For Monster Fans of the 1960s and '70s, Castle Films Abridgements Were The Best Things on Earth!
By Mark Clark
Man on the moon? So what! Woodstock? Who cares! For Lanny Aaronson, the big event of 1969 occurred in his own living room.
"My dad brought home the 1969 Castle Films catalog," Aaronson said. "I was mesmerized. I started a horror collection. I would save my allowance and buy whichever ones I could get."
To supplement his allowance and buy even more films, Aaronson converted the family's Augusta, Georgia, garage into a makeshift movie house---complete with concession stand. "You could see as many movies as you wanted for a quarter," Aaronson said. "I secretly just loved having people come over and watch my movies.... They were the best things on earth for collectors like me."
Many others concur with Aaronson's sentiment.
While researching this article, working in fits and starts since the summer of 1997, I talked with or received mail from dozens of collectors, all of whom spoke of their cherished Castles with the sort of reverent affection men usually reserve for vintage sports cars, sailboats, or (rarely) their wives. If the folks I corresponded with comprise a representative sample, then Castle Films collectors rank among the most fervent devotees in the always-passionate community of horror fandom.
For the uninitiated, Castle Films gained fame by producing short (4- to 12-minute) digests of feature films for use with home movie projectors. The company's most popular titles were truncated versions of Universal horror and science fiction classics of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
For those of us who grew up in that prehistoric era before the proliferation of the VCR (let alone laserdisc or DVD), these abridgements were the only way anyone besides fat-cat collectors could hope to possess our favorite movies---or even bits of them. Forget model kits, posters, or even your sacred FAMOUS MONSTERS back issues. I remember from my own childhood holding the belief that Castle Films represented the ultimate collectible---an actual piece (well, sort of) from my very favorite movies.
No more poring over the TV GUIDE, looking for Frankenstein to turn up on late-night television. If only I could save enough money, I could buy a Castle Films short and put the monster at my command. All I had to do was snap the little reel into the family movie projector and the creature stalked again! Castle Films seemed like 8-millimeter slivers of nirvana.
FROM 'SOUNDIES' TO SHOCKERS
Historical data on Castle Films remains somewhat elusive, but this much is clear:
Eugene W. Castle founded the company in 1924 with an initial investment of $10,000. At first the company distributed 16mm newsreels, documentaries, and sports films primarily to schools. Castle began offering his films for public sale in 1936.
A decade later, Castle Films obtained the rights to distribute "Soundies," popular "jukebox films" from the 1940s (the historical antecedents of today's rock videos). Repackaged into "Castle Music Albums," each containing three or four "Soundies" musical numbers, these titles proved quite popular.
While his company was riding high from its lucrative "Music Albums" venture, Eugene Castle chose to cash out. He sold 75 percent interest in the company to United World Films, a division of Universal, for $2.25 million in December 1946. At the time, Castle Films Inc. boasted a gross annual income of $130 million. United World, which also produced government and corporate training films and TV commercials, obtained the remaining 25 percent interest in Castle Films and renewed copyrights on most of the company's catalog in early 1947.
Only a year later, however, rival Official Films acquired the rights to the "Soundies" shorts, snatching away Castle Films' most profitable property. In response, Castle began compiling "Music Albums," using sequences culled from Universal's library feature-length musicals. Sales of these "albums" outstripped even those of the "Soundies" films.
Flushed with this success, Castle Films, in 1949, released its first non-musical abridgements, digests of Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields films from the 1940s and '50s. These shorts far outsold any previous Castle offerings, and the "Music Albums" were soon scrapped.
A Castle Films catalog from 1957 prominently displays a wealth of Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda cartoons, as well as Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields abridgements and digests of westerns featuring stars such as Hopalong Cassidy and Tom Mix. In addition, the company still offered its traditional assortment of nature films, prizefights, newsreels, and travelogues. Monster movies, however, remained unavailable. Castle Films' 1959 catalog lists among its new releases Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, making it the first Castle abridgement to feature the Universal monsters.
By the early 1960s, the classic Universal horror films were enjoying a second (or, in some cases, third) life on television. It was only natural for Castle Films to take advantage and begin releasing abridgements of these vintage shockers. Today the company is best remembered for these abridgements. Sadly, Eugene Castle died in 1960 and never witnessed the heyday of the company he founded.
A 1971 Castle Films catalog advertises "Shock Films" beginning on Page 3, immediately after the cover and table of contents. Clearly, these shorts had become Castle's headline attractions.
To increase the number of titles it offered, the company sometimes split a feature into two digests. Ghost of Frankenstein, for example, was condensed into The Trial of Frankenstein and Frankenstein's New Brain. Both House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula were also split into two independent shorts, as was One Million Years B.C. Perhaps the best thing about these split abridgements was that fans could splice them together to create a sort of Super Digest that ran, in some cases, nearly a third of the running time of the original feature.
Abridgements were marketed in four different formats. In 8mm and, later, Super 8, Castle sold silent "Headline" shorts, which ran about 4 minutes (about 50 feet of film), silent "Complete" digests, which ran about 12 minutes (or 200 feet of film), and magnetic sound abridgements, which ran about 9 minutes. In 16mm, you could purchase 9-minute digests with optical sound. All silent titles featured either subtitles or title cards.
Prices changed over the years, of course, but the 1971 catalog lists prices from $2.25 (for 8mm silent "Headliners") to $29.95 (for 16mm with optical sound). The company's biggest sellers were the 8mm and Super 8 "Complete" shorts, which sold for $6.95 in 1971. Castle offered some titles in color, but color prints usually cost twice as much as black and white.
Castle Films were sold at camera shops and, sometimes, in the photo department of stores like Kmart. They were also available through mail order and were advertised in the back pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS. For several years, a silent "Headliner" digest of Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Cops came packaged with a popular brand of 8mm projector.
Today, some collectors of Castle Films prize the boxes that contain the films as much as the digests themselves. Often these covers feature beautifully painted full-color tableaus.
The Mummy box features the scowling countenance of Ardath Bey illuminated in eerie green, red, yellow, and black. He leans across dripping letters, which announce "Boris KARLOFF in The MUMMY." The snarling face of the Wolf Man emblazons the top left corner of the cover for that film, while a smaller figure of the beast kneeling over the body of a victim dominates the lower right. The scene is realized in hues of brown, yellow, red, and black.
FALL OF THE CASTLE EMPIRE
Castle Films wasn't the only company producing horror film abridgements---it only seemed that way. Ken Films and Columbia provided Castle's primary competition. Ken Films had the rights to classics such as King Kong. Columbia had Ray Harryhausen and the Three Stooges (not in the same movie, of course). United Artists offered digests of Dr. X and The Beast with Five Fingers. And Americom Films sold home versions of early Hammer classics such as Curse of Frankenstein. Nevertheless, Castle dominated the market for more than a decade.
As its core group of collectors began to age, however, Castle's preeminence started to crumble. Many youngsters who had jumped on the home movie bandwagon by collecting monster movies or classic comedies in the 1950s and '60s had graduated to collecting 16mm prints of complete features, offered by companies such as Blackhawk Films, or had given up the hobby altogether.
To broaden its appeal in the late 1970s, Castle Films changed its name to Universal 8 and began offering longer (17- to 20-minute) Super 8 and 16mm abridgements. The company de-emphasized the classic horror and comedy titles---which had been its mainstay---offering instead abridgements of a disparate variety of mainstream features (such as Smokey and the Bandit, Rooster Cogburn, and Jesus Christ Superstar).
Castle nemesis Ken Films released some full-length features on Super 8, including Poltergeist. Universal 8 may have offered some full-length titles in 8mm, as well, but I was unable to confirm this.
A number of forces combined to finally drive the company out of business in the early 1980s. Rising silver prices caused the cost of film stock to skyrocket, and this increase was passed along to consumers. As prices rose, sales fell. In retrospect, observers must also question the company's marketing strategy. How large an audience could there have been for 20-minute, Super 8 digests of Airport '77 or Up in Smoke?
The deathblow arrived for Castle, and for 8mm home movies in general, once VHS eclipsed Beta to establish a single, standard format for home video. As more and more titles became available on VHS, more and more collectors chucked their old 8mm projectors and purchased VCRs instead. Why settle for an abbreviated, silent version when you could have the full-length version with sound and, sometimes, pay less money?
Ironically, Castle may have paved the way for its own destruction by establishing beyond doubt that a market existed for the sale of films (in one format or another) for home viewing.
'ALL THE GOOD STUFF'
Castle Films abridgements achieved such popularity, and inspired such a loyal legion of devotees, for a simple reason: They were superbly crafted.
"I never saw a bad editing job on one of those Castles," said John Stosfopf of Redford, Michigan, another Castle collector. "It was amazing what they could cram in there in that amount of time. You felt like you saw the whole movie!"
"They're so good because they're so short, you get all the good stuff right there," Aaronson said. "They pack all the good scenes back to back. Your audience couldn't possibly get bored. You almost wish, with the movies they come out with now, that they would cut those up."
Castle abridgements were not mere collections of highlights from their parent films. Each digest stood on its own merits. The best Castle Films serve as shining examples of the art of film editing. Even routine Castle shorts were reliably entertaining, sometimes more so than the films they abridged. (Nine to 12 minutes of, say, The Deadly Mantis should be enough to satisfy anybody!)
The craftsmen who deftly whittled full-length features into 4-, 9-, and 12-minute shorts labored in anonymity. Although the digests usually included title cards, the abridging editor received no screen credit.
The guiding priority for these mysterious artisans appears to have been ensuring that each abridgement would contain a complete story, however rudimentary. In many cases this meant excising a great many sequences, including all subplots and, often, major characters.
Take, for example, Castle Films' Dracula. In some respects, this 9-minute digest is superior to its full-length source. It avoids all the pitfalls of Tod Browning's sometimes ponderous feature.
The editors made the radical decision to begin the story in London, hacking away the first 20 minutes of the film---including virtually all of the film's most famous and most effective scenes. They also removed Renfield (Dwight Frye) from the tale altogether. Amazingly, the abridgement succeeds even without this treasured material.
The short opens as Dracula murders a flower girl on a London street corner. Our first glimpse of the Count in this version is of Lugosi in evening wear and top hat, looking authentically aristocratic as he prowls. Next, Dracula attacks Mina (Helen Chandler) as she sleeps. We enjoy close-ups of Lugosi's piercing eyes.
The next morning, Mina (through subtitles) tells Jonathan (David Manners) about a strange dream she had the night before. Dr. Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan), who happens to be on hand, examines Mina's neck and discovers the mark of the vampire. Dracula appears as a bat later that evening and tries to coerce Mina into attacking Jonathan. When this fails, Dracula calls the girl to his side.
Van Helsing spies Dracula calling Mina and realizes the Count must be the vampire. So he rounds up Jonathan and the two pursue the vampire back to Carfax Abbey. There, Van Helsing stakes Dracula, freeing Mina from the monster's hypnotic grip.
It's a simple narrative, which is exactly what Castle's editors wanted. The lightning-paced Dracula serves as a remarkably eloquent encapsulation, managing to retain the thematic thrust of the original. A hybrid version, beginning with the first 20 minutes of Browning's Dracula and ending with the Castle abridgement, would transform an uneven and occasionally dreary feature into an extremely entertaining featurette.
Sometimes Castle Films' editors would reorder material to streamline the story. Castle's The Mummy, for instance, opens with the flashback sequence that explains Imhotep's forbidden romance with Anck-es-en-Amon and its ghastly consequences. Then the story flashes forward to the famous scene in which the monster comes to life and attacks poor Bramwell Fletcher.
Next we cut to the Cairo Museum, where the now-revived mummy (Boris Karloff, in his Ardath Bey guise) kneels and calls Anck-es-en-Amon to him. Helen (Zita Johann) goes into a trance and wanders off to the museum. She arrives in traditional Egyptian robes and with full memory of her past life as Ack-es-en-Amon. But she balks at Imhotep's plan to kill her and make her a living mummy like himself. Instead, she prays to an idol of Isis to rescue her. The statue comes to life and strikes down Imhotep.
Again, this plot differs from director Karl Freund's The Mummy, but Castle's version remains a perfectly serviceable story. I doubt even Freund himself would have fared better if he had had to tell his tale with just 200 feet of film.
Castle's Bride of Frankenstein ranks as perhaps the company's finest short (which seems only natural since it's based on the film many consider the greatest horror movie ever made).
The digest focuses exclusively on the creation of the bride. It leaves the entire creation sequence intact, along with the finale, when doctors Frankenstein and Pretorius present the monster to his intended bride, she rejects him, and he destroys the lab.
Again, many famous sequences, perhaps most notably the scene with the blind hermit, are deleted. But what remains is a relentlessly entertaining, beautifully streamlined short. Castle's Bride focuses primarily on its title character, giving Elsa Lanchester's shock-haired female creature far more screen time than Karloff's monster.
Castle's editors also displayed remarkably good taste in what they preserved. Often editors would let a particularly powerful sequence remain virtually unedited and build the rest of their abridgement around that single scene. That's the case with the Castle version of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The feature's eerie opening sequence of the film, wherein grave robbers inadvertently reawaken the werewolf, consumes nearly three-quarters of the digest's running time. Even screenwriter Curt Siodmak's lycanthropic limerick ("Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night...") remains, recited in subtitles.
COLLECTING CASTLE FILMS
Castle films remain readily available on the collectibles market and are often sold at film conventions or through mail order and advertised in magazines such as THE BIG REEL. Prices vary widely. I purchased Castle shorts for under $5 apiece at one convention and then saw them priced at $30 each at the next show.
At least two video dealers currently market VHS transfers of Castle Films Abridgements. Creepy Classics Home Video offers a compilation containing 11 transfers of 8mm and Super 8 black and white silent "Complete" shorts. Each short is color tinted and the tape features a dubbed-in symphonic score. The video sells for $10. A second compilation is in the works.
Stephen M. Russo Video offers a compilation of 15 rare, 16mm optical sound Castle Films abridgements. All are black and white. The tape sells for $20. Note: Although the sound abridgements are virtually identical to the silent versions, they seem choppier because of jump cuts in the background music.
THE END IS THE BEGINNING
I sincerely hope that the publication of this article opens, rather than concludes, my research into Castle Films. If anyone out there can provide additional information on this subject, please contact the author in care of MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT. I am especially keen to interview anyone who may have worked for Castle Films editing these abridgements, or any dependents of company founder Eugene W. Castle.
I would also like to acknowledge the following persons, who helped provide the bulk of the historical data included above: Lanny Aaronson, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library research staff, Ron Adams, Jim Neibaur, Ted Okuda, Steve Osborn, David Pierce, and John Stoskopf. Boundless gratitude, as well, to all of the other collectors who were so generous with their memories via telephone or email, especially those who provided video transfers of their films or photocopies of catalogs and cover art.
All boxes and catalogs used to illustrate this article are from the private collection of Jim Clatterbaugh.