Before home video, the most popular way to invite your favourite monsters into your living room was through brightly packaged film reels available at the local drugstore. Rue Morgue looks back at this decades-long tradition.
Every generation of horror film fans has a coming-of-age story.
Depending on how old you are, you might remember the day your dad brought a VCR into the living room, and how soon after you would spend your weekends scanning the horror sections of early 1980s video stores, all while carrying the rental tag for Escape to Witch Mountain because — let’s face it — your parents weren’t going to let you see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
“The concept of watching movies at home, anytime you wanted to, seemed like something H.G. Wells dreamed up,” says Ted Okuda in his forward to Scott MacGillivray’s Castle Films: A Hobbyist’s Guide.
Before the advent of home video, you had three options: 1) You could hope your local cinema would screen a favourite film of yours. 2) You could scan the TV Guide and hope The Ghost of Frankenstein would play on the late show. 3) If your family had an 8mm projector, you could pool your paper route money and get your mitts on a Castle Film. Offered in 8mm and later Super 8 and 16mm, these reels were an integral part of the pre-VHS home movie market.
Castle started out in the 1930s by offering newsreels, cartoons, travelogues and sports subjects, then began selling abridged versions of Hollywood productions after a merger with Universal in the 1940s. They achieved great success with the abridgements of films by Abbott & Costello and W.C. Fields, as well as westerns — all of them focusing on scenes of physical comedy and adventure.
These silent mini-movies (sound versions, which used the film’s original score music, were introduced later as home projectors became equipped with audio) were offered in two formats: the “Complete Edition” of 200’, with a running time of about twelve minutes, and a “Headline Edition,” a glorified trailer showcasing the highlights of the longer edition, running around three minutes. The footage was edited into a sort of “digest,” sometimes giving an overview of the entire film, and sometimes only focusing on a specific scene.
IN 1959, CASTLE REACHED a new milestone, as the release of an abridged version of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein tapped into the monster mania of the 1950s. By then the Universal Horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s were undergoing a renaissance on syndicated television, and now kids could have an actual copy — albeit a severely shortened one — to watch in their living rooms.
You found Castle Films in the camera section of your local Kresge’s or K-Mart in revolving racks similar to those used to display newsstand comic books, but most horror fans of that era will remember their first exposure to Castle’s horror films came from the back-pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. John Landis has often cited Famous Monsters and those short digests as a major influence on him; Steven Spielberg even used dogfight footage from a WWII Castle film alongside scenes he shot at an airport in one of his early shorts, Fighter Squad.
So how did these films differ from their theatrical counterparts? The Castle version of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf-Man was edited to depict the two Cockney grave-robbers invading Larry Talbot’s resting place, which leads to the climactic, castle-crumbling finale between the titular monsters. For Lugosi’s Dracula, Castle’s rendition managed to filter out much of the awkward staging found in the feature. By removing the Transylvania scenes and the Enfield subplot altogether, it opens up as Dracula walks the streets of London in full evening wear. This cleaned-up, shorter shorter version gives the film a different, more urgent life.
Castle’s The Mummy, released in 1962, was unique because it featured inter titles from Karl Freund’s original 1932 film, and was one of the few instances in which the full cast was credited in a Castle Film. Unlike other Universal horrors, The Mummy contained an elaborate silent scene where Karloff’s fate as Amon-Ra is staged in a fantastic pantomime. Much of the horror in the film lies in Karloff’s expressionless face, motionless due to Jack Pierce’s rigorous makeup application. His mummification scene results in one of the spookiest Castle Films ever released.
BY THE 1940s, monster movie plots had worn thin and many of the sequels were nothing but filler — a loose narrative with barely enough to keep the kids in their seats until the monster would strike. They also featured sound cues used several times since The Bride of Frankenstein. Taking this into consideration, Castle understood how to market these films to fans: cut to the chase and include the good monster scenes. This was accomplished with careful editing. Unfortunately, and most likely due to cost-saving measures, Castle adopted an early practice of not crediting the editors responsible for trimming the films down. Castle Films: A Hobbyist’s Guide makes no mention of those involved except for company founder Eugene Castle, who edited the films prior to the addition of the Universal catalogue.
Beyond the wonderfully edited products they offered, what really set Castle above the rest was the great box cover art. Until Castle popularized 8mm Hollywood productions, the home-movie market saw no need for exciting cover art. Along with those from competitors such as Official Films, most of the early releases had generic boxes, with the title printed on the bottom flap.
The majority of the images used for Castle cover art were renditions of movie stills using primary coloured background, including the aquamarine and pink used as a background on the box for The Mummy’s Ghost. Exceptions to the rule were the nearly identical covers used for Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, the image for the latter portraying Glenn Strange as the Monster instead of Boris Karloff.
The Pulp Novelties company has released two volumes of 8mm cover art called The Monster Box. Packaged in actual reel boxes, the 25-card sets feature not only Castle’s output, but also some from Ken Films, Republic and Columbia. While celebrating them all, they that Castle went “that extra distance to create original, well-rendered illustrations.” The sets do not feature any of the covers from Castle’s successor, Universal 8, which revamped all the covers with a neon yellow background and a posterized still from the films.
Launched in April of 1977, Universal 8 went a little further with the post-Castle line, offering more sound editions, as well as 400’ abridgements. It released a version of The Raven, as well as a 400’ digest of the Frank Langella Dracula. The popularity and affordability of Super 8 sound projectors made it possible to use footage that would not have worked as silent film, which is something many of Castle’s competitors didn’t get in the first place; the editors over at rival Ken Films would cut together a film using only scenes of dialogue, simply because they featured the star of the movie — not very exciting when projected in your living room at your 10th birthday party.
SO HOW COLLECTIBLE are the reels now? The early Castle reels — Stalin’s 70th Birthday comes to mind — might be scarcer, but as a testament to their enduring popularity, all 30 Universal horror digests were still in print when the 8mm market disappeared in the late ‘70s.
Collecting these silent 8mm reels might seem redundant today, since there are wonderfully restored versions of the original films on DVD and Blu-Ray. But Castle Films and their contemporaries produced a unique product of the time, worthy of the same respect their compete counterparts have earned. When DVDs became the standard, many people got rid of their VHS collections, but they were simply trading them in for something better, albeit the same. The Castle digest kept some people thinking about the next time they’d see the whole thing on the late show or at the local cinema, but to most, it was a satisfying viewing experience on its own. Here’s hoping there’s some parallel universe out there is a K-Mart still sells them.
This article originally appeared in Rue Morgue Magazine, December, 2009.