The greymarket video scene, it seems, is all-but dead. I’m referring here to the sellers of VHS (and later DVR) horror movie bootlegs, which for a time were an integral part of the horror landscape. See my early-00 writings on the subject (here and here), which are now historic documents.
The bootleg VHS scene flourished during the 1990s, when Blockbuster Video exerted a stranglehold over the home video landscape with its steadfast refusal to stock anything over an R rating and suppression of most any movie that wasn’t a high-profile Hollywood spectacular. This left greymarket outfits with a ready-made niche to fill, in the form of uncut versions of Blockbuster-neutered titles, and also films that weren’t commercially available.
Getting a hold of a greymarket video back in the day entailed snail mailing a check or money order to non-Better Business Bureau affiliated outfits like Fright Video, Video Madman and Vomit Bag Video. Oftentimes you’d get nothing in return, and on those occasions when you did get the videos you ordered they tended to be of extremely poor multi-generation image quality, and with foreign language subtitles. As a young film buff I purchased quite a few VHS dubs, and still have some of them, although the vast majority of those videos have been replaced with DVDs.
That the greymarket scene directly informed the DVD revolution of the early 00’s is evident in the many bootleg mainstays that were given deluxe DVD releases, such as LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, DUST DEVIL, the ALL NIGHT LONG trilogy and others. Of course, it was that very revolution that signaled the death toll of the bootleg outfits. The fact that pristine versions of so many greymarket mainstays suddenly became readily and legally available obviously took its toll (as did the fact that Blockbuster relaxed its stringent ratings policy with DVDs). An even bigger blow was the prevalence of online downloading and/or streaming, which, appropriately enough, can also be credited with doing in the DVD market. These days you can find quite a few–if not all–of the bootleg mainstays mentioned above on VOD format, which can be viewed for a fraction of the price of a bootleg VHS (which as I recall went for around $15-$25).
No surprise: the big names on the greymarket scene, like Video Search of Miami, SuperHappyFun and Shocking Videos, are all long gone. There still exist a handful of greymarket outfits, such as All Clues No Solutions, Cinefear and Just for the Hell of It, but none appear to be prospering (All Clues No Solutions, for instance, hasn’t updated their website since 2013).
The same is true of the periodicals that powered the scene. I’m referring to the horror zines of the eighties and nineties (elucidated in the indispensable 2014 book XEROX FEROX), which were integral in promoting films that until the proliferation of DVDs were only available in bootleg form. Those zines included DEEP RED, GORE GAZETTE and EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA (whose proprietors all sold bootleg videos on the side), and also FILMFAX (in whose pages I was first introduced to the greymarket scene via an ad touting copies of EL TOPO for sale), none of which currently exist.
The demise of the bootleg VHS market is certainly no great loss. There is, however, a troubling side-effect, as what appears to have vanished together with the greymarket is the sense of adventure and discovery that drove film buffs of earlier eras. Nowadays it seems that if a movie isn’t made readily available, and accompanied by untold millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, people just aren’t interested. In the same category is the all-too-common misconception that all the worthwhile horror/cult movies have been found. I labored under this delusion myself for a time, but have found that, after uncovering countless heretofore-unknown rarities, that just isn’t the case.
Yes, there are quite a few worthwhile obscurities that have yet to receive their due on DVD, or even (in many cases) online. Examples include the mind-roasting French miniseries LA DUCHESSE D’AVILA, the stunningly bleak Spanish horror fest THE HOUSE WITHOUT FRONTIERS, the bizarre Klaus Kinski vehicle GOLDEN NIGHT, the apocalyptic Russian action-drama DOGS and the unforgettable Brazilian horror fest THE ANGEL OF THE NIGHT.
So just as in the nineties, when VHS copies of THE BEYOND, EL TOPO, THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET and others found exposure in the form of bootleg videos, there currently exist many films that are tailor-made for “alternative” outlets like those outlined above. But for the proper synthesis to occur those films would have to be sought out by such outlets, and also by adventurous viewers, which these days are both in short supply.