The ‘Orrible World Of 8mm Horror

From the days before VHS – movie collecting, curious edits and weird retitling.

We’ve already covered the world of adult 8mm films – a hugely important stepping stone on the road to feature-length softcore and hardcore movies alike – but that wasn’t all that was available for the home movie enthusiast in the pre-video age. Far from it. For the home movie enthusiast, there was a lot available, ranging from short edits of movies in black and white without sound through to complete – or almost complete – feature films on 8mm, be it standard 8 or the rather less fragile and better quality super 8 (the Blu-ray and UHD of their day, perhaps).

For horror movie fans, 8mm was especially attractive. In a world of three TV channels, this was often the only chance to see some of the odder examples of Euro horror and older movies that didn’t make it onto Horror Double Bills. There were no censorship rules beyond the obscenity laws regarding 8mm, so for those with deep pockets, it was possible for British enthusiasts to buy a full print of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at a time when the film was banned outright outside London. Such a forbidden treat would cost you, though – you’d be paying something like £80 for the privilege back in 1978, which translates as £390 today – and that’s after you’d forked out £165 (£804 in modern costs) or above for a sound projector.

It’s unsurprising, then, that most people who were not fanatical collectors made do with the rather more basic delights of the 200ft or 400ft reel of edited highlights. In fairness, a 200ft reel could hold a complete cartoon, a few trailers or a silent short. One of my own meagre collection of movies was a 1967 Spider-Man cartoon and as an alternative to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fans could buy The Massacre Reel which featured gory trailers for that film, Blood Feast and other forbidden pleasures. But for the most part, these films – running between 8 and 16 minutes depending on size – would be a highlights reel from a feature film. The cheapest editions were black and white silent versions, with subtitled dialogue; the fanciest were the 400ft colour/sound edits that at least approximated a recognisable version of the full movie.

How well these different versions were put together depended very much on the film and the distributor – major studios had editors who could create a surprisingly effective 400ft edit from a two-hour movie like The Exorcist, running through the build-up with impressive haste, focusing on the central drama and finding room for the movie’s coda. Other reels focused on a single part of the film and often could be linked with additional parts, allowing the viewer to build a sort-of complete version of the film over time. And some films – mostly the 200ft reels – just picked a few dramatic highlights and made do with that, often making several seemingly unrelated shorts out of a single feature – just look at how many times the instantly recognisable monster from Destination Inner Space pops up on the cover art of apparently individual movies that make no reference to the original film.

The cover art, too, is often remarkable and unique, often unseen on any movie poster – and it ranges from the stylish to the shoddy in its effort to grab the customer’s attention. 8mm reels were not large, with 200ft editions being around CD size – so lurid colours and sensational images were important.

The 8mm reel is very much a lost art form – you can understand why everyone jumped to videotape, where you could buy a full movie for not much more than the price of a 400ft reel, rent movies and watch them on your TV without all the faff of setting up your projector and screen. I’m not for a moment suggesting that home movies were the better option, even in the VHS days where 8mm film at least looked better. But it does feel as though we lost something unique when 8mm bit the dust in the early 1980s (it lasted longer than people think, but by 1983 was effectively dead). These odd little versions of familiar movies are, at their best, fascinating alternative cuts. I’m glad that some Blu-ray distributors are including the 8mm version of the film as an extra on their discs whenever they have managed to find a copy.

Collecting 8mm is still not a cheap hobby – the films are relatively few and far between (another curse of 8mm was its habit of snapping and burning – bad on a silent reel, often fatal on a sound film where a splice could send everything out of sync) and working, decent quality projectors are even rarer for people who actually want to watch the movies. But I’d definitely suggest picking these up if you find any – they are a great slice of history.


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    1. If you look again, you’ll see that it is actually the Beast from 5000 Fathoms – one of many 8mm retitles for Destination Inner Space. And actually a quite accurate representation of a scene from the film.

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