For hardly ever leaving the building, Eddie and Natalie Wille, the Gomez and Morticia of Lakewood, have a lot of wisdom to dispense.
For instance, cannibal films should not be chosen hastily, says Natalie. Do you want a goofy one or a sick one? I Eat Your Skin is an innocuous dud about a mad scientist who creates radioactive monsters, while Mad Doctor of Blood goes straight for the gore.
Married on Halloween 1997, Natalie and Eddie own B-ware, the Madison Avenue video bazaar where wrestling flicks are subdivided into Midget, She Babes, and Grunt Matches, and the "Bigfoot/Yeti" section shares an aisle with arthouse director John Cassavetes. Flesh-eating zombies and brain-eating crabs are on the menu, along with that bootleg Todd Haynes flick starring a Barbie doll as an anorexic Karen Carpenter.
"When people say they want a sick movie, I say, "How sick do you want it?'" says Natalie, noting the store's Sick shelf, within stabbing distance of the Serial Killers shelf. If customers want the really sick stuff, she recommends G.G. Allin, a marginal musician whose many talents included taking off his clothes, beating up the audience, and eating shit.
"The thing is, that's hard to keep up," she says. "They'll come in and say, "I want another one just like it.' Some people look like they haven't left their mother's basement since the store opened. But everyone needs a place to call home."
Though the Willes live above ground, they like sitting at home in the dark. But for short trips, or when they're just feeling extravagant, they dress in their best black threads and tool around in their 1954 hearse.
"It's the same year as the one in Harold and Maude," says Eddie of the gleaming Cadillac Victoria. He bought it four years ago from a used hearse dealer in Cincinnati. It has all the extras: chrome tailfins that could poke your eye out. Venetian blinds. A body count of about 7,000.
As Eddie and Natalie roar through the streets of Lakewood at 25 mph, making a black beeline for the Laundromat, some people cheer. Others glance, then look away. The grim reaper would be proud.
"I don't really notice [people's reactions] too much anymore," says Eddie. "But when you're sitting at a light and a whole family's next to you, and the kids are laughing and waving . . ." Well, you've just got to launch into your Lurch routine.
"Grocery shopping is always fun," adds Natalie. "We get a lot of looks, people pulling their kids away from us."
"Sometimes I pass a real funeral procession, which is always kind of weird," says Eddie.
A funeral director once stopped to admire the car. Not one to squander a golden opportunity, Eddie asked him if he had ever encountered a zombie in his line of work. He hadn't -- but, having seen Dawn of the Dead many times, he was savvy enough to know that when a zombie comes at you, you shoot it in the head.
Though its stiff-chauffeuring days are over, the hearse is nonetheless tastefully outfitted with a champagne-colored coffin provided by Brian Daichendt, one of Eddie's like-minded friends.
"He got a two-for-one deal on coffins, and he gave me one," says Eddie. Daichendt owns a hearse, too. And just in case one out-of-context deathmobile isn't enough to prompt a heart attack, they've been known to park their cars across the street from each other.
Last year, the Willes (pronounced "the Willies") removed the coffin when they went to pick up their Christmas tree.
"The guy at the Christmas tree farm was laughing so hard," says Eddie. "He says, "I've been in this business for years, and I've never put a Christmas tree in a hearse.'"
The Christmas tree encounter inspired a skit on The Ghoul show, where Eddie plays Froggy, the tuxedo-wearing amphibian who gets flogged by the rest of the cast. Called "How to Get Rid of a Christmas Tree," it consisted of Eddie loading a dead tree in the back of the hearse, driving it around, and dumping it on somebody's treelawn.
"It was one of those things that's funnier when you see it," says Eddie.
Ron Sweed, who plays the Ghoul, says that Eddie has really brought the forlorn and misshapen frog suit to life.
"He does these crazy things with his knees," says Sweed. "He makes them look like rubber bands. I really don't let anyone else be my Froggy now."
Misty-eyed, Eddie still remembers the day he nabbed the role.
"I said, "Fuck yeah, I'll do that. I'd be honored to get punched and beat up." During a recent taping at the Christmas display on Public Square, though, he got a few more bruises than he bargained for.
"It's hard to ice skate in a frog suit," he confesses. "The suit kept slipping, and I couldn't see out of the eyeholes." After a few nasty brushes with the sideboards, he climbed on the cannon at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, ready to ham it up. But curses -- it was covered in an invisible layer of ice!
"I slid right off, and vssssoooh, landed on my head and shoulders. Man, that hurt."
Off-duty, he wore the frog getup to B-ware's grand opening three years ago. His act involved standing on the counter, jumping up and down, and beating his chest.
"There's Eddie on the counter, dressed like a frog," recalls Eddie's mom, Barb Wille. "And there's poor little Natalie -- she's hiding behind the cash register, just embarrassed to tears. I went over to see if she was all right, and she just goes, "I wanna stay right here -- cha-ching, cha-ching cha-ching.'
"I go, "Eddie, who else would be a match for you?'"
Eddie's the monster movie fanatic, while Natalie selects the store's fine-art flicks. But she's still a schlock expert, able to recite the entire script of the '80s teen slasher spoof Student Bodies.
"Including special effects," says Eddie. And her favorite film is Sixteen Candles. "Her parents forgot her 16th birthday."
For Natalie's parents, entertaining five kids often involved renting an armload of videos. Family vacations were more exotic -- her father, a paleontologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, would take them on digs to places like the Arizona salt quarries, where her sister once unearthed an allosaurus.
Dad also brought his work home.
"There was always something hanging from somewhere," Natalie recalls. "The house smelled like epoxy." A Sunday drive to grandma's house might include several stops to pick up interesting rocks Dad saw on the side of the road. And a trip to the refrigerator might turn up Exhibit A masquerading as yesterday's leftovers.
"We had bear claws in the freezer, wrapped in paper towels, for three years," Natalie says. "I'm not sure why. Things he was working on or found, he'd throw in a bag, put it in the freezer, and take to work with him.
"It was embarrassing growing up. He'd have a dinosaur skull with a toothbrush and picks laid out on the dining room table, and he'd be cleaning it when my friends came over."
Eddie is more nostalgic. "I remember when I went over your house the first time, your dad had a saber-toothed tiger [carcass] on the piano," he says. "I remember thinking, "Oh my God, is that what I think it is?'"
"That's why [he] likes me," says Natalie. "I'm comfortable around skulls."
"We do have a lot of skulls around the house," Eddie admits. "For Natalie, it's no big deal. But a lot of couples probably wouldn't want a lot of skulls hanging around."
Besides skull tolerance, Eddie and Natalie share the distinction of getting kicked out of the same "Nazi, nondenominational Christian grade school" in Elyria. But since they're five years apart (he's 34 and she's 29), they didn't connect until years later.
After they had the requisite first date involving running out of gas, a typical Friday night out soon became driving all over town, buying gently used copies of Santa Claus Vs. the Martians and Legend of the Golden Vampires. By the time they moved in together, their video library was at 1,200 -- counting the five copies of Night of the Living Dead Eddie purchased when he was a teen.
"I was trying to find a pristine copy," he explains.
They had to get a handle on the clutter. But how could they part with Krautschlock, a variety show starring albino German singer Heino? Or say goodbye to the hard-drinking, pill-popping puppets in Meet the Feebles? They couldn't. So they made their collection their inventory and moved it to an empty storefront downstairs.
Clinton Rohrbacher, a Lakewood cineophile who's on a "bad acting with large superimposed bugs" kick, is grateful. One of B-ware's best customers not living in Mom's basement, he recently rented the 1950s stinkers Killers From Space and The Cosmic Monsters.
"It's great to watch those up against a truly wonderful film like The Day the Earth Stood Still," he says. "When you love an art form, the best and the worst it's capable of are very great joys. The only thing that is disposable is mediocrity, and Hollywood takes care of that."
Another recent Rohrbacher pick: The Creeping Terror. "It's a monster made out of a quilt, a broomstick, and some sort of a cinder block. It's a must-see. You can actually see the people falling underneath the quilt, pretending to be eaten."
Eddie's mom could go on living without the quilt monster.
"I really feel like a fish out of water [in B-ware]," she says. "Like that girl in The Munsters." They have a movie about rabid grandmothers in there, she says. And one about Siamese twins! "One had killed someone, and the other one was going to have to go to jail. I mean, where do you find stuff like this?
"In the beginning, I thought, "They will never make a living at this. There's only three people in the world who look at those movies.' But I've been really surprised, and they've worked really hard."
Now Barb even lets Eddie park the hearse in their driveway. And she's washed it a couple times. But she won't go for a spin.
"I keep saying to him, "Eddie, you know -- dead people. They carried dead people. Let me just say, I can wait to ride around in a hearse.'
"He told me, "I'm only thinking of you guys, so that when something happens to you, I can get you.' I go, "You know, you just bring tears to my eyes, you're such a good boy.'"
And a good frog.
Laura Putre can be reached at [email protected].