Confessions of a Laserdisc Fiend

May 21st, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

I collected laserdiscs for years.

I loved them. The LP-sized video discs represented a real step up in quality over VHS and almost always presented movies in their intended widescreen format, long before 16″ by 9″ flatscreen TVs became the norm.

Photo by Shenanigan87

They were expensive, though. Thirty to fifty bucks a movie! Sales popped up now and then, however, in particular at the Camelot chain, which had a store at Mall of America where Barb and I and our young son Nate would go several times a year. Camelot stores turned up on other trips, and they would often have laserdiscs on sale for an astonishing twenty bucks per – sometimes even ten!

As my fixation worsened, I would tip a Camelot sales clerk to let me go through the backroom stock, and several times came out sweating and grinning with a box of the beauties to the amusement and dismay of my wife, waiting patiently in the car. Many of these discs remain sealed to this day, wrapped in plastic, like Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks.

The late lamented QED Laser in the Chicago area became a monthly trip for Barb and me (well, Barb went to the nearby Oak Brook mall). My writing partner Matt Clemens and I made several mammoth day trips to that store for blow-out sales. I got to know the staff. I was allowed into the backroom, to see the new shipment before the discs were put out. I was a shivering laserdisc junkie.

When I was writing draft after draft of the film The Expert, much of the effort taking place in Hollywood at director William Lustig’s apartment, Bill – a fellow laserdisc collector – would keep me going by interrupting these work sessions with trips to Tower Records and other exotic sellers of lasers, including one that was frequented by actual Hollywood directors. I bought discs where Brian DePalma bought his! It kept me going through countless drafts of what became a Jeff Speakman movie. (As James M. Cain said of Mignon, his years-in-the-works historical novel, “So much effort and a kind of mouse is born.”)

When I made the two Mommy movies, I was determined to get them onto laserdisc, which I did – widescreen versions. Thank you, Cary Roan.

Gradually, laserdiscs were phased out as DVDs came in, initially not as good as lasers but soon surpassing them. Then came HD DVD and Blu-ray and high resolution TVs. Laserdiscs looked lousy on the new flatscreens. Just horrible.

And I owned hundreds of lasers – also, four laser disc players, including several late models that also played DVDs. Gradually I moved into DVDs and finally into high definition discs.

Allow to interrupt this fascinating memoir with a sort of sidebar confession. I have a notorious history of choosing the wrong format for my video collecting. I say “wrong,” but actually I would pick the wrong format in the sense that a lesser format won out. I chose Beta over VHS. I chose laserdisc over all competing formats. I chose HD DVD over Blu-ray. My friends would see whatever format I chose and then choose the other one, since I was a sort of video-collecting kiss of death.

Of course, I did move into DVD, and I did shift into Blu-ray, which is holding on for dear life despite my having chosen to collect that format.

Whither my hundreds of lasers? As I gradually upgraded titles to DVD and Blu-ray, I would haul them to a Half Price Books, where I would be diddled without even an offer of a cigarette after. (I don’t smoke, but still!) Then I hooked up with a collector in St. Louis who would buy several boxes of the discs and give me about fifty cents per disc. It was like finding out that old Playboys were worthless.

Still, certain discs I held onto. Some titles just didn’t appear anywhere else. The long versions of John Wayne’s The Alamo, the uncut Ken Costner Wyatt Earp, the full-length Slingblade, the chronologically assembled Godfather box set. The Expert in widescreen remains available only on laserdisc, if you can find one. Tons of music, mostly New Wave acts in concert. I would religiously hook up my laserdisc players to the various flatscreens in the house and then rarely play any of the discs, and – when I did – shake my head at the awful quality.

Now I am embarking on a new journey. Learning from Nate that CRT (tube) TVs are popular among gamers who want to play their early video games (which suck on flatscreen TVs), I have decided to buy a CRT for my office. I am not replacing my flatscreen – rather, I am expanding my set-up by hooking up a 20″ tube TV to a late-model laserdisc player. I have perhaps 150 laserdiscs that have been moved to my office and a cabinet designed for LPs s they – and I – await the delivery of an early twenty-first century model tube TV later this week. (Another 150 discs are elsewhere in the house.)

I will report back to you, since I know you will be dying to hear for what is probably my next video defeat.

* * *

Here is a lovely review of Murder, My Love.

And, finally, another good Girl Most Likely review.


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10 Responses to “Confessions of a Laserdisc Fiend”

  1. JohnJ says:

    I went much cheaper on the disc format and collected the CED discs from RCA. Unfortunately, no one told us that the high revolutions required would burn out the drive belts on a regular basis. Certainly not the repair joints that would charge $45 for a $2 repair.

    I had the stereo set-up with the sound playing out of my modular equipment, making “2001” sound so much better than the mono version I had first bought.

    Eventually, those discs all made it into the trash as did most of the vhs tapes with tv shows years later. It’s certainly kept me from moving into Blu-ray or the new push 4K. I can understand why folks are moving to streaming stuff. I signed up for HBO NOW since I knew it would be impossible for me to wait for season 8 of GOT without running into spoilers.

  2. I avoided the CED format because it used a needle. The machine and the discs were hideous-looking even when they weren’t playing.

    I continue to be a physical media guy. Very 20th century. I don’t trust the streaming services. The idea that everything will be available at all times, and that we can “buy” movies is obviously bullshit. Stuff disappears. Things you buy go away because a license wasn’t renewed. And to subscribe to all the streaming services is monetary madness.

    No, I will own things, thank you.

    Early report: 20″ CRT TV came and lasers look great on it. Still, much pain in the process, which may require a sequel.

  3. Fred Blosser says:

    CED! I bought my machine about a year before the format went kaput. The visual quality was better than videocassette, and some titles appeared on CED disc that you couldn’t find at the time on Beta or VHS, like the longer cut of “The Wild Bunch” with flashback and Mapache scenes added back in. But the drive-belt glitch described by JohnJ was a big problem (you’d load a disc into the machine, and it would get stuck and if you kept pushing the “eject” button, the drive died), as was the needle format you mentioned. The discs would get so scratched that after a while, the movie skipped like crazy. You had to rent or buy a disc fresh off the truck to have any confidence that it would play smoothly all the way through. If there ever was a system engineered to fail, it was CED.

    Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Target, and WalMart have whittled their Blu-ray and DVD selections down to nearly nothing, at least in my area. WalMart seems to be trying to push 4K, good luck with that.

  4. Mike Doran says:

    I sent in a comment this morning, but apparently it didn’t go through.
    This is a test.
    If it gets in, I’ll be back with a slightly better version of the original.
    Here’s hoping …

  5. Mike Doran says:

    Test was positive.
    Here goes with the second try.

    Sometime in the mid ’70s, before I could afford any kind of home video, a store specializing in this opened up at Water Tower Place, on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
    I can’t recall the name of the place after all these years.
    What I do remember is that right inside the entrance, there was a large-screen projection TV, hooked up to a Pioneer Laserdisc player. This in its turn was playing a promotional Disc for the whole Pioneer system.
    Patrick O’Neal was your genial host, smoothly explaining how Laserdiscs were the ultimate absolute future of home entertainment.
    Pioneer put on a good show here; had I the money at that time, I might have gone for it.
    Of course, that was the problem – in the ’70s, nobody had the ready cash for the Pioneer package. Such is life.
    As it was, being young and barely employed, I was barely able to afford a VHS machine until 1981 (you take what you can get, right?).

    Over the many, many years, I watched as one obsolescence succeeded another; prices went down, and I just followed along as best I could.
    I wasn’t even able to go digital flatscreen until a decade or so ago (give or take), and now you tell me that the Toob is back?
    In the words of my Irish forebears – Oy Gevalt!
    Geez, it was bad enough when the record player – excuse me, the Turntable – was revived.

    Ah well/oh hell – inexorable time and all that.

    I see that come June 9, you and Barb are booked into Centuries & Sleuths, so we can commiserate on What Was Then, What Is Now, and What (God Help Us) Will Be.
    Bob Goldsborough will be at C&S the previous Sunday (June 2), so that’s two Sunday bus-and-el trips in a row; I shall try to bear up as best I can.
    “Until that time, Eustis … until that time …”

  6. Glen Davis says:

    I haven’t even gone Blu-Ray yet.

    Long as they keep making normal dvds, I’ll stick with them. I was one of the last men standing for VHS, too.

  7. Sean Kelly says:

    When I first joined the Navy, I went out and bought a LD player and some nice sets (Fantasia is the one I remember). But the LD player wouldn’t play. I exchanged it for another and same problem. Since there were no more in stock, I got my money back and never took the chance on another one. My girlfriend then borrowed the Fantasia set to show her archives class and left it on the plane/at the airport and that was the end of my LD experience.

  8. bruce jones says:

    I have a ton of laser LD’s I never watch anymore–sheer laziness on my part. I remember when DVD’s first came alone in the late 90’s and being so impressed with the picture and SO disappointed with the sound. My Jurassic Park laser just THUNDERED through the house–closest I’ve been to a theatrical experience. I invested a fortune in a 4K 75″ LG TV a while back because it was the last 3D set they (or anyone I guess) made–and I’m into a good 3D effort. The 7.1 sound did sound much improved but not the way I remember those first lasers. Just yesterday I walked into our local Best Buy and there was a gigantic 8K set looming over the whole store. It was impressive but from what I’ve heard you don’t really see the difference unless you start with at least 80″. No info on the sound quality yet. Anyway have been enjoyed your work. We rubbed shoulders for an second at Thomas Jane’s booth at Comic Con but I haven’t really talked to you since you were doing Ms. Tree and I was writing Somerset Holmes.

  9. Dennis Durst says:

    Nate: Who is the collector in the STL? I have some laser disc I would like to get rid of. Thanks! I am originally from Burlington and have been reading your work since I stumbled across True Detective. n Love your work!

  10. Matthew says:

    Those were great trips. Some amazing buys, and great company!