You know how much I love budget DVD compilations of old movies; I’ve gone to that well more than once here on the blog. I don’t claim to own, or even seen, all that the “genre” has to offer, and so, it’s always a thrill to find a new, unbeknownst-to-me set – especially one that makes my eyes figuratively pop out. S’more Entertainment’s A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is absolutely, without a doubt one such DVD collection.
This was released in 2011, seemingly to cash in on the hype surrounding a movie I have practically zero recollection of: Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t seen it and I have no intention of seeing it.
Still, I always love it when a new home video release plays into the vibes of a then-current Hollywood product; we saw this big time with Sons of Kong, and in the same vein comes A Big Box… That is old, public domain movies, in this case B-Westerns with elements of science fiction and/or horror, put together to “ride the wave.” All four of my regular readers will recall how much I love B-Westerns, and when they broke out of the mold and included elements not commonly associated with the genre (that is, sci-fi and horror), as we saw this past Halloween season with 1944’s Wild Horse Phantom, well, that’s just double-interestin’ to yours truly.
Given the title, I was expecting an actual box set, but when my copies arrived (that’s right, copies. I had to order these, and I got two; one to watch watch/review, and one to keep minty sealed fresh cause that’s how I roll), but in reality, what arrived was a four-disc, eight-movie set (two movies per disc, giving them a nice “double feature” feel), all housed in a standard-size DVD case with four hubs inside. Rest assured, I prefer this packaging; it’s a sleek, compact design that doesn’t take any extra space on the figurative DVD shelf, but with enough weight to it to really feel like a product, if that makes any sense. I dig it, is what I’m saying.
I like the cover art. The robot on the horse seems to be a modified version of the ‘bots seen in the first movie of the set (more on that momentarily). As you can see, the graphic artist in charge put him on a horse, threw him in a western village, and gave it a flying saucer to loom overhead – complete with big ol’ explosion! This art is also found (in slightly animated form) on the DVD menu screens, and I like it a lot – even if there are no actual flying saucers in any of these films. It absolutely gets the point across, and appears competently made to boot. Well done, me says!
So now, let’s check it out, disc by disc. Being such old films, the print quality obviously varies movie by movie, as (I hope) you’d expect. Yes, there are splices, scratches, dirt, dust, and quite often the edge of the frame is plainly visible. I don’t mind any of that one bit. The print quality lends these films an added air of old-time matinee charm, and besides, scratches or not, they’re all uniformly watchable.
Disc One: The set kicks off with a bang, with Radio Ranch, a 1940 feature version of the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire. This film alone basically sums of the title of the collection as a whole. Starring Gene Autry (in his first lead outing), the flick combines the singing cowboy sub-genre of B-Westerns with a legitimate science fiction bend, and from start to finish, it’s pretty wild.
Gene hosts a daily radio program from the aforementioned “Radio Ranch,” a showcase in which to sing his songs. He’s amassed quite a following; he even has his own fan club on the premises. Unfortunately, not everyone loves Gene’s show; a group of scientists want him off the land so they can harvest the valuable radium deposit right underneath.
Oh, and also located directly beneath the ranch? A lost underground civilization, and guess what? tThey want Gene outta there too. (These are the “aliens” of the collection’s title; no outer space fellas in this one!) The underground city is a trip; it’s a sprawling underground city (think of a cut-rate Metropolis), complete with goofy-lookin’ robot servants, citizens that can’t breathe our air and thus need oxygen masks (we can breathe okay down there, though), and a really icy (as in disposition) queen ruler.
Since it’s a condensed version of a 12-chapter serial, it stands to reason the flow of the film is a somewhat disjointed, but you know what? It’s a lot of fun, and a good summation of what this DVD set is supposed to be about.
Nearly any film is going to appear tame by comparison, but even so, the next feature on the disc, 1936’s Ghost Patrol, seems really tame, which is too bad because the title of Ghost Patrol is pretty cool. But in actuality, it’s a talky Tim McCoy vehicle, and while there is a legit sci-fi element to it, it doesn’t appear in full until the last 15 minutes of the feature, and even then nothing much happens until the last 4 minutes. As such, this is more of a straight B-Western than anything.
In it, a scientist has been captured by baddies and forced to perfect a death ray, capable of causing a plane’s engine to fail. Said baddies use this to bring down planes carrying the, as you would say, big money. Tim McCoy is a government agent out to put a stop to such shenanigans. Also present is the scientist’s daughter, who…doesn’t do much of anything, honestly.
Ghost Patrol isn’t a bad film, but a little slow and definitely a huge step down from the wackiness of Radio Ranch. Still, neat title…
Disc Two: For the sake of full disclosure, I muse admit that when I first dug into this set, this was the disc I started with. Under normal circumstances, I steadfastly refuse to enter in the middle of things, as it were. Nope, I like to start at the beginning and go in order until it’s finished. So why the deviation this time around? Two words: Ken Maynard.
No joke, Ken Maynard is my favorite B-Western actor, and quite possibly my favorite western star period. I haven’t seen a film of his that I haven’t liked to some degree, and the first feature here, Tombstone Canyon, is a flick I’ve been jonesin’ to watch. I actually already owned it, as both a standalone DVD and an old VHS release, but for one reason to another, I just never got around to checking it out, despite its cool concept.
(In fact, the whole reason I stumbled upon this DVD set in the first place was because I was researching different releases of Tombstone Canyon.)
Tombstone Canyon falls much more on the horror side of things than the previous two films. In it, Ken rides into town at the insistence of an old friend, but to get there he has to pass through the titular location, and that’s where the trouble starts. Not only are there some villains running rampant right from the start, but more distressingly, there’s someone dubbed “The Phantom Killer” roaming the canyon. He makes weird howling calls, he’s really strong, and he has no qualms about killing people. The character lends a creepy, engrossing air to a film plot that would have been standard western fodder otherwise.
The ending is also slightly abrupt, but in a good way. Think of some of those shocking endings in certain episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O or Miami Vice, where there’s some violence, and then it just ends. It’s a little like that, and it works really well. The entire climax of the film is terrific, come to think of it.
Tombstone Canyon also boasts the best film print of all 8 movies in this set. Oh, there’s scratches and dirt and such, but the image itself is beautifully sharp and clear. It even looked good while being unnaturally stretched to widescreen on my HDTV. (I refuse to fiddle with the picture settings.) Add that on top of an already phenomenally entertaining flick and first-rate star, and you’ve got easily my favorite movie in the entire collection.
The second disc starts strong and finishes strong, with 1937’s Riders of the Whistling Skull. I’m not sure if this or Radio Ranch is the more famous example of the “weird western” sub-genre, but it’s certainly a heavy-hitter. An entry in the long-running Three Mesquiteers film series, Riders… may be a little (but just a little) less overtly nutty than Radio Ranch, but it’s still pretty out there.
Here, the Mesquiteers get involved with an expedition into a lost city, where a fortune in gold resides. A scientist had previously traveled there but never returned, so it’s up to his daughter and crew to try and rescue him. Along the way, there’s a weird Indian cult (complete with a guy dancing around in a skull mask), murder, some double-crossin’, a skull-shaped mountain (not that one!), even a temple with some mummies! A standard B-Western this most certainly is not!
A ton of action, too. In comparison to how the first disc ended, Riders… is incredibly action-packed. It’s a pretty good movie as a whole too, and since I’m not a big Three Mesquiteers fan, that says a lot.
I dare say that of the four discs, this second one is the strongest of the lot. Two excellent films that are pretty much worth the price of admission alone.
Disc Three: The second half of the collection opens with an entry in the “Renfrew of the Royal Mounted” series, 1940’s Sky Bandits. As you may surmise, Renfrew was a Canadian Mountie, and with the Yukon setting, this isn’t technically a western film, but these Renfrews are (seemingly) usually lumped in with the genre anyway, and besides, it has all the other correct ingredients.
Another reason this inclusion fits perfectly? According to Wikipedia, it’s actually a remake of Ghost Patrol! The plots are strikingly similar; both feature a scientist under the thumb of some unscrupulous types, both feature a death ray that is used to bring down airplanes in order to extract valuable cargo, and both feature the scientist’s daughter showing up to get in the way.
Sky Bandits is a better movie by far, however. It moves much faster, with more action, more usage of the death ray, and with some real comedy relief provided by Dave O’Brien as fellow Mountie. Even the daughter actually has a real bearing on the plot here. Throw in a couple inexplicable-but-fun musical numbers, and you’ve got a fun, breezy flick. I had never seen a Renfrew before, but I genuinely enjoyed this movie! More than I was anticipating, quite honestly.
Next: 1938’s Gun Packer, which is the most ‘normal’ western movie in the entire collection (though it’s a close call between it and Ghost Patrol). Honestly, it’s practically a straight B-Western. Oh, there’s a scientist on the premises, and he’s devised some weird method for making gold “disappear,” as well as created a highly-explosive liquid substance, but the science fiction threads aren’t overt at all here.
Unfortunately, Gun Packer also demonstrates the era in which it was produced. Our hero has an African-American sidekick, played by Ray Turner, and, well, he portrays the kind of stereotypical comedic character that was common in movies at the time. It’s pretty uncomfortable, and it’s in cases like this that a film has to be watched with a historical context in mind.
Fun Fact: Dave O’Brien and Louise Stanley are in both of the third disc’s offerings, making me wonder if the pairing was intentional. Stanley is the usual female lead in both, but O’Brien’s roles are polar opposites; goofball comedic relief in Sky Bandits, one of the bad guys in Gun Packer.
Disc Four: The final disc of the collection starts with 1941’s Saddle Mountain Roundup, an entry in the “Range Busters” series. Another one of those trio films like the Three Mesquiteers, (Max Terhune plays the jokey ventriloquist member in the examples of both found in this collection), there are very strong horror overtones in this one.
In it, cranky land owner Magpie Harper is convinced someone is trying to kill him and, well, he’s right. The Range Busters, already hired to watch over his property, try to figure out who done did it.
Sadly, like Gun Packer, the racial stereotypes of the era rear their head again, this time in the form of Chinese cook (and occasional suspect) Fang Way, played by Willie Fung. His sometimes-shifty behavior, nearly-incomprehensible English and scatterbrained demeanor are wildly unacceptable today, so again, this is a case where you have to view with historical context in mind.
That’s the only serious blight on the movie though, because otherwise, I genuinely enjoyed it. Creepy cinematography, rain storms, a murder mystery, cloaked figures, a cave that is essentially the fill in for an “old dark house,” horror vibes are found throughout. The plot is fun and at less than an hour, breezy enough.
And that brings us to the final movie of the collection, 1935’s The Vanishing Riders, and boy is creeeeeeaky. B-Westerns weren’t exactly high-budget items anyway (hence the “B” branding), but even so, the cheapness of this one really shines through.
Bill Cody (not the Buffalo one) and his real-life son Bill Cody Jr. (also not the Buffalo one) star as a (former) sheriff and his adopted child, respectively. There’s a deserted town, a marauding gang of thieves, a crotchety old man, a lovely leading lady and a plot to rustle some cattle, but I’m going to be honest with you, only two things stick out to me about this one: 1) Cody Jr., roughly 10 years old, has a role comparable to the other adults, and he gets a lot of screen time doing ‘heroic’ stuff. We’re talking Gamera-movie levels of importance for the kid. Frankly, it’s pretty annoying. 2) At one point both Cody men dress both themselves and their horses up in skeleton costumes in order to scare the thieves.
It’s those skeleton costumes that lend a horror flair to The Vanishing Riders, so it fits the theme of this DVD fine, but for as much as I love B-Westerns, the kid-friendly nature of the flick drags this one down for me.
A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is a pretty consistent collection of horror and science fiction-tinged B-Westerns. The overall theme of the set is just so neat that you (well, I) can’t help but love it. Radio Ranch, Tombstone Canyon and Riders of the Whistling Skull are terrific and worth the price of admission alone, Sky Bandits and Saddle Mountain Roundup are fun, solid inclusions, and Ghost Patrol, Gun Packer and The Vanishing Riders, while not up to the level of the other movies in the collection (in my opinion), are if nothing else watchable examples of the B-Western genre and the matinee vibes said genre exemplifies.
Aside from the few noted and unfortunate racial stereotypes that were products of their time, it’s a pretty easygoing set; for fans of B-Westerns, vintage horror and/or science fiction, or all three, it’s not a bad choice. It appears this compilation is out of print, or at least, Amazon currently has no new copies for sale, but methinks it’s worth hunting down; it certainly stands out from the numerous other budget DVD compilations that have hit the shelves over the years!