Reel Monsters: Collecting 8mm Horror Films

Image from Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s

Format: Book

Title: Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s

Publication date: April 2011

Publisher: Headpress

Author: Scott A. Stine

Headpress website

This is an excerpt from the book Trashfiend: Disposable Horror Fare of the 1960s and 1970s by Scott A. Stine, published by Headpress. It’s available through to the end of April for only £7.00 from Headpress.

As a young child, before the boom of home video in the seventies, I recall being captivated by the advertisements for 8mm films offered by Captain Company in the back pages of Warren’s esteemed publications. 200” reels were offered for as “low” as $9.95 US, and 500” reels for upwards of $19.95 US. Although I had seen most of these films in their entirety on television at one time or another, the thought of being able to actually own footage from one of these films, to be watched any time at my convenience, was too good to be true. And it was, as my family didn’t even own a film projector, and $9.95 was at least three months allowance. I would have thought these films were a pipe dream, had not one of my teachers – knowing my love for monster movies – borrowed a Super 8mm copy of Hammer Studios’ The Curse of Frankenstein and shown it to me and a few friends after school as a treat. A few years later, I had also seen a few of these priceless treasure offered by a local pharmacy that specialized in camera and film equipment, but they were always just out of reach, secured behind glass and bearing price tags that were far too rich for my blood.

Many years later, I managed to acquire a handful of films at a local swap meet where I spent much of my youth – a 50’s reel of The Creature Walks Among Us among them – but traded them to another collector once the novelty of owning the otherwise “useless” films wore off. I would rue this day when, fifteen years later, I was fighting tooth and nail for the very same pieces on eBay. I had no intention of watching the films I had begun to hoard, though; video made these highly condensed versions completely obsolete as far as entertainment value was concerned.

But then, I couldn’t watch them even if I was willing to risk damaging or wearing out the fragile film stock. I owned two 8mm projectors, leftovers from my days of producing my own Super 8 shorts, but both had essentially given up the ghost a few years previous. (One needed a belt replaced and the other a new lamp, but I had discovered that it would be much cheaper to simply replace them entirely than obtain the parts needed to get them working again. The bulb I needed would alone cost around eighty bucks special order, whereas with a little bit of diligent scavenging I could probably get a working unit for about fifteen dollars from a local thrift store or swap meet.) Owning the films as an adult had a completely different meaning than it had almost thirty years prior. Nostalgia aside, they had their own distinct charm in the way of box art, produced specifically for the once widespread format but available nowhere else. The painted art that graced the packaging held just as much allure for me as the covers of vintage monster magazines from the same era, even though they were much smaller and were usually defaced by format and price stickers. And like the magazines, I had to own them all.

But I was not alone in my quest to obtain these dated treasures, nor was I as rabid as many of the collectors scouring the Internet for the same; the fact that others were willing to pay ridiculous amounts to build a collection of obsolete 8mm and Super 8 films gave me pause and made me reconsider how badly I wanted them. Talking with other collectors, though, also made me realize just how little most people actually knew about the format and the field in which they delved. Many had never dealt with paper collectibles, and most had never collected celluloid prior to this. Not an expert by any means myself when it came to films, but still more well-versed than the people with whom I had dealings, I decided to make it my job to better understand this rarely discussed field.

A Brief History of the Format

The 8mm format grew from an attempt to condense the 16mm format even further. The first incarnation of this format – the Cine Kodak Eight, introduced in 1932 – was essentially modified 16mm film with twice the number of sprocket holes on either side, enabling the filmmaker to expose only one-quarter of a frame at a time. Thanks to the dual sprockets, the filmmaker could then reload the film after one side had been exposed and use the remaining half of the stock. After the film was developed, the film stock was cut lengthwise, producing two filmstrips that could then be spliced together.

Due to its economic format, 8mm replaced 16mm as the standard for amateur filmmakers within fifteen years of its introduction. By the fifties, 8mm cameras and projectors (one was rarely sold without the other) became almost as common in households as video cameras are today. In the sixties, there was a push to improve upon the format. This resulted in Super 8mm (often referred to as Super 8), which was introduced in 1965. The improvements were numerous. It used plastic cartridges that eliminated the need for threading the unprocessed film stock or flipping it midway through. The sprocket holes were made smaller so as to allow for a wider image area, about fifty percent larger than Regular 8mm. Other modifications were made that further improved the picture quality as well as reducing the risks of poor exposure.

Since 1965, most films sold to the home consumer were available in either 8mm or Super 8 formats. In some cases, the buyer also had a choice between silent and sound, B&W and color. Of course, the desire for the more expensive sound and color versions eventually won out, making the inferior versions obsolete.

Unfortunately, the accessibility of video cameras for the home consumers in the eighties quickly replaced Regular and Super 8 film as the standard for amateur filmmakers. Although Super 8 and – to a much lesser degree – Regular 8mm film stock is still available, the dwindling demand forced prices up considerably, relegating the format to the domain of purists.

Scott A. Stine