It's the site of the living dead, as cult films hit Web

Hard-to-find cult classics are now available for free online, as enthusiasts upload them to a site called Veoh.

Amanda Termen
Amanda Termen covers innovations in technology.
Amanda Termen
4 min read
Dr. Jekyll, Bruce Lee and Notre Dame's hunchback are all finding new shelf space on a start-up's site.

Last week, Veoh Networks began offering free downloads of cult classics, including kung fu flicks such as "Ninja Death 1," John Wayne movies like "The Lucky Texan" and black-and-white horrors such as "The Brain That Wouldn't Die."

Thanks to the proliferation of broadband Internet access, video downloads have become increasingly popular. Blockbuster.com and Netflix have been facing off in the retail space. File-sharing sites also attract movie buffs, though the legality of such downloads remains iffy. Other start-ups, such as Brightcove.com, are testing the waters. And on the smaller screen, downloads for Apple Computer's video iPod are gaining an audience.

Click for images

But finding old movies--legally, systematically and at no cost--isn't always easy. They've begun to pop up on sites like Entertainment Magazine and Public Domain Torrents. Veoh's founders started their site last year mainly for people to post home movies. But they soon realized people had a desire to track down old Hollywood flicks and classic videos.

The cult classics posted on the site have all fallen out of copyright, either because of their age or because of owners who failed to protect them.

Anyone can upload films to the site; both posting and viewing is free. Veoh plans to make money through advertising and commissions on pay-to-download selections.

So far, about 90 movies are available on Veoh's cult classics page. And who would see these flicks if they weren't on the Internet?

"Nobody," Veoh CEO Dmitry Shapiro said. "Just collectors who were fortunate enough to have access to the movies. Once in a while somebody would have a viewing in some old theater, or they'd get on the TV in the middle of the night. But for the most part they just disappeared."

Now, though, they're in plain sight. An obscure 1942 werewolf movie called "The Mad Monster," for example, already had 80 viewers only 24 hours after upload by a horror enthusiast.

Watching the silent, John Barrymore version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a journey back in time. In the 1920 classic--later eclipsed by a remake for which Fredric March won the best-actor Oscar--Jekyll tinkers in his lab, surrounded by smoking test tubes and accompanied by horrific organ music. Title cards carry quotes such as "Damn it, I don't like it! You're tampering with the supernatural!"

Less salt, sugar and fat
So why are today's viewers, who are used to overwhelming special effects and flawless computer animation, attracted to silent movies with stiff, spasmodic monsters? Shapiro thinks the interest stems from a discontent with much of today's production, which he labels "junk food."

"It's got a lot of salt, a lot of sugar and a lot of fat, which is used to make up for bad story lines,..." he said. "Back in the old days, they didn't make junk food, because they didn't have special effects to rely on. So a lot of the stuff that was made then has great story lines and interesting acting--and there is obviously a sense of nostalgia."

The most popular video on the channel so far is "Bruce Lee the Invincible" with more than 250 downloads in just a few days. The acting is exaggerated, the dialogue minimal and the lip-synching nonexistent. But that doesn't stop the Dragon from making mashed potatoes out of its enemies.

"It's a boy thing," Shapiro said regarding the film's instant popularity. "I remember watching kung fu movies with my dad. I didn't notice the bad dubbing and the silly story lines. Boys have their adrenaline and testosterone going. They like movies about chivalry and fighting."

But Shapiro's personal favorite is "Reefer Madness," a 1938 propaganda film aimed at marijuana: "A violent narcotic--an unspeakable scourge--the real public enemy No. 1!" "Reefer Madness" was created to deter America's youth from using the drug. "Knowing what we know now, a lot of people think today that it is a comedy," Shapiro said.

Shapiro's vision when starting San Diego-based Veoh was broader than reviving old black-and-whites. To him, the site and others like it represent a democratic revolution, letting anyone with a computer, video camera and Internet connection bring their vision to the world. In addition to the cult classics page, Veoh has pages specifically dedicated to skateboards, cars and music.

"Video is the most incredible medium for communication. It's not just for entertainment; it can be education, politics, used by causes and charities," said Shapiro, who also founded peer-to-peer security company Akonix Systems in 2000. "We believe this is as profound an invention as the World Wide Web, which democratized print broadcasting."

To avoid distribution of copyrighted material, Veoh approves all the movies placed on the site.

Originally from Russia, Shapiro grew up in an environment where all media, including television, was government controlled. "There was really nothing to watch. I remember having three channels: Two of them were propaganda, and one was irrelevant to me," he said.

As a 10-year-old, he had watched only a few hours of television altogether. Moving as a youngster to the United States, he obviously found more choices but still saw them as limited by the preferences of television broadcasters.

"Therefore we get to see very little of the world," Shapiro said. "That inspired me to look for alternatives."