Monday, March 23, 2009

The Joy of Super 8mm Cinema

I have been fascinated with the mechanical aspects of motion picture projection since I was a kid. When I was nine years old, I wanted a battery-operated, motorized Kenner Easy Show projector for Christmas (the hand-cranked ones were so unprofessional) and my Dad did it one better by buying me a real 8mm projector purchased at Niles Film Products in Niles, Michigan, just across the border from my hometown of South Bend, Indiana. My first films, given to me that same Christmas, were “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Return of Dracula.” Both were silent, of course.

“Bride” was a nine-minute condensed version of James Whale’s celebrated classic, and this was before the second wave of Universal monsters were released to television to a whole new generation of monster kids like me, so I had never seen the full-length sound version and thus had no basis for comparison. Nevertheless, the fun of threading film and actually seeing pictures spring to life were thrilling for me. It seemed extra creepy with no sound and intertitles. I loved the ending when Ernest Thesiger said, “You’ll blow us all to atoms!” as Elsa Lanchester hissed and Karloff, with a single tear running down his cheek, pulls the blow-up switch. Why did mad scientists’ laboratories have blow-up switches?

Anyhow, as the miniature castle crumbled into dust and the credits rolled, I was confused. There was the credit “Music by Franz Waxman” followed by one that read “Western Electric Noiseless Recording.” The noiseless recording credit made sense, because it was a silent film, after all (there was no way for me to know that Western Electric noiseless recording was the 1930 version of Dolby noise reduction). But why a music credit?

“The Return of Dracula” was even more telescoped. Imagine taking a black and white, 90-minute movie (with sound) and breaking it down into a three-minute silent reel! As I recall, in my version, some lady in a white robe runs back and forth in front of some mausoleums for a minute, and then we got the coupe de grace: she gets staked. And you actually get to see penetration and gushes of blood!

You couldn’t hope for any kind of continuity in these super-short films, which were known as "headline editions," but they were only $2.99 at Kmart ($3.99 if they were in color).

I made some movies of my own in the 1970s, using a split-reel 8mm camera. It cost about $2.33 per 50 feet to process at Kmart, plus they'd slit the film and splice it together for you! I remember making and remaking a film called “Hunted,” which involved a murderous psychopath (is there any other kind?) chasing his prey throughout the wilds of South Bend. I’m ashamed to admit they are all gone. I do, however, have my Grandfather’s super 8mm films, which are still holding their brilliant Kodachrome color. I made a DVD for the family one Christmas. I also held movie shows in my garage during the summer, charging the neighborhood kids a quarter admission. And, of course, there was a snack bar.

Then, in 1976, super 8mm sound was introduced. I could scarcely contain my excitement. I begged my dad for one of the new sound projectors (about $250; not cheap) and my lifelong obsession truly began. Now the movies talked as well as moved! And the sound versions were available in 400 foot lengths – 17 minutes! They were still condensations of the features, of course, but some of the editing was quite professional and these “mini-movies” could be really satisfying. I still have some of the ones I bought as a teenager – “The Birds,” “The Omen,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” "Dr. Zhivago," “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”…and, of course, the famous nine-minute version of “Jaws”. I’m not kidding. It was acclaimed in film collectors’ circles for its solid continuity even in its brevity! All those prints have turned pink, alas; a result of having been printed on film stock that wasn’t meant to last. Heck, the distributors didn’t know their films would be sought after and screened thirty years later! My home movies began to talk, too; I have about two hours worth of wonderful footage that I've recently transferred to DVD.

The condensations can be unintentionally hilarious. I have a 17-minute version of “The Exorcist,” which is really well-done storywise, but telescopes all of the mayhem, head-spinning, projectile vomiting and obscenity spewing into one convenient reel that takes less time to watch than a sitcom. My 17-minute"Taxi Driver" is less ambitious, dealing only with the Jodie Foster rescue portion of the complete feature, but is once again a wall-to-wall assault of profanity, sleaze and violence. These condensations weren’t edited to be “family friendly”…they were edited to give the collectors the scenes they wanted! Sometimes narration was added, and it was always pedantic and cheesy. Some ambitious distribution companies released two- and three-reel versions of their features, which would run anywhere from 34 to 50 minutes, allowing more time to tell the story. I have a three-reel print of “Westworld” which is certainly as satisfying as watching the entire feature.

When I was 18, Niles Film Products moved to Mishawaka Avenue, just north of downtown South Bend, and now I had a “movie store” I could actually go into, shop and trade films with. I was in heaven. There, I was introduced to the holy grail – full length features on super 8! “Night of the Living Dead” was one of my first acquisitions. I think it cost $199. Expensive, I know, but my obsession knew no bounds. I still own it, and it still runs great. See if you’ll be able to say that about a videocassette or DVD after 30 years! Plus I could buy – shock horror! – “R” rated films like “Schizo” (see the Lynne Frederick post). Just before I left for Los Angeles, I saw a display in the store for some newfangled movie delivery system called Betamax. How could that be? No reels? No projector? Couldn''t last. Neither could super 8. In the United States, store-bought films were killed by the video revolution in the early 1980s although people continue to photograph in the format to this day -- including professionals.

I can cite two energetic and innovative films shot in super 8mm in the last 20 years: J.R. Bookwalter's zombiethon "The Dead Next Door" and Leif Jonker's vampire epic "Darkness," which display not only facility in the format but solid storytelling as well. Both are available on DVD. Check 'em out on Amazon. I love the raw, immediate feel and the refreshingly made-at-home special effects.

Today I own at least 25 features on super 8 and over a hundred shorts, condensations and cartoons. I also have four projectors – all Elmos, the Cadillac of super 8. One of them is stereo. Yes, super 8 had stereo playback and recording capabilities long before home video was even available. Also anamorphic widescreen, although surprisingly I haven’t gotten into that – yet. Super 8 is still huge in Europe, and there’s a wonderful company in Dudley, West Midlands, called Derann, which continues to manufacture and distribute brand-new, full-length super 8 features that look and sound absolutely gorgeous. I have “The Lion King,” “Toy Story” and “The Jungle Book” from Derann, all in stereo, with rich color and pin-sharp focus.

But I still love to watch the films I bought when I was a teenager, color fade or not. They transport me back to another time. And the whole ritual of preparing for a super 8mm show is indescribably satisfying -- setting up the screen and projector, running the sound through the stereo, doing a system check. Even dealing with problems like uncooperative amplifiers and blown bulbs add a welcome challenge that’s part of the experience. Take a look at the clip below. It’s my stereo Elmo GS-800 running my latest acquisition – a full-length print of “101 Dalmatians” (from Derann, of course). The video I shot doesn’t do it justice. In reality, it doesn’t flicker a bit and the colors are just beautiful.

Over the years, I’ve moved across the country and all around Los Angeles, but my super 8 collection has always gone with me. There’ve been times when I’ve turned down an apartment because the living room didn’t have “adequate throw.” I’ve sold some films on eBay, but I’ve probably bought twice as many to replace what I sold.

I know I'm working with an antique format. The projectors need maintenance and repair; the films need cleaning and lubricating, but it's all part of the ritual. Super 8 will always be a part of my life, because wherever there’s a white wall for me to project it on, I’m home.

And I have the sound version of the condensed "Bride of Frankenstein." It looks great!


Anonymous said...

I was an employee of Niles Film Products 1974- 76 and then again 78-79.
I am amazed you like that copy of "Night". Is the sound on the second reel OK? If it is... I am the one that fixed it. Niles was never in Niles prior to moving to Mishawaka Av. they were on So. Michigan St. in South Bend.

The Goose said...

Memory merge! My Dad must've just gone to a camera shop in Niles and I misremembered it as Niles Film Products. The sound on the second reel of NOTLD is just fine!

Gary Mester, Master Photographer said...

I too worked at Niles Film Products and it is true it was never in Niles. The name Niles was a stage name the owner used when he was much younger in a Rock Band! I was production mgr at Niles and will be happy to respond to questions about the company. I can be reached at

Anonymous said...

I own the following titles from Niles Film Products.

They are available for purchase, please respond to with your interest.

Sherlock Holmes in The Woman in Green

Sherlock Holmes in The Pearl of Death

Sherlock Holmes in House of Fear

Stamping Ground

Three Stooges in Kooks Tour

Beatles Magical Mystery Tour

The House of Seven Corpses

Young Hannah Queen of the Vampires

Anonymous said...

Hi KURT,Back in the summer of 1975 my dear dad and I drove to South Bend and i saw the warehouse of Niles and met Debbie and Paula and the accountant,Mr Freitag,who had the look of an actor, who copuld guest on shows of the time like ROCKFORD FILES OR Kojak. They were quite accomodating and gracious and this was around the time that I was switching over to 16 from 8.It is truly a happy memory from an era long gone when I was barely 20,when I knew everything. Right.


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