Once upon a time in the days before bit-torrent and all-region DVD players, die-hard horror fans could only find ultra-rarities through the forbidden world of the VHS grey market dealers.
Genre fans were only able to get cult and obscure films – be they Mario Bava, Godzilla, Kung Fu or Hammer Films – during the early 90s from international bootleg syndicates. These films were not released by the mainstream Hollywood distributors who were more concerned about trying to extract nearly $70 for the first official VHS release of GHOSTBUSTERS. (Yes, that’s what they actually had the nerve to charge!)
For anyone who grew up on monster or horror film fan mags, there existed a world of movies that were impossible to find on VHS. They might have seen a severely censored, English dubbed BLOOD AND BLACK LACE shown once on a late, late TV show but unless they were quick on the record button, even that butchered version might be lost to time. And what of Godzilla and his fearsome fighting friends? New movies were being released in the early 1990s and NOT playing in theatres stateside. How to see them? Not to mention giallo, sword and sandal epics, Mexi-monsters and The Fat Dragon’s fulsome follies! Sure, some of these might be able via laserdisc but who could afford those top-drawer LP-sized discs especially the imports?
Enter the grey market dealers. Thanks to a loophole in the Berne Copyright Convention of 1977, films that were not registered with the US Library of Congress were fair game for independent distribution. Genre films were in high demand because back in the pre-Tarantino/Rodriguez era, schlock cinema was served as MST3K fodder for the mainstream.
While the FACES OF DEATH series could be readily found in a Blockbuster, good luck finding Luchio Fulchi’s CAT IN THE BRAIN, Dario Argento’s EL PAJRO DE LAS PLUMAS DE CRISTAS (BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) or LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (EYES WITHOUT A FACE).
Nor were the Hollywood majors mass-producing tapes of THE GIANT GILA MONSTER or “Adults Only” fare like ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE S.S. for mass consumption.
Many of the gray market distributors found old 16mm TV prints or imported laserdiscs from overseas and then remastered them onto VHS. Others were dubs of dubs of dubs, offering a film 8th generations removed from the master, rendering them nearly unwatchable – but that was all we could get back then!
The genre market dealers knew their audience – collectors – and exactly where to advertise. Their ads promulgated in pre-internet specialty magazines like Cult Movies, Psychotronic Video and FilmFax. Sinister Cinema was one of the biggest dealers – four-walling the mags with lurid descriptions and art culled from lobby cards. Video Search of Miami was more of a secret word of mouth and to get all the deets you ordered their no-frills, typed catalogs of delicious obscurities. Mike Vraney’s Something Weird often teamed with the original filmmakers to release an approved print of some H.G. Lewis or Harry Novak obscurity.
These subculture bootlegs flourished and profited in the nascent pre-net era and frankly who wasn’t thrilled to purchase a “soft” print of GODZILLA VS. MECHA-GODZILLA (1994) that was actually subtitled. As long as the kaiju were barely visible, it looked fine on a 17″ cathode ray television whose 525 lines of resolution make today’s worst YouTube dupes seem like IMAX!
But much like the VHS itself, these underground distributors who catered primarily to genre enthusiasts have all but disappeared from the face of the Earth. One reason was the rise of the internet and all region DVD players. Also, foreign distributors like Toho got wise and partnered with Sony to officially release the Big G. Chinese distributor, Tai Seng, who cornered the market on Golden Harvest and pre-fame Jackie Chan flicks, began issuing laserdiscs and DVDs specifically for US fans. They quickly exercised their legal clout forcing grey marketers to drop the now illegal titles or face the harsh reality of copyright infringement.
While some of the VHS bootleggers are still in existence today, the fast moving world of bit-torrent shares and dicey copyright enforcement have reduced them to a shadow of their former selves.
And as far as the formerly hard-to-find cinema gold? They’re now being regularly released on DVD and Blu-ray by legit distributors such as Shout’s Scream Factory, Arrow, Severin Films and Vinegar Syndrome.