
When I started going to Suspect in my first year of undergrad—when Blockbuster was still the preeminent home video marketplace and torrents were in their infancy—it was like a repository of all the tantalizing movies I’d heard about but never seen. If you’re a longtime Suspect patron, you’ll have a canon of rentals that left a permanent cigarette burn in your brain. Mine would include: the bootleg Turkish remakes of Star Wars, Star Trek and Superman; the bleak late-period Jerry Lewis of Hardly Working; the anti-communist Christian scare film If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?; Otto Preminger’s hippie extravaganza Skidoo, with Groucho Marx smoking pot and Jackie Gleason tripping on acid; the often hilarious, often cringe-inducing documentaries of Nick Broomfield; the cynical “Mondo” shockumentaries of Jacopetti and Prosperi; the jaw-dropping action and homophobia of Sammo Hung’s Pantyhose Hero; the New York underground of Nick Zedd; ambitious ’70s porn like Blonde Ambition and SexWorld; and gruesome Asian scuzziness like Ebola Syndrome and Guts of a Beauty. These are just movies I rented; the store has also been an endless repository of unusual retail items, including bootleg DVD-Rs of oddities like The Star Wars Holiday Special and Last House on Dead End Street; zines like Cinema Sewer and Liquid Cheese; weird books and toys; and a nicely-curated selection of used big-box VHS pornos.
“We concentrated on a lot of stuff that we were interested in or that we’d heard of but couldn’t really find anywhere else,” says Ceriz. “We would go through and order catalogues constantly, from magazines like Film Threat. It was a time-consuming process, because first you’d have to find it, order the catalogue, get the catalogue, order it, and hope it comes through in the mail. Sometimes those would get stopped by Canada Customs.”
“Would that be the case with the porn stuff?” I ask.
“With those, we would go to used video wholesalers in Toronto or just outside of Toronto, and they got stuff from everywhere. They would have such a huge volume of things—like, they would buy out video stores that went under, or surplus stock—so you never knew what they got. They would get things that technically shouldn’t have been in Ontario, but because they got such an avalanche of titles, you couldn’t really stop them.”
If (or when) Suspect Video closes, a lot of Toronto cinephiles will express their remorse on Twitter, but I suspect many of them won’t have visited for a while. I’ll admit my loyalty to Suspect has also ebbed and flowed. I don’t want this to be just some kind of nostalgic reverie urging you to forsake Netflix and go back to your video stores: it’s undeniably more convenient to rent Furious 7 on iTunes than to trek to a goddamn store. There are plenty of streaming services for the art and exploitation movies that are Suspect’s forte, or, if you’re looking for something really obscure, you probably know which torrent-sharing sites to check. You can find a community of like-minded movie buffs at a video store, but you can also find one on a message board. There’s something about clinging to video store culture in 2016 that’s clearly irrational.
And yet, I’ve been returning to Suspect more and more lately. Forgive me if this sounds like the ramblings of an old fogey, but: I like the tactile experience of pawing through shelves of tightly packed VHS and DVD covers in the hope of finding something really obscure. I like renting the VHS of something like Nick Zedd’s They Eat Scum, knowing that it was probably ordered straight from the great man himself. I like looking at the Staff Recommendations wall and blind-renting something unknown*. I like finding some old self-distributed tape like a message in a bottle (might I be the only person in the last decade who has rented Sky Gilbert’s My Summer Vacation?). I like when I’m the one who is there at the right moment to buy the used VHS of Exhausted: John C. Holmes—the Real Story so that nobody else can have it.
“My observation,” says Certiz, “is that every up-and-coming area in Toronto, essentially it starts of being interesting and eventually it’s usurped by big-box stores, which drive the rents up, which drive everybody else out. That’s increasingly becoming every part of Toronto. If rents were sea level, the independent stores jump from little island to little island, but the sea level keeps rising and eventually it’s just impossible to find anyplace.”
*Recent discovery: Geteven (aka Road to Revenge), an exquisite 1993 vanity project by a family law attorney named John De Hart. It’s a Chuck Norris-like action movie in which De Hart gets to do karate, make out with naked women, and sing. Highly recommended.
Photos by Will Sloan