Adult films and home video go in tandem to the point that when most viewers think of adult cinema, they conjure an image of a gated-off video store back room with an 18+ sign, or a box of discarded, dusty VHS tapes (likely in big boxes with salacious art adorning all sides). However, while adult cinema did flourish on VHS and subsequent video formats, it’s a fallacy that it was predominantly a video-based industry.
Adult films began their existence just like other types of moving images did: on photochemical film, on which they were shot, cut and exhibited to audiences for years before video even existed, let alone was adopted by the general public.
We tend to think of sexually liberated content as something newfound, as if our ancestors were much more puritanically minded, but erotic cinema (including moving-image depictions of unsimulated sex acts) has existed for as long as cinema itself, with striptease films being produced in 1896, the same year that saw films from Georges Méliès and Louis Lumière stun audiences around the world. That said, they weren’t always legal, and producing them, possessing them, and certainly screening them, could mean fines or even jail time depending on territory.
From the 1920s and going into the 1930s, the prohibition of pornography (not just in moving image form, but still images and even illustrations) existed alongside the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, the result of which was stag films; secretly exhibited short reels of film that graphically depicted sex acts, and were not always concerned with narrative—some of which may more closely resemble the internet porn of the 2000s and on (with respect to gonzo material) than the more lavish, narrative-driven productions of the Golden Age. Like films of the silent era in general, many stag films (impossible to estimate how many) have been lost due to lack of preservation efforts and murky or non-existent means of distribution.
In recent years, more of these have been preserved by unlikely sources. Despite what many may think, film archives (yes, even the most well-known ones) have plenty of adult films in them. They, after all, are cultural repositories, and even though popular film discourse may ignore our cinema’s horny past, archives by their very nature really can’t. However, regardless of what content they provide necessary cultural stewardship to, those holdings are rarely—if ever—made public, and restoration funding is typically targeted at projects that are more likely to circulate and/or garner more donations towards future preservation efforts.
Rather, the more public means of preserving films like the once-underground stag films of decades past is home video; in this case, the expansive 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection from Synapse Films imprint Impulse Pictures, which is now onto volume 49 of the popular DVD series collecting hundreds of stag films from the 1960s through to the 1980s. All of these films were circulated on 8mm-projection copies via sex-magazine mail order or distributed to peep-show booths found in adult stores in urban centers.