The Thrill of the Chase: Bootleg horror in the 1990s

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Kids these days eh, with their internets and their torrents. The whole world at their grubby little fingertips. You want to see Suspiria? No problem, just hop on Pirate Bay and download it. Oh, you want Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood? No problem, go to YIFY and get that blu-ray rip. Oh, you want that weird tv-movie of Ringu, where Sadako is nude for the whole film? No problem! Just nip on over to Cinemageddon and snatch it.

It’s so easy!

And yet it wasn’t always. I remember reading about Re-Animator in the UK horror mag The Dark Side and adding it to my list of films to get. About 3 years later, I finally found it. 3 years guys! And being about 13, I couldn’t convince my mum to get it for me, cos she thought I had enough horror films.

But that’s beside the point.

The point is, I spent years – literally years – hunting that film down. Even then, when I got my hands on it, it was heavily cut.

Yeah, collecting horror videos (that’s right, this was the 90s man, no DVD around) in the UK was frustrating at best, downright impossible at worst. After the comic absurdity that was the video nasties moral panic in the early 80s, UK censors cracked down heavily on horror films. This would not relax until the late 90s, when DVD and the internet gradually eroded the barriers between countries, and importing uncut copies of Nekromantik and Cannibal Holocaust suddenly became feasible, easy even.

But until then, we had to hunt for our horror.

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I personally used the classified ads page in legendary horror mag The Dark Side to find bootleg sellers. The ads would be carefully worded so as not to openly state that they were selling banned videos, e.g.

FOR SALE – MEIR ZARCHI’S ISOYG AND UMBERTO LENZI’S CF

That’s I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Ferox, by the way.

It’s hard to believe, but traders would sometimes be raided by police and have their tapes confiscated, while the possibility of a fine or even a jail sentence was an all too real threat. Imagine going to jail these days for selling Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination, now available uncut in your local HMV, rated 15!

My first titles were from a seller called Rich. The photocopied list of his tapes arrived in the post. Of course, in the pre-IMDB age, I had no idea what most of these films were. What the hell was I Miss You Hugs and Kisses? Did I really want to see The Witch Who Came in From The Sea? Was Tombs of the Blind Dead worth seeing? (The answers to those questions are, a piece of shit, yup, and absolutely!)

So I selected a pair of obvious titles. The Argento cut of Dawn of the Dead (I had heard it was gorier!) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Two films on one tape for £10. Bargain! I gave my mum the money and got her to write me a cheque (no such thing as Paypal in those days). Two weeks later the tape arrived. Both films played out, huge tracking lines on the picture, flickering between colour and black and white. The sound frequently dropped out, and it was clear that the tapes had been copied from a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. And that’s being generous! Did I care? Did I hell! I was in forbidden movie heaven. Sometimes, watching a pristine blu-ray of a film like Don’t Go In The House, I long for those days. Some films are just meant to be seen in the scuzziest way possible. It’s preferable to watching it on Youtube on your goddam phone, anyway.

For some reason, Holland seemed to be the dangerous hotbed of video nasty activity, so most tapes I bought usually had Dutch subtitles across the picture.

My favourite story from that time was the poor sap who sat down to watch a bootleg tape and discovered that the trader had simply videotaped it off the tv with a camcorder. The reason the buyer knew this was that he could see the reflection of the trader in the tv, sitting naked watching the movie unfold.

That should be a special feature on all DVDs forever.

But time marched on. I got older but not wiser, this magical thing called the internet appeared and changed the world, and seemingly overnight the bootleg VHS trade moved onto the torrent sites. I guess that I was part of the very last generation ever to have to struggle to find anything, and I’m happy with that. In those days, a tape coming through the mail was an event. It felt special. And it made the movies feel special too. With the home movie market dying, films seem to be becoming just one more form of disposable entertainment, to be half watched while live-tweeting yourself posting memes on reddit or something. If that’s what you do, then that’s cool, but I’m just glad the internet wasn’t around when I was a kid. I chased these movies because I fucking loved them, and I loved them because I chased them, and that I wouldn’t change for anything.

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4 Responses to The Thrill of the Chase: Bootleg horror in the 1990s

  1. lysette says:

    Yessss! I remember some time in the early 90’s dad cleared a few shelves in our bookshop to make room for some of his personal VHS foreign movie collection available to rent and the censor bureau sent us a list of banned films that we would be prosecuted for having. We looked at the list, laughed at most of it and then took note to find all of those movies!

    Like

  2. morrisongrl says:

    This was fun to read! I’m glad there was no internet when I was a kid too. I remember when I first saw It. Mom had borrowed a video from her friend,it was supposed to be a kids’ movie. I guess the tapes got mixed. It was It. Me&my brother watched it horrified&fascinated,without telling mom of course. To this day I remember the feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

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