Tag Archives: home movies

VHS, not Super-8, part 1: Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Doom

20 Jun

(three failed filmmakers and a nun.)

I saw Super-8 on Saturday. The movie follows a group of kids trying to make a movie with a super-8 camera. In the process, they witness a train wreck where something otherworldly escapes. It was tolerable, pleasant and benign despite (or because of) its excessive retro gazing, neoliberal politics and nerdcore sensibility. As a film, it’s just okay. But as an exercise in nostalgia, it’s superb.

When I was in high school, I made movies, too, with my friends Jeff and Robert. This was in the early ’90s; VHS had eclipsed super-8 and that was fine. Jeff owned the camera, so we filmed at his house and he usually handled the cinematography. Robert played the hero or villain or both. I filled in the other roles. We didn’t have scripts. We all came up with ideas. With a cast of 2 and ½ we were limited. We were also lazy. We had rudimentary costumes. We didn’t attempt to build or modify sets. A swimming pool in a gladiator movie? No problem. The only music we used was Les Miserables.

Jeff was rational, realistic and often reluctant to participate. Robert was madness personified, willing to do anything. I was game so long as we didn’t do anything immoral and/or illegal. (Besides being raised Southern Baptist, I also had the moral privilege of attending a Catholic high school; see above photo.) In other words: Jeff was the ego, Robert the id and I was the superego. While Jeff and I often switched roles, Robert was always (and remains) the wild-eyed id.

Jeff edited on the camera. He would rewind the VHS tape and then try again. It was an exhausting way to make a movie. We would spend hours on a 2-minute movie, and many of the screw-ups and false starts would end up in the final cut.

Our first movie was Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Death. Robert played a missionary/hero/assassin looking for the heart of a doomed castle, which looked suspiciously like Jeff’s bedroom, hallways, den and living room. I played cloned cyborg replicants. There was no plot. I don’t remember any speaking lines, either. The whole point was for Robert to kill versions of me in as many ways as possible, on his way to an epic finish. Basically Gymkata, plus robots but minus the karate. I was beheaded, stabbed, broken into pieces. My eyes were gouged. In one scene I wore a helmet. At some point my testicles were punted out of my mouth. Jeff disallowed any fake blood, so we had to mime each and every atrocity.

Here are some of the other titles from our freshman year:

Party of Death

Cyborg Cowboy

Time Travel Movie

Conan the Christian (co-starring Chris Creary)

Die, Vamp (with Chris Butler)

There were others, but you get the idea. Unlike the young heroes of Super-8, we had no aliens, only serial killers and androids (and sometimes android serial killers). Party of Death is a Halloween rip-off. Time Travel Movie (Jeff disliked this too much to give it a name) is a one-scene Back to the Future without the jokes. But, spoken with all humility, Cyborg Cowboy is a masterpiece. I played a cowboy taken to the future by an evil scientist, experimented on (the laboratory was Jeff’s parents’ garage) and then abandoned to a cruel dystopia that bore an uncanny resemblance to Pensacola, FL circa 1991. We were going to make it a series, but then Jeff started dating girls and Robert and I fell headlong into after-school horror movie Toaster Strudel marathons.

Two years later, we returned to moviemaking with a bang. We decided, for a class, to adapt The Gettysburg Address. It would be a sensational retelling of the untold assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. Read about the dramatic behind the scenes stories of this lost cinematic masterpiece in “VHS, not Super-8, part 2.”