The VHS Wonderland Of Portland Films

Remembering the pioneers of mail order VHS cult movie retail in the wild west days of uncensored video.

Sell-through video – now that’s a blast from the past. Readers of a certain age will remember the phrase when in 1985 The Video Collection and Channel 5 Video (no relation to the actual TV channel, which was several years in the future at that point) pioneered the idea that you could buy films on VHS for an affordable price. Before then, buying a pre-recorded video cassette that wasn’t a music release was cripplingly expensive, in the era when rental was king. Or so the story goes.

As with most convenient histories, the truth is rather more complicated. The Video Recordings Act, which required all films to be approved by the BBFC, was introduced in a staggered series of deadlines that allowed a handful of mail-order suppliers to sell off old stock from assorted labels, most of whom had gone out of business in the face of the costs involved in submitting their back-catalogue to the censors. Foremost among these mail-order retailers was Portland Films, which actually had a couple of physical shops in central London and who would take out full-page ads in the Sunday tabloids offering obscure old movies for an affordable price. It’s a long time ago now, and the actual price is lost in my memory, but it might have been a tenner a film or five for £30. Something like that, anyway.

My first purchase from Portland was Elsa, Fraulein SS, which – in my teenage excitement – I rather hoped might be along the lines of Ilsa She Wolf of the SS. Of course, it wasn’t, but Elsa is a gloriously trashy Eurocine production, awash with nudity and bad dubbing. Although the newspaper ad showed a cover image, the actual tape arrived in a plain black cover, the words ‘AN ADULT VIDEOTAPE NOT FOR SALE TO ANYONE UNDER 21’ in gold lettering being the only text, and the film title on a label identical to the one on the cassette at the bottom of the sleeve. Two things immediately struck me: firstly, that this release was obviously a generic duplication of the original (and we’ll come back to that) and secondly, that this must be hot stuff indeed if it was restricted to over-21s, given that the highest BBFC age limit was 18. Unsurprisingly, this was hype over content – and equally unsurprisingly, at no point had I been asked to prove my age when ordering the film (I was a few years under 18, let alone 21).

With the tape came Portland catalogues – a couple of pocket-sized booklets and several loose sheets, along with an order form. There were sheets devoted to ‘adult’ titles – everything from impressively-packaged (at least on the original release) Cal Vista titles to The French Label (a series that went for an up-market look) and more random collections of anything that the Portland catalogers deemed sexy. Showing that sex sold back then, these were more expensive than the regular releases, even though the hardcore films were all cut-down soft versions and the french Label and others were Euro softcore (French Label titles even boasted that they were BBFC ‘X’ versions).

Anyway, the more interesting stuff was elsewhere – the low-budget US horror films from Mountain Films and their off-shoots (Mountain and Portland had a management connection), and other obscurities that the budding collector of obscure cinema was going to be very excited by. Most interesting to me was the inclusion of Don’t Look In The Basement, then currently on the Video Nasties list. Damn right I was ordering that, alongside four other titles that included Pete Walker’s Frightmare and House of Whipcord, The Fiend (aka Beware the Brethren) and something else that I’ve long since forgotten. I filled in the order form, wrote my cheque and waited.

At some point in the then-standard ‘allow 28 days for delivery’, the package arrived. Now, Portland did not refund money if a film was out of stock; neither did they get in touch to ask what you might like instead. No, they just stuck a couple of alternative tapes in, with a generic ‘some titles replaced’ note and that was that. Inevitably, someone had clocked that Don’t Look in the Basement was technically illegal now. House of Whipcord was also no longer available. Bah. But any disappointment was short-lived. In their place came two films that I had never heard of – indeed, films that weren’t even in the catalogues I had. Death Bed was a title that appeared in the newspaper ads, and which I’d ignored because I had no idea what it was and the one-line synopsis (‘a bed that eats people’) sounded dumb. But I had a copy now, so I figured what the hell. let’s take a look. Death Bed – The Bed That Eats was astounding, a weird, trippy film, unlike anything I’d ever seen. As it turns out, it was also a shamelessly illegal release – filmmaker George Barry had sent an unfinished copy to potential distributors to drum up interest, Portland had obtained a copy and released it without even telling the filmmaker, let along paying him. But of course, without their devil-may-care attitude towards copyright, no one would have ever heard of the film – Barry had assumed no one was interested, moved on and forgotten about it until fans of the UK release found him and persuaded him to finish it and find a (legal) distributor.

The other replacement film was in one of those ‘adult videotape’ covers and called The Image. I had no idea what this was – again, it didn’t appear in any of the catalogues. Astute readers will know that this was, in fact, the Radley Metzger film, shorn of the more explicit sex scenes but still containing the intense BDSM imagery (and titled, onscreen, The Punishment of Anne). The impact that this film had on me is hard to describe – I’d seen plenty of porn, including some of the great 1970s classics, at this time, but this film was something else. I still maintain that it is Metzger’s finest work. I lost my copy in a customs raid – the fact that it was a cut version and the UK release mattering not one jot apparently – and I’m still bitter about that, even though it is now out, uncut, on disc.

The notable thing about Portland titles is that they had clearly bought master copies and – in some cases – stacks of printed sleeves from defunct labels, and were running off their own dupes, with generic red labels on the tapes. Not pirate versions exactly, even if the companies that they were dealing with might not have technically still owned those movies, but for video collector purists, the presence of a Portland label would make a major difference to the value of a tape. Personally, I didn’t care, but you did have to watch for another trick from the Portland chaps, the ‘special edition’ that edited the film down to a handy (for them) one hour running time. Suffice to say that this editing was not done by an industry professional and did not enhance your viewing experience.

Portland Films did not last much beyond the final implementation of the Video Recordings Act, and like their mail-order contemporaries, faded into distant memory. But for a few brief years, the collapse of the fly-by-night video labels and the gradual enforcement of video censorship was a bit of a boom time for collectors, and Portland definitely led the way. It feels – indeed, it is – a different world now but I suspect that an entire generation of cult movie fandom in the UK would have been a very different place without them. And looking back at these catalogues now, it’s amazing to think of just how many of these films have yet to have any sort of re-release since…

DAVID FLINT

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