With all the recent furor over movie piracy, I think it’s time to revisit the issue of bootleg videos. As I made clear in my first and second essays on the subject, “boots” are extremely popular with true horror fans. The films of John Woo, Lucio Fulci and others arguably owe their popularity to video bootlegs, which for years was the only way to see them uncut in the US (and, I assume, quite a few other countries). Even today, countless worthy films are available to viewers only via the bootleg circuit, even if boots aren’t necessarily legal (according to the writings of a seasoned attorney, the “Berne Act” defense frequently invoked by bootleggers is “inaccurate to the point of absurdity, and grossly misrepresents the law…”).
And by the way, horror fans are hardly the only buyers of bootleg videos, which are purchased by serious film fans the world over. In a Guardian article on director Nicolas Roeg, author Nick Hasted admits to having viewed a pirated copy of Roeg’s film BAD TIMING. Likewise, author Lee Server claims in the linear notes for Fantoma’s DVD release of STREET OF NO RETURN (1989) that his original viewing of the film was on a VHS dub with foreign subtitles.
How do we reconcile this with the MPAA sponsored promo spots you now see before movies featuring below-the-line technicians grousing about the evils of piracy? Or the many high-profile arrests that have already been made over the issue? To be sure, the practice of illegally downloading movies over the Internet is a serious threat to the industry; just look at what’s happened to the CD market as a result of unauthorized downloads. Hollywood thus far hasn’t been adversely affected by piracy, but their apprehension is justified.
For the record, I don’t support movie downloading, nor have I ever engaged in the practice; the mail order dubs we film fanatics collect are of films unavailable through normal distribution channels. This unfortunately hasn’t stopped many otherwise sane folks from confusing us with the schmucks who smuggle camcorders into theaters and sell the results on ebay, or offer ‘em for downloading over the internet; the very mention of the outfits profiled at the end of this article will get you kicked off the popular Mobius Home Video Forum (Don’t believe me? Try it and see!).
The fact is, most of us would much rather NOT have to purchase dubs of obscure Takashi Miike films, but extreme shortsightedness on the parts of US distributors often ensures that we don’t have much of a choice in the matter. As for the folks who downloaded unauthorized copies of THE HULK weeks in advance of its opening, well…you’ll have to ask them what they were thinking, as I honestly have no idea.
See my previous articles on the subject for a more in-depth look at these issues, but keep in mind that the mail order bootleg market has undergone a number of changes since I wrote those pieces. Foremost among those changes is the DVD issue. Obviously, DVDs are preferable to VHS tapes (if you can’t figure out why then you probably shouldn’t be reading this article), and in the world of bootlegs a new development is becoming increasingly prevalent: DVD-Rs. That is to say, recordable DVDs in place of the standard VHS dubs collectors have had to make do with over the years. It seems that “Alternative Video” outfits like Video Search of Miami and SuperHappyFun must now offer DVD-R copies of their films in order to survive. I know I’ll no longer shell out for a non-DVD bootleg, and I’m certain most other patrons feel the same way.
Might it be possible that DVD bootlegs are actually preferable to legitimate factory releases? Increasingly, the answer is yes. These days, it’s common for major studios to release vastly substandard DVDs, with Universal being the worst offender. See the 9/6/03 “Smell The Coffee” article at www.dvdreview.com for an on-the-mark condemnation of that company’s none-too-special edition DVDs (particularly BACK TO THE FUTURE and MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE), and filmmaker Alex Cox’s rant on www.alexcox.com for a more wide-ranging look at Universal’s problems (which all stem, according to Cox, from the simple fact that “they are a company who hates filmmakers and doesn’t understand films”). MGM is another particularly grievous offender; I recently checked out their DVD transfer of SOUTHERN COMFORT (1982) and had to turn it off halfway through because of the hideousness of the picture. I’d rather watch my old VHS copy.
This isn’t to say that major studios are the only ones to blame in this area. Check out—or better yet, don’t—Hen’s Tooth Video’s unacceptable DVD transfer of CROSS OF IRON (1977) and you’ll see what I mean. Or Anchor Bay’s abominable DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS DVD (Blue Underground’s much better quality ’03 re-release of this title is the one to get, FYI). Of course, bad transfers aren’t the only grievances facing DVD collectors.
Perhaps you’re familiar with Matthew Barney’s five-film CREMASTER series…or maybe not. By turns fascinating and annoying, the CREMASTER films are visually stunning, surreal experiments that have been embraced by the art world and deserve wider exposure. The problem is that, outside major US cities, the films haven’t been screened. And home video? Forget it. Aside from the August ’03 DVD release of THE ORDER, a thirty minute outtake from the three-hour CREMASTER 3, the only sources for the films thus far have been limited edition videos the filmmaker sells to millionaire art collectors (read: suckers) for around $200 grand a pop. Yes, you read that right, a single VHS for two hundred thousand dollars. It’s how Barney finances his films, and why he’s never given them a commercial release on video or DVD—it might cut into his action and make his deep pocketed patrons realize they’re being swindled.
In this case it seems that, in the face of Barney’s near-hysterical anti-populism, bootleggers have the right idea. Yes, the CREMSTER films have made their inevitable way onto the bootleg circuit…and yes, Matthew Barney has been quite fastidious in prosecuting their purveyors. If only Barney would properly release his films on video or DVD he’d save himself and his attorneys a lot of trouble, but noooooooooooooooo!
For the record, I don’t own unauthorized DVD copies of the CREMASTER films or any boots of Universal or MGM titles (at least not those that are legitimately available), but, based on the above info, I’m almost sorry I don’t. In the face of such outright stupidity, bootlegging seems like a sane alternative. Or would you rather shell out $200 grand for a video? Or, for that matter, 20 bucks for a poorly mastered DVD? Bring on the bootleggers, I say!
With that in mind, I’d like to present my Updated Video Distributor List. Once again, quite a lot has changed since I compiled my original list a couple years ago, and the following was compiled to reflect those changes.
European Trash Cinema is another essential resource for horror addicts—check it out at www.eurotrashcinema.com. And don’t forget www.witchinghourvideo.com, which blends an excellent selection with reliable, professional service.
Then there’s Video Search of Miami, at www.vsom.com. I’ve become disenchanted with the consistently terrible quality product they sell at outrageously inflated prices (25 bucks apiece!), complete with misleading “quality ratings”—the statement that their print quality is “the very best available in the United States” is, frankly, total horseshit (clearly Universal and MGM aren’t the only culprits in the bad-quality DVD debacle!). Nevertheless, VSOM’s response time is the fastest in the business and their selection is pretty damn incredible, with quite a few rarities you simply won’t find anywhere else, including essentials like WITCH WITH FLYING HEAD and OUTBACK (although their print of the latter film is hardly of “A” quality like they claim). Just be prepared to do some serious squinting!