In this age where most material is available in digital format either legally or by otherwise shadier sources we have never been more spoiled when it comes to choosing what to watch. With the introduction of video on demand services on top of this whole catalogues of cinema which would be otherwise unavailable are there at our fingertips for whenever the mood takes us. With all this availability the film industry has been concerned with policing this in recent years targeting illegal downloading especially. Now I am not going to go into the politics behind this, or state my personal stance on the subject, that is not my focus for this particular article. What I do want to highlight though are the number of films widely available on the net which are legitimate to download, distribute and use in whatever way you see fit, given they have now become the property of the public domain. The public domain can be defined as any intellectual property, so this is not simply confined to cinema, but music, the written word, ideas, or thoughts, which are no longer legally owned in law by someone. Therefore anyone can pick up a title, make copies, and distribute that without breaching copyright. You often see a lot of public domain titles making it onto budget labels, and as long as you use your own artwork and do not encroach on the intellectual rights of someone elses work in how you package or market it this is perfectly acceptable. Indeed for a lot of low-end labels this is where their bread and butter comes from. Also with the growth of home dvd burning technology the distribution of these movies has become a cottage industry and is helping people through the recession with many people sourcing this stuff and putting it up on auction sites for people to buy.
For something to enter the public domain it stems from either of two avenues, firstly it was never registered in the first place with copyright or patent, or there was one but it has lapsed (terms on how long a copyright lasts is complicated and varies) and if no one reapplies then it becomes public. Some films can be seen as completely public, the ones listed here, while others may not have a copyright in one country (meaning you are not breaching any laws if you distribute there), but may be owned by someone in another country, so it is always worth checking. I was surprised for example to see a number of Pete Walker titles Frightmare, and House of Whipcord, listed as uncopyrighted in the US, however I am pretty sure it would be an offence to copy and distribute them in the UK, I could be wrong though. I mean if they were public domain any of the distributors putting them out on official release could legitimately do so without owning the copyright, and finding out which title is safe or not can be a daunting task as law varies from country to country.
Now you probably wonder where I am going with all this, well I am not saying ok everyone rush out and start your own dvd label, or do? It is public domain so you can do what you want with it. But I am saying that while these films have been left by the roadside with no one to care for them does not mean they are a complete waste of time. Freely available on internet tv stations, to download if you do the research and even youtube, some of these films are total classics and if you have not seen them you have no excuse not to check them out.
Here is a useful list from IMDB showing a large number of horror titles, which is not exhaustive, as a good starting point, and we list here our top five, so if you haven’t seen them all what are you waiting for? (click on the photos to read the full reviews)….
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Gothic and haunting, this beautiful silent feature owns the first twist ending to its accolades. ..
2. Spider Baby
Jack Hill’s debut b-movie masterpiece which saw a career start for Sid Haig and was one of Lon Chaney Jr’s last roles. Highly influenced Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and later the work of Rob Zombie…
3. House on Haunted Hill
Gimmick and B-horror legend William Castle’s fantastically spooky House boasts a memorable role for Vincent Price and epic use of a skeleton…
4. Les Diaboliques
The greatest film Hitchcock never made, H G Clouzot’s dark noir tale of murder in a French boarding school…
5. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul
A debut appearance for Jose Mojica Marin’s character Coffin Joe, gruesome and gory for its time…