10 Cult Films That Found Fame as VHS Bootlegs

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The 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot turns 30 this year and has been restored for a June screening at Anthology Film Archives. The 17-minute short is exactly what it sounds like: heavy metal fans tailgate outside the Capital Centre in Maryland before a Judas Priest concert. Nirvana reportedly watched it on their tour bus in the ‘90s. VHS junkies traded the film on bootleg for years.

As serious film buffs of a certain age (pre-internet) will tell you, snagging a copy of a talked-about film was often a game of roulette. If you couldn’t obtain a dubbed tape from a friend, movie nerds turned to zines and flyers that advertised underground films with a mysterious P.O. Box, beckoning for cash. After that it was a waiting game to see if it would actually show up. But bootlegs turned up everywhere. According to tapeheads like Rubber0Cement, San Francisco’s Le Video used to hand out copies of Mr. Show. Psychic TV sometimes sold tapes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain at shows. And bootlegged Hollywood movies helped defeat Communism in Romania.

Past the break, we highlight a few other bootleg favorites that became cult classics.

Nine Inch Nails’ Broken movie

Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle and Coil fame directed a disturbingly graphic, snuff-style short film for Nine Inch Nails, featuring music videos from the Broken EP and Supermasochist performance artist Bob Flanagan in the banned “Happiness in Slavery” segment. The Broken movie was never officially released, although Dangerous Minds recently featured the film after it surfaced on Archive.org. Singer Trent Reznor first traded VHS tapes of the project in the ‘90s, which made the rounds on the bootleg circuit. For years, it was rumored to be a real snuff film, which contributed to its legendary status.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Before Todd Haynes made us pine for Carol, he directed this cult classic about singer Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia and the cultural influence of the Carpenters in the 1970s, using Barbie dolls as actors. He made the movie as an MFA student and featured the band’s music without licensing, leading to a lawsuit from Karen’s brother, Richard. Since then, the film has been illegal to sell and distribute, but it’s been one of the biggest bootleg favorites for decades.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Bill Murray was the first actor to ever portray writer Hunter S. Thompson in a film or TV feature in the 1980 movie Where the Buffalo Roam (adapted from the writer’s obituary of Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta). The film featured a Neil Young soundtrack, and Thompson giving input as an executive consultant. Murray worked closely with the gonzo journalist to nail his performance, which Thompson approved of. But the film’s reception was far from positive, including from Thompson himself. He hated it. Universal pulled Where the Buffalo Roam from distribution, leaving the film to languish amongst curious fans when they could snag a copy.

Titicut Follies

Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary reveals the horrible conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts during the 1960s. The film was famously banned just before its premiere at the 1967 New York Film Festival and became the first movie to be banned for reasons other than obscenity, immorality, or national security. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sued the filmmakers, while the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the film constituted an invasion of inmate privacy and yanked it from circulation.

Possession

Mondo Digital explains why Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill as a couple experiencing a breakdown after a divorce (perhaps the nicest way to describe what happens), wound up as a bootleg:

Most people acquainted with European cinema have already heard the stories of the butchery performed on Possession when it hit American theatres in 1982. Not only did it lose 50 minutes, but the distributors randomly reshuffled entire sequences from the middle of the film to the beginning, wiped over the music score with a droning batch of generic horror cues, and bathed the edited climax in garish solarized effects for no discernible reason. The result was a hobbled, gibbering mess that did nothing for the reputations of anyone involved. The longer cut became available in a nicely transferred letterboxed Japanese laserdisc from Daeie (and a subsequent DVD with non-removable Japanese subtitles), though the prohibitive price tag caused many horror fans to resort to bootleg tapes instead.

The Fantastic Four

What do you get when you take a Marvel comic book, king of B-cinema Roger Corman, and a license for the former that’s about to run out? The 1994 unreleased Fantastic Four movie, directed by Oley Sassone. Read about the movie’s long, strange history on Vice:

‘Look at that film,’ Sassone said. ‘It looks like shit because it’s a bootleg copy from a VHS. It’s so fucked-up looking, I’m sorry.’ Not that he’s defending it as a masterpiece: ‘I know it falls way short in terms of special effects.’ However, he and the makers of an upcoming documentary about The Fantastic Four make a compelling argument that the film is a lot better than it has any right to be, given the bizarre circumstances of its making. It was sabotaged from day one, he said. ‘We never got a chance to do what we would have liked to have done.’

Cathode Fuck

The 1986 video mixtape Cathode Fuck, created by Film Threat founder Chris Gore, featured cut-together footage from random video weirdness, including McDonalds training films, performances by The Clash and Public Image LTD., and other punk-savvy commentary about consumer culture. Other famed VHS mixtapes include Lost & Found Video Night, which featured clips of Crispin Glover’s David Letterman appearance, The Cramps playing the California State Mental Hospital in Napa, and outtakes from Siskel and Ebert movie reviews.

Cocksucker Blues

Photographer Robert Frank’s 1972 unreleased, vérité documentary follows the Rolling Stones North American tour. Mick Jagger snorts coke, groupies are groupies (with more drugs), and other on-the-road shenanigans abound. The film cannot be screened without Frank physically present, due to a court ruling after the group tried to bury the movie forever since it featured incriminating content. More on the movie from writer Simon Howell:

Which is what makes Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues such a fascinating anomaly in terms of rock movies. Aimless and yet strangely purposeful, Frank’s banned chronicling of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 post-‘Exile on Main St.’ tour demolishes typical rock-crit notions about music’s ‘universal narratives’ in favor of a startlingly frank and inclusive approach to depicting the life of a touring band at their most shamelessly decadent. Though the film has earned mythological status as the enfant terrible of rock movies, it isn’t some tabloid exposé or investigative tell-all. Frank’s camera is unobtrusive but not unsympathetic; in fact, for all of the sordid affairs he captures, the only moment that betrays an open judgment on Frank’s part is when he opts to film a roving cat instead of the dull-as-dishwater interview being taped in the same room. Tellingly, Frank doesn’t seem to have much patience for by-the-numbers journalism. His warts-and-all style, eye-catching but never ostentatious, seems to predict the likes of The Decline of Western Civilization and even Heavy Metal Parking Lot, though not nearly as pointed in its focus as either.

The T.A.M.I. Show

The T.A.M.I. Show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International, depending on who you ask) is a 1964 concert film, featuring performances by rock and R&B groups from the US and UK — many at the top of their game, like The Beach Boys, James Brown, and The Supremes. The show, which includes choreographed go-go dancers, took place at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium that year. After a brief theatrical debut, and with no proper home video release, the movie fell into obscurity. The Beach Boys performance was cut due to a copyright dispute, leaving it up to bootleg enthusiasts to spread the word.

Born Innocent

The 1974 made-for-TV movie Born Innocent stared post-Exorcist 14-year-old Linda Blair as an abused teen runaway. The film became notorious for an uncut rape scene shown during its premiere, which was creepily teased in the movie’s promotional spots. It was edited from the film after being blamed for the real-life rape of an eight-year-old girl with a soda bottle. The re-edited version aired during the 1980s, but quickly disappeared. Bootleggers circulated the uncut copy until it eventually got a DVD release in 2004.