Thursday 19 September 2019

VHS Forever? Once Upon a Time in Camden (UK 2019: Dir Mark Williams)

I'm not the first person to make a connection between the punk/post punk scene of the late 70s and the collection of (and fan writing about) VHS horror/exploitation titles of the early 1980s. Both were underground, niche, largely male, and supported/promoted by an explosion of fanzines written by enthusiasts, mainly for other enthusiasts.

VHS Forever: Once Upon a Time in Camden looks back to a time in the mid 1980s, when the Video Recordings Act of 1984 had started to bite and 'pre cert' videos, previously to be rented from small shops/newsagents across London, had largely disappeared (although I managed to pick up a pre cert copy of The Deadly Spawn in a north London shop as late as 1992).

The 'Psychotronic Video Store' in the basement of a Camden backstreet was one of a handful of places in London where, with the right word in the right ear, you could access the shop's famous back room, full of genre delights otherwise not available to fans (apart from the small ads carried in the back pages of the more established fanzines). 

Founded by Bal Croce, despite its subterranean access and rather off putting location, 'Psychotronic' (its name naughtily pilfered from Michael Weldon's infamous magazines/book) was on the surface a horror/sci fi/fantasy shop which specialised in selling BBFC certificated video tapes, books and magazines. But rather like the speakeasys of the 1920s, the reasonably innocent exterior masked a world of wonders behind the counter, via a list of imported and previously banned movies (courtesy of the 1984 VRA). These were nth generation copies, sometimes barely watchable - and the transfer from American NTSC format to European PAL didn't help - but otherwise impossible to see. And, fact fans, I was the compiler of one of Bal's first lists, which I made up for him in return for three tapes: A Clockwork Orange and two Herschell Gordon Lewis titles, The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls. Of course in 2019 I have the advantage of being able to watch those three titles in glorious Blu Ray on my shiny Smart TV, but I still have fond memories of trying to work out what was going on in the murk of the VHS tapes, as well as the thrill of actually owning them.

VHS Forever? Part 2 follows on from Mark Wiliams' 2014 documentary VHS Forever? Psychotronic People. Like the original fanzine culture which grew up around the movement, the film is scrappy but passionate, an hour long love letter to a time when acquisition of anything leftfield in the genre involved not only careful sleuthing but also quite a lot of money (a £10 tape - the going rate - in 1985 would be the equivalent of around £30 today). 

The Psychotronic Video Store eventually moved out of its Camden premises to Hanway St in London's West End. By this time my interest in the bootleg VHS market had waned, frustrated by the high prices and poor quality of the reproductions, so I never set foot in the place. But it's great to hear from those that did, a network of geographically diverse people initially linked only by knowing the whereabouts of the shop and their love of weird movies. Those interviewed in this documentary range from casual punters to the more celeb end, in the shape of Jane Giles and Graham Humphreys. Their shared recollections form a kind of mantra of experience, with the common feeling of having stumbled across a decidedly warped Aladdin's cave. Days like these may never return, but Williams does a good job of recreating those exciting times through photographs and fan anecdotes. It's a shame that Bal wasn't interviewed - maybe he doesn't like to look back - but luckily for us many others do. Perhaps Mark's next doc should cover the rise of the fanzine scene of that period? 


  1. Hi..
    Great to find this post. Psychotronic was one of my fave places in London, and Bal helped me find lots of goodies.
    I did visit the West end shop too after Bal shut down Camden store. It was fun too, but not the same. However they did have an old Spiderman pinball machine in that shop.
    Anyway.. Good memories from a great time..

    1. Thanks for your comments PA. The documentary is well worth watching (as is Mark's other one, VHS FOREVER).