Category Archives: Uncategorized

Return of the 1975 RCA AU-097Y Portable TV! (Plus a Look at XENOPHOBE for the Atari 2600!)

Sometimes I have a problem where I’ve got more than enough stuff that I could write about, but, frankly, can’t really decide on any one subject. Such was my problem recently, as I looked at the boxes of VHS tapes, stacks of DVDs and mounds of old electronics around me, yet continued to be at a loss. I couldn’t get fired up over anything. Then, my eyes fell upon my beloved RCA AU-097Y portable TV from 1975, which I wrote about waaaay back in 2013 – in the early months of this very site! I have always loved the extreme 1970s-ness of this TV, but even so, that alone wasn’t enough to bring it back for a return-appearance on my stupid dumb blog. So what warranted a quick picture-taking session?

The latter years of the Atari 2600, that’s what! (This post is more for fun than anything. Plus, I haven’t written anything for November yet and constantly fear that y’all will abandon me.)

Now, I can play Atari 2600 (or if you want to get technical, Atari 7800) pretty much any time I please. I have one constantly at the ready in my “office” (ha!), and while I don’t play video games a whole lot, I do occasionally need to, as the ads used to say, reach reach reach for Atari. This doesn’t normally require usage of a 42 (!) year old TV, however. So, why did it now? Xenophobe, that’s why!

The picture to the right says it all: Midway’s 1987 split-screen arcade game was given the 2600 treatment, the title-screen of which you’re seeing right here. Xenophobe has long been one of my favorites on the console, which is funny, since I’m not big on the arcade version or most of the higher-end ports (the Lynx adaption wasn’t bad). I guess in the 2600’s case, “less is more,” though. While the more advanced versions retained much of the comical, cartoon-like atmosphere of the coin-op, the 2600’s weaker graphic and sonic capabilities meant only the ‘meat’ of Xenophobe was retained. It comes off quieter, more desolate, which for a game originally inspired by the Alien films, I think serves the 2600 port well. Plus, the fact a game this advanced even made it to the 2600 at all, in an extremely playable form no less, is purty derned impressive.

Here’s the deal: This 2600 port was indeed released in the U.S., at the insanely late date of 1990 (actually, this AtariAge thread says it didn’t ship until Spring 1991!!), which means there were/are NTSC copies out there, but for the longest time, they were pretty rare. I mean, by 1990/1991, the 16-bit era of video games had dawned; who would have thought they’d still be releasing games for a console introduced in 1977 in an age where the Sega Genesis had been unleashed?! It’s true – the Atari 2600 wasn’t officially discontinued until January 1, 1992. This wasn’t a one-off release, either; there were a slew of new 2600 games released in the wake of the infamous 1983 video game crash, after Nintendo totally revived the industry. Many of these newer 2600 titles were, and are, super-impressive, featuring NES-like formats and gameplay and graphics that many just wouldn’t think possible on the 2600.

Xenophobe is one such game, but by the time it saw release in the U.S., the market for the 2600 was all but dead. Overseas though, there was still some life left in the beast, the result being that you could find PAL copies of many of these hard-to-find US titles for a fraction of the cost. And that’s where my RCA TV comes in.

As you may imagine, games in the PAL format from that era aren’t generally known to run correctly in the U.S. Colors will be off, and more drastically, the screen can roll, rendering the game unplayable. However, by using an old school CRT TV with the capability to adjust the vertical hold, you can stabilize the screen to normal, and if you’re using a black & white set, as I did here, why, the mismatched colors don’t even matter! Cool winnins!

I own a (as I was assured by the seller) sealed NTSC copy of Xenophobe, which I had to pay real money for back in 2001 or 2002, but my loose copy is PAL. I’ve had a hankerin’ for some 2600 Xenophobe lately, so, well, you can deduce how we got where we are right now.

(By the way, the prices for NTSC Xenophobe, as well as other late-era releases, have fallen drastically in the years since I nabbed my sealed one; a ton of new old stock U.S. copies were uncovered in Venezuela some years back and made available to the masses, which means that what once were mega-rare titles are now surprisingly common, and affordable, via online sales. I’ve got several of these, another Xenophobe included, winging their way towards me as we speak.)

To make Atari happen on the RCA, I had to kick things way old school. Yep, via screws and an ancient RF switchbox – the kind you had to slide a switch to TV or game when you wanted to enjoy either. That’s what you’re seeing to your left here. Nothing unusual about it; this is how video game consoles were hooked up back in the day! On the RCA, there’s no other way.

Actually, it’s kind of a kick to hook a system up to a TV this way. You know, I grew up plugging things into the RF port, or via AVs, so it’s sorta neat to attach a console in such a wildly obsolete fashion. It feels very late-1970s/early-1980s appropriate, even if the Atari 7800 (which also plays 2600 games is thus my normative choice of Atari console) didn’t come out (nationally) until 1986, when this method had almost-certainly been widely-superseded by the RF/AV thing I just mentioned.

There are a bunch of contrasting eras at play here. You’ve got a black & white TV from 1975, displaying a game copyrighted 1990 and apparently released in 1991 and made for a console introduced in 1977, which in turn was being played on a console released in 1986 but included native backward-compatibility with that console introduced in 1977. Why, it’s enough to make your head swim!

So, back to Xenophobe. If for some reason you thought I had some kind of authority in the world of Atari (Hint: I don’t) and asked me to name my top 20 games for the 2600, Xenophobe would absolutely be on that list. Actually, it’d make my top 10. I love the game!

To your right is the opening scene of game play (I’d venture to guess that this is the only pic of the game being played on a black & white TV from 1975 on the internet – for the time being). Now, most people probably think of 2600 games as simple affairs, but Xenophobe is actually pretty expansive, comparable to many then-modern games. There are eight stations to visit throughout the game (though there’s no ending; it loops after the eighth), and stations that include different rooms, with some having multiple levels accessed via elevator. And as we saw above, it even features a legit title screen!

Graphically, the game really wows. Like any console, the longer it’s around, the more the programmers can get out of it.  Okay, sure, compared to the NES or 7800 (both of which had ports of Xenophobe), never mind the Sega Genesis (which didn’t), the graphics are extremely blocky, and gamers nowadays would probably laugh so hard at them that they’d spill whatever hyper-powered soft drink they had chosen for their all-night online gaming session. But given the system it’s on, Xenophobe is definitely impressive. Your character is rendered in multiple colors, the animation is (mostly) smooth, there are a variety of aliens to combat, and from outside appearances at least, the space stations are varied; I really liked all the gadgets and junk that adorned the walls of the areas you traversed, too. There’s even separate cut-scenes featuring your mother ship coming upon an infested station! Neato!

Musically, there’s some bits adapted from the arcade that don’t sound bad at all, and the sound effects are serviceable; there were certainly far worse to be found on the 2600.

The plot of the game involves several space stations that have been infested by alien beings (“Xenophobes,” as per the manual), and it’s up to you to clean ’em out! Yep, you beam on board each station, alone, and must systematically clear out a required number of aliens before you can be beamed back to your mother ship. (If you take too long, you’re beamed back aboard while the infested station self-destructs.) The aliens range from pods to tentacles to gigantic, dangerous beasts, and you’ve got several weapon choices scattered throughout the ships to help exterminate them.

Xenophobe‘s gimmick in the arcades was that the screen was split into three sections, allowing for three players going at the game simultaneously. For obvious reasons, the home editions generally cut that down to two, and as you can see, the 2600 followed suit; that bottom half is reserved for the second player – but not simultaneously! Yep, despite the split-screen, players must take turns, even though it’s still player one on the top, player two on the bottom. I get that having simultaneous game play like that might be too much for the ol’ 2600 to handle, but then why have the split-screen at all?

That bit of irritation aside, Xenophobe is pretty solid. The difficulty may be a little uneven; get the powerful “Poofer Gun” and you can basically cruise through what would otherwise be some pretty tough stages, stages that are a little insurmountable without it or a plentiful supply of grenades. Still, the mark of any good game is how often you (or at least I) keep coming back to it. Despite having not played the game in years, I indeed kept coming back for another round.

(By the way, it’s worth noting that the 2600 wasn’t the only “early” video game console to last as long as it did; the Intellivision, initially the 2600’s main rival, also enjoyed a revival and ultimate lifespan stretching into the late-1980s/early-1990s. However, the Inty never got Xenophobe, and thus Atari won yet again.)

So, aside from using an ancient CRT TV to get around the rolling screen issues, what did I learn playing Xenophobe this way? 1) I don’t mind playing in black & white. 2) There’s an odd sense of “coolness” playing the 2600/7800 in this fashion. It just looks neat. I hesitate to use the word “authenticity,” but there’s probably some of that in there, too. 3) TVs this old emit a smell that’s not particularly pleasant. I looked the phenomenon up, and while I forget the technical term now, it’s apparently normal. Doesn’t change the fact that I have a hypersensitive nose and that first night of play gave me, no joke, an ill-feeling. Subsequent plays were better; maybe the smell dissipated? Or maybe my nose just got used to it? I dunno.

Because this is just sort of a fun, dash-off post, I’m not sure how to end it. I played the Atari 2600 port of Xenophobe on an RCA TV from 1975, okay?

Actually, I do know how to end this post; I didn’t spend a long time playing it, because honestly I just wanted the picture seen here, but I did fire up another 2600 favorite, and this one was more period-appropriate: 1978’s Basketball!

When it comes to sports games, I’m not sure it gets more primitive than Basketball (that it’s right here, duh!), but man is it fun. It’s a one-on-one game, and you can play either the computer or another person. I didn’t this time around, but the two-player mode is where it’s at. Competitive in all the best ways. The graphics and sound are probably more in line with what people think when it comes to Atari, but the play is what counts, and Basketball has it to spare! Get it? “Spare!” Cause it’s…oh wait, I’m thinking of Bowling. That’s a favorite too, though.

So there you have it. I busted out the beloved 1975 RCA AU-097Y portable TV for a picture-taking session, and more importantly, several Xenophobe sessions. Nowadays, people like to mod their 2600’s for AV, HDMI, and so on and so forth. Play ’em on flatscreens and whatnot. Hey, nothing wrong with that. If I had the skills and the spare consoles, I’d take that plunge too. (Actually, I do have the spare consoles…but not the skills.) Still, sometimes you gotta kick it really old school, and I feel I have accomplished that arbitrary task exceedingly well.

Also, playing Xenophobe without the screen rolling like a madman is nice.

Advertisements

VHS Review: Frankenstein (1931; MCA Videocassette Inc., 1980)

Happy Halloween!

Once again we come to the big day! This entire month (well, most of it), I’ve tried to keep things adequately “spooky,” and it has all been leading up to this showstopper. We’re gonna throw things waaay back with what is quite possibly the very first home video release of what is also quite possibly the greatest horror film ever made: 1931’s Frankenstein! If it’s not the first release, it’s at least certainly among the earliest, not counting home super 8mm copies and whatnot. (I’m talkin’ VHS and Betamax here, man.)

In the realm of horror movie royalty, Frankenstein resides way, way near the top; if it’s not #1, it’s at least a top ten’r, maybe five’r. And even if its ability to scare has almost-certainly diminished in this more-jaded movie-going age, it still easily and aptly holds up as a genuinely great, great film, one that supports more than a few iconic moments and has basically become the veritable symbol of Halloween (you know, today).

This was put out my MCA Home Video (then billed as MCA Videocassette Inc.) in 1980, and while Frankenstein was by no means a ‘new’ film even then, it’s wild to realize it hadn’t even hit 50 years old by that point. It’s now 86 years old, and this tape itself is closer to 40 than it isn’t. I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. It’s an old VHS of an old movie that wasn’t quite as old 37 years ago as it is today, okay? There, wrap your mind around that!

When this was released, home video was still very much in its infancy. These tapes weren’t exactly cheap, never mind the VCRs required to play them. As such, rentals were the main order of the day, but even so, don’t underestimate what a revolution in movie-viewin’-at-home this was. No longer did someone have to wait for their favorite flick to show up on TV, if or when it ever did; nope, all it took was a quick trip to the video store to net them a rental, or ownership if they felt like really prying open the wallet. (Full disclosure: I have no idea how much this tape originally retailed for.)

Although they’re a more-protected species nowadays, at the time these Universal classics were still widely seen on local stations, regional horror hosted programs, and so on and so forth. But to actually own an official copy of the film, to pull it off the shelf whenever you darn well felt like it? That’s something we totally take for granted nowadays, but for classic horror fans in the early years of home video, I’m just not sure it got much cooler than that!

‘Course, while there are some differences in the print here, which we’ll get to, it’s not like this movie was unique to one specific era of home video; nowadays, you can get the film itself or the entire series on DVD or Blu-ray. I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this post hasn’t seen Frankenstein, but if by some chance you haven’t, you really owe it to yourself to pick up a minty fresh new copy right quick.

Anyway, this tape. Anyone familiar with the later video releases of not only this movie but the other Universal classics will recall how elaborate and striking their covers often were, sometimes even utilizing original poster art. Gene Shalit could even show up, too. As such, the relative sparseness of this release is a little striking; it’s the kind of tape that really could have only come out in those first few years of home video.

Not that it’s bad, mind you. The mostly-purple & black color scheme is attractive and gives off the appropriate vibes one would associate with a movie of this nature. Ditto for the tinted close-up of Frank’s mug. I like the semi-Gothic (?) font used for the title, and I’m by no means a “font guy.” It’s just, like I said, the whole thing feels a little sparse compared to what was to come, though that’s no one’s fault; video covers would soon become increasingly eye-catching – the simpler, earlier days of the format soon gave way to big ol’ boxes and legitimately striking artwork, all in an effort to entice prospective buyers/renters (obviously). I guess what I’m saying is that this release could have only come out in those first few years of video. Wait, I already said that! Well, it still holds true.

If not the film as a whole, then at least the actual character of Frankenstein (or “Frankenstein’s Monster,” for all you technical types) has become, arguably, the most famous of Universal’s many many monster movie (alliteration) creations. It stands to reason this original flick (along with fellow-perennial-favorite Dracula) was among the first released on home video by MCA. Frankenstein‘s sequels had to wait a bit longer to come to VHS, however; for example, The Ghost of Frankenstein didn’t show up until 1993!

The back cover continues the color scheme, along with two shots from the movie and the expected description. Be happy there even was a description; some early video releases used the back cover primarily to hawk other titles from the company. The description here is pretty good, giving just enough exposition to draw the buyer-renter/whoever in and nailing the hype without ruining the movie. And look! Says right there: “The greatest horror film of all time!” Told ya!

Here’s what the back cover doesn’t tell you, though its not at fault by any means: Frankenstein is a movie that has been released numerous times on numerous formats – but not quite this version. I’m a little unclear whether certain scenes were excised before the original theatrical release or upon a subsequent re-release (I’ve heard both), but either way, Frankenstein was seen for years in a (slightly) truncated form. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Frank’s inadvertent drowning of little Maria; an edit to the print made the monster seem much more sinister than the original cut intended, and that’s all viewers knew for decades. The missing scene was rediscovered and rightfully added back to the film in the mid-1980s (video releases from the time notated this fact right on the front cover), and that ‘fixed’ Frankenstein is what we’ve had on home video for years. (There were a few other fixes, but unlike the King Kong I linked to a bit ago, the film wasn’t extensively chopped up.)

HOWEVER, since the footage hadn’t been rediscovered (or at least added back in) yet, of course the first few video releases were of the older, non-restored print, and needless to say, that’s what we have here. Now, naturally I’d never argue that Frankenstein should definitively be seen in this form, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see the version that was it for decades, and which is now, you know, not.

While on the subject of the print, Frankenstein has been restored and remastered over the years, and the result is that the version we have today looks pretty stunning; Universal has treated these films well! Even if you just watch one of them on Svengoolie, you’ll usually see something pretty crisp and clean – Universal does good work, and as far as Sven goes, they often provide upgraded prints as they come along, too.

But for a 1980 VHS release of Frankenstein, well, what could you really expect? The print is good, it’s certainly watchable, and probably better than what would have been airing on TV around that time. But, there’s an amount wear, dust, etc. to the print that just wouldn’t fly nowadays. Maybe it’s not that surprising; it is an early video release of a movie from 1931, after all. Don’t get me wrong; this Frankenstein doesn’t look ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination (I mean, you can’t even tell from the title screen screencap there), It’s just that, frankly, I’m so used to these Universal horror films looking so…so clean. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, huh? And yes, I know the remastering technology wasn’t then what it is now. (By the way, for a VHS tape that’s closing in on 40 years old, it looks and plays quite well on that particular front.)

So, do I really even need to describe Frankenstein? Even if someone hasn’t seen it (yeah, uh huh), they know the basic storyline. Even though this film was adapted from Mary Shelley’s 1818 book, this Universal adaptation, which deviates wildly from the source, has become the iteration burned into the synapses of the public. When people think “Frankenstein,” 99.9% of them think of Boris Karloff’s immortal portrayal here. And the plot? The story has become a horror staple; people know the background and the monster even if they haven’t seen this 1931 masterpiece.

The plot concerns one Henry Frankenstein, a scientist who believes he has discovered the secret to reanimating life. As such, he, along with his hunchbacked assistant, go about stealing dead bodies and piecing them together. You know, an arm here, a leg there. (As I said before, we live in a more-jaded age, but worded like that, it still sounds pretty grisly.) Things take a wrong turn when, as the final piece of the puzzle, the assistant steals an abnormal brain. (You’re thinking of the Young Frankenstein gag right now, aren’t you?) Henry, via lightning storm, succeeds in giving the mass of body parts life, bad brain and all. If there’s one image from this movie that can be considered the most iconic in a film full of iconic moments, it has to be Henry’s exclaiming “IT’S ALIVE!” when the creature begins to stir. Trouble, of course, soon follows.

And that brings us…Boris Karloff. His portrayal of the monster is an absolute marvel; a creature capable of death, destruction and vengeance, but at the same time, also humanity. The fact he does this with no real dialogue is amazing. Yes, the monster has a deranged mind, he kills, but there’s also a real gentleness about him; watch early on, soon after he’s first reanimated, and sunlight is let in through the roof – the creature futilely reaches up towards it, and it’s just an incredible moment. Indeed, one of the great tragedies of this older print is that some of that humanity is obscured – the scene where he accidentally drowns Maria is a chief example, and though only a very small moment in the overall film, it’s a very important one, which is why the later, restored versions of Frankenstein are such a triumph.

And how about that make-up! There have been numerous depictions of Frankenstein’s monster over the years, but only one that continually sticks in the mind of the people, and that’s Karloff’s portrayal here. Sunken cheeks, flat head, bolts in the neck, the whole shtick; c’mon, you already know how he goes!

Many people point to 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein as topping the original. I can understand that thought, but I still gravitate to this first film, though the monster’s newfound power of speech in Bride makes for some iconic screen moments. At any rate, the first three movies in the series (this, Bride, and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein) feature Karloff as the monster, and he’s fantastic in each one. Those are terrific movies in general, though I love this series as a whole (and have a particular soft spot for 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein).

Still, it all comes down to this original Frankenstein. This is the kind of movie horror films are built upon. No joke, it’s quite possibly the perfect Halloween movie, rivaled only by Night of the Living Dead. But whereas Dead is a gritty, nihilistic late-1960s social commentary, Frankenstein is, in my mind, the definitive horror film of Hollywood’s golden age. Both are great, but for pretty different reasons, even if they do both share the whole “reanimated corpse” theme.

Frankenstein, to me, is the horror film of that era in Hollywood; evocative sets, a fantastic storyline, unforgettable acting, a budget. Everything about it is just right. It draws you in from the first scene and never lets you go. How can anyone not love it?

So, to have the movie here in what is probably the first edition released on VHS, it’s not just a cool collectible, nor is it just a cool relic of home video’s past. I mean, it is all that, but it’s also a piece of horror movie history; the first time consumers could own the movie for home use, authorized and officially. As I said before, I’m not sure it got much cooler than that!

And with that, our big Halloween update comes to a close. Have a happy and safe holiday, everybody! And hey, why not throw 1931’s Frankenstein on at some point, whatever version you may have?

VHS Review: The Little Shop of Horrors (1960; Video Treasures’ 1990 Colorized Version Release)

We’re coming to the home stretch gang; Halloween is next week! By now it should be obvious that when it comes to seasonally-appropriate movies, I prefer the old stuff: The classics of the 1930s, the poverty row works of the 1940s, and the cornball drive-in fare of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the flicks I dig are generally perceived as less-than-great, while others are widely considered legitimate classics. Today, we’re looking at something from the latter end of that spectrum.

1960’s Roger Corman opus The Little Shop of Horrors is somewhat of an anomaly. Based on the plot and production values (it was filmed for figurative peanuts in only two days!), by all means this should have been little more than a cheap and cheesy horror quickie; fun and entertaining perhaps, but not something particularly good. That’s not how it turned out though. Everything lined up perfectly for Shop, the result being a genuine classic. It’s fast-paced, well-written, and thanks to some terrific dark humor, pretty funny. It may very well be Corman’s best movie. I certainly consider it to be.

As it turned out, a fate that befell other ‘big’ horror films also happened to befall Shop: It lapsed into the public domain, and that, coupled with its status as a “cult classic” ensured that the movie would be readily available at pretty much any given moment. No joke; you’d almost have to be trying to avoid The Little Shop of Horrors in order to not see it!

Enter the mid/late-1980s, the booming home video market, and the then-new (and then-controversial) process of colorizing black & white films. It stands to reason that some of the more legendary grayscale movies would be prime candidates for colorization, and that’s where our subject today comes in: The Little Shop of Horrors was given the color treatment in 1987 and released by the much-missed Vestron Video.

The tape we’re looking at now, however, is not that Vestron release, but rather a 1990 re-release by the industrious Video Treasures. Video Treasures put out a lot of tapes around that time, and there’s some legendary titles amongst its ranks. I’m not sure how they came to own the rights to the colorized version of Shop, but as far as I’m aware it’s the exact same print as Vestron’s. And so here we are.

First off, look at that cover art! Just look at it! Yes, for those unaware (all three of you), Jack Nicholson is indeed in The Little Shop of Horrors, though it apparently wasn’t his very first appearance in a motion picture. Still, it’s certainly one of his earliest, and the acclaim garnered by the film as a whole means that everyone involved was/is for the better, Jack included.

Though, the cover art points to a popular trend among releases of Shop: They like to play up the Nicholson angle, even though he’s not in it for very long. I mean, it’s understandable; he’s a name draw, an uber-recognizable face, so of course you gotta take advantage of him. But in reality, Jack isn’t even close to the star of the film (he was still a few years away from Batman, man).

The cover art used here is some of the more-famous artwork to be found gracing the front sleeve of a Shop release; it was used on no less than four separate VHS releases of the movie. Maybe even more, I don’t know. Three of those were for this colorized version: The 1987 Vestron release, this 1990 Video Treasures version, and one by Avid Home Video in 1992. The fourth one was United American Video’s 1987 VHS of the original black & white print, and that’s the one I had back in the day (still do, actually). Found in Best Buy’s fabled $2.99 VHS section, I was immediately drawn to that cover art, and actually picked up two copies: One to watch, and one to keep minty sealed fresh. That well-drawn picture of Jack, dressed to the nines and happily pointing at a presumably-killer plant, was and is immediately eye-catching, and as far as I’m concerned, some of the coolest cover art of the late-1980s/early-1990s VHS era.

The synopsis on the back cover is word-for-word the same as what appeared on the Vestron release. Actually, it was the same on the 1992 Avid VHS release, too. It seems that whoever gained the copyrights kept the particulars and only changed up the formatting and appropriate criteria (i.e., manufacturer etc.) somewhat.

That’s okay though, because the description does a pretty good job of selling the movie. Why fix what ain’t broken? I do take a few issues with it, however: 1) Calling it a “trash masterpiece” doesn’t work for me. It’s a cheap comedy-horror film, yes, but I’ve never thought of it as “trashy.” 2) Audrey wasn’t the daughter of the flower shop owner, was she? 3) That final line kinda gives away the conclusion of the film, though not definitively, and I suppose it could be taken either literally or figuratively. Still, I would have left that part out.

(Also: Hey, Video Treasures was situated in Ohio! Cool winnins!)

Needless to say, the fact that this is the (then) newly colorized version of the film is touted more that once, and why wouldn’t it be? You could get a regular ol’ black & white version anywhere! And speaking of the colorization…

Wikipedia says the movie has been colorized twice: This one, and a 2006 version by Legend Films. That Legend version was well-received, but this one less so. First off, Legend does good work, so that part doesn’t surprise me. As for the reception of this initial colorized version, I get that was released relatively early in the colorizin’ game, but even so, I actually didn’t mind it. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer that movies filmed in black & white stay in black & white, but as a relic of a time when the coloring process was still quite controversial, I can’t help getting a small nostalgic kick out of the proceedings.

And I’ve certainly seen worse colorized films. A trained eye will certainly be able to tell this wasn’t originally filmed in color, but to me, it’s less jarring and “in your face” than it could have been. Actually, some of the colors looked a little muted to me, though that may have been a combination of the tape’s age, the LP recording speed, my cheap beater VCR, and/or my eyes playing mind games with me. I don’t have any real complaints concerning the colorization process, but then again, it’s not like I don’t have the original version readily available to me at any and all times; maybe it would have been a different story if this was the only print accessible, which of course was one of the fears regarding colorization as a whole in the first place, but it’s not so it isn’t. (IMDb says this colorization was authorized by Roger Corman himself, but it also mentions there were several continuity errors in the coloring process, so I’m guessing that was probably more a reason for the poor reception than anything.)

I will say that the movie’s intro was a cause for concern, however. Look at that title screen above; see those “colored boxes,” for lack of a better descriptive term? As the opening scrolls to the right, those boxes just sort of remain stationary (for the most part), and it’s not a great effect. It reminds me of those old school color “screens” people used to place on their black & white TVs. Methinks they would have been better off giving the opening credits a single, solid color, but things settle down once the movie proper starts.

So, The Little Shop of Horrors. Is there anyone here that hasn’t seen this movie? Raise your hands as if I could possibly see you please. No? No one? Thas what I thought. The critical acclaim and public domain status have both ensured that this is one of the most widely-seen classic horror films going. It doesn’t top Night of the Living Dead in availability, but then, what movie does? Shop can still be mentioned in the same “ain’t no copyright on dis flick” breath though, and that’s pretty impressive nevertheless.

The plot, for all six of you who haven’t seen this, concerns one Seymour Krelboyne, a lowly worker at a skid row florist. Seymour is a screw up, and at the threat of being fired, Seymour saves his job by presenting an odd plant he has grown as an attraction for the shop, named “Audrey Jr.” (after fellow florist Audrey, who Seymour is in love with). The plant is unusual; it’s a hybrid with some venus flytrap genes in it. Unfortunately, Audrey Jr. doesn’t like to eat; attempts at ‘normal’ plant nourishment don’t do anything for it. It’s only after it accidentally gets a taste of Seymour’s blood that the truth is revealed: This thing craves humans! After pricking his fingers dry, Seymour knows that more is needed to keep the thing alive. Soon after, Seymour accidentally, and fortuitously (ha!), causes the death of a stranger. In order to cover his tracks, he scrapes up the body and feeds it to Audrey Jr. (above), and from there on, well, you can see where this is going. Seymour must satisfy the plant’s cravings with more and more human morsels.

There’s a healthy dose of humor in The Little Shop of Horrors. Jewish humor, to be specific. Jewish names and lingo are thrown about liberally. Further laughs are found in Seymour’s constant unwitting acts of murder; he never means to kill, it just sort of happens, though of course the curiosity of the cops is aroused nevertheless. Indeed, the film plays out somewhat like a morbid spoof of Dragnet, with Joe Friday and Frank Smith parodies found in Sgt. Joe Fink and Officer Frank Stoolie, who are on the case of the missing persons. (On a side note, the Dragnet-ish feel is something I really appreciate about the film, being a big fan of the actual TV series, and totally adds to the charm of the movie. It’s not unique to Shop, though; the 1956 Lon Chaney Jr. “epic” Indestructible Man used the same device, and even though for years I gave that movie short-shrift, a recent viewing found me reappraising it, not just due to the general entertainment factor but also thanks to the Dragnet-esque framing used.)

So what about Jack Nicholson’s role in the flick? As I said, he’s not in the movie very long, but his sequence is very funny. Jack plays masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force, who Seymour works on while posing as a dentist (after killing the real dentist – in self-defense, mind you). Jack doesn’t become a meal for Audrey Jr., but he gets one of the funniest moments in the whole film. As a masochist, he actually enjoys the visit to the office, with the final gag being him happily walking out and displaying his new trainwreck of a smile. Funny stuff! Jack would later get bigger roles (duh!), and even starred in Corman’s The Terror alongside Boris Karloff some three years later, but when it comes to his uber-early work, well, it’s tough to top his small bit here.

The Little Shop of Horrors is a movie that really holds up. Unlike a lot of horror/sci-fi films that have lapsed into the public domain, Shop is genuinely good. Sure, it was cheap and quickly filmed, but in my opinion that just adds to the charm. The horror elements are legit, but the film is largely a goof, and it all comes together perfectly as a whole because of it. Clearly it did something right; besides the unending fandom attributed to it, the flick also served as the basis for a popular musical, which in turn became the 1986 theatrical adaption/remake.

Like any colorized movie, I’m not sure I could ever recommend the altered version over an original black & white print, but as a supplement to the real deal, I’m fine with it. Colorization has obviously advanced in the years since, but there’s something about taking a trip back in time and watching a work from the earlier years of the process that’s a lot of fun. It’s not always perfect, but as a late-1980s/early-1990s throwback, it’s worth a watch. It makes for good, fairly-harmless Halloween viewing, if nothing else.

(By the way, for a print apparently authorized by Corman, I was a bit surprised to see that this particular version did not include the original ending credits. Many black & white copies lack them as well. My very first viewing of the movie, off of good ol’ 29/35 way back in like 1997, featured them, but few, if any, I’ve seen since have.

Speaking of 29/35, last night channel 29 said goodbye. The station will live on, without any line-up changes, as Cleveland’s channel 16, though unfortunately Spectrum doesn’t currently carry that feed. This means yours truly is going to need a real antenna to pick it up. Even though the channel isn’t really gone, to me this truly feels like the end of “The Cat.” No other station, local or otherwise, was quite as important to me while growing up than The Cat, and as such, it feels like another piece of my childhood is lost forever. Such is the way with life, however. The memories will live on, and I suppose that’s the best any of us can hope for.)

Movie Review: Wild Horse Phantom (1944)

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?! A western movie review – in October?!

Yes, it’s true: Right in the heart of Halloween month, we’re looking at a 1940s poverty row western. But wait! Don’t go closing the tab just yet! This fits, trust me!

Back in the 1940s, Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC for short, made movies with, erm, not a lot of money. They were, you know, a cheapie outfit – just one of the many poverty row studios that littered the cinematic landscape in that era. At the time, westerns of the budget variety were churned out nigh-continuously by these poverty row players; no joke, westerns were perhaps the preeminent “poverty row product.” So, it stands to reason there wound up being more than a few horse operas sporting the PRC branding. (See what I did there? “Branding!” Because it’s a…oh never mind.)

On that front, PRC had a long line of “Billy the Kid” B-Westerns, the first few with Bob Steele but the vast majority starring Buster Crabbe as the titular character. (Unlike the real-life outlaw, this Billy the Kid was a bit more of a heroic figure; this was matinee material, after all.) Crabbe was no small potatoes at the time, having portrayed Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Tarzan. Dude even made it to the Olympics – twice. Of course a studio would be all for him headlining an action-packed film series such as this! (Al “Fuzzy” St. John also starred in these as the comic sidekick, and truth be told, I had forgotten what a spaz his character could be.)

And that brings us to today’s subject, Wild Horse Phantom. Title cards to the left, yo. Released in 1944 (according to Wikipedia and its IMDb page, on October 28 – right before Halloween!), this entry falls, roughly, in the middle of the series – by which point “Billy the Kid” had become “Billy Carson.”

Now look, I really, really love B-Westerns; they’re some of my favorite movies to watch. BUT, I’ll never claim they could vary a whole lot. I mean, these were old west stories filmed on the cheap; how many plot lines could there be? Watch enough of these, and you start to see the same basic story lines repeated over and over, though when the action was good and the stars engaging, it didn’t really matter – bills that seemed to fit Crabbe pretty well, actually.

All that said, when you’ve got a long-running series such as this one, well, sometimes things had to be shaken up a bit, and that’s just what PRC did with Wild Horse Phantom – this is not your typical B-Western! The usage of “phantom” in the title isn’t really an indicator of horror-themes in a western (lotsa them used it), but make no mistake, our movie today has unmistakable horror movie undertones – and overtones! This one really breaks out of the mold, and it’s a lot of fun because of it. Read on!

The movie starts out normally enough: A fellow named Daggett, along with his gang, break out of prison. These guys were busted for robbing a bank, and, it turns out, the breakout has been orchestrated by Billy so he can trail them and recover the stolen money. (Along for the ride is another prisoner, an acquaintance of Billy and Fuzzy, who is unwittingly dragged with the gang; Daggett shoots him dead soon after. While it provides a moment for Fuzzy to grieve early on, it seems to be forgotten in fairly short order.)

At this point, I’d like to mention that this is a “modern day western,” meaning it was (ostensibly) set in the time it was produced. Sure, there’s still six-shootin’ and horses and whatnot, but there’s also then-modern automobiles present. When I was growing up and discovering B-Westerns on WAOH/WAX, I was always put off by these. To me, a western should be set in the old west; in the 1800s, maybe early-1900s tops. While I still prefer my westerns to adhere to my arbitrary standards, I will say I’ve softened on these “modern day” efforts – somehow the 1940s matinee charm is made all the more visible when then-modern accoutrements are present. Does that make any sense? No? Well, whatever.

Anyway, after that non-eyebrow-raising start, the setting get dark – literally. Billy and Fuzzy track Daggett’s gang to an old mine, where Daggett hid the stolen money before their incarceration. As seen here, our heroes skulk about in the dark (right), and eventually wind up spying on the gang as they futilely try to find the dinero. (Daggett can’t remember where exactly he hid it.) It’s at this point where things take a turn for the spooky; y’see, for all intents and purposes the mine here is the equivalent of a haunted house.

No joke – there’s mysterious, cackling laughs, provided by a “phantom” (our titular character, duh!) with a knife. This phantom seems to be on the side of good, even helping Billy and Fuzzy when they’re captured by the gang in surprisingly short order. Still, can you ever really trust a guy that runs around a dank mine and cackling? It’s gotta be a little unnerving, even if you are Buster Crabbe.

Eventually Billy makes it outside (while Fuzzy waits in the mine; more on that momentarily) and does a little investigating. The town in which the mine is located has been essentially wiped out by the aforementioned bank robbery, as the nefarious banker in charge is threatening to foreclose on everyone. You can probably see where things are going here. This moves the plot along, of course, but really, the best scenes are all in the mine. They really do manage to attain an aura of, I guess, an old dark house thriller – an intriguing and nice change of pace for a budget western!

Wild Horse Phantom probably can’t be deemed a ‘famous’ movie; B-Western fans might know of it, but it’s not like you’ll hear it spoken of in the same sentence as, say, Stagecoach. Still, there is one scene that almost has to come up when Wild Horse Phantom is mentioned, not only because it takes the horror elements of the film from a mostly-background presence to front and center, but also because it’s just so, well, PRC.

Because the scenes in the mine are, by necessity, dark, and the object in question was (almost) constantly in motion, capturing satisfactory screenshots was all but impossible here. I tried over and over, too. What you’re seeing to the left is The Devil Bat. Yes, that Devil Bat. As in The Devil Bat, the 1940 PRC horror flick starring Bela Lugosi. To showcase the hidden dangers of the mine, PRC reused the prop!

The scene: Fuzzy is wandering around the mine when he stumbles upon something lurking in the shadows, eyes glowing menacingly. That’s the top image on the left, and believe it or not, it manages to come across genuinely creepy!

The bat of course attacks Fuzzy, though the shots of him scuffling with it are incomprehensible in screencap-form, so the bottom image is the bat showing off its impressive wingspan. How does Fuzzy repel the creature? By biting it. (Don’t ask.)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the bat doesn’t get much screen time. His scuffle with Fuzzy is it (though there’s a semi-related incident at the conclusion of the film that’s too dumb to not love). And why exactly is it there? Are we left to surmise that they just get that big in the mine by natural means? Or do we assume it’s one of Bela’s escaped experiments? Questions like this keep me up at night. No matter though, because the fact PRC reused the creature is just too awesome, and really sets Wild Horse Phantom apart from other B-Westerns.

As a whole, it’s a fun movie, and at under an hour (normal for these B-Westerns), it’s fast-paced by necessity. Granted, the breeziness of the film doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for further fleshing out of the story. For example, there’s what seems to be a love interest here, except the whole plot point just kinda peters out and goes nowhere after the initial germ of the idea. Plus, there’s that whole giant bat thing, too.

Still, B-Westerns weren’t high art, and they weren’t meant to be. This was matinee entertainment for the kids, not a serious horse opera. There’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Wild Horse Phantom, a movie that mixes the western, horror, and comedy genres far more adeptly than it should be able to. I really liked it! It’s harmless 1940 poverty row cinema, with plenty of action and, for our purposes today, horror to make it fit during the Halloween season. It’s not the kind of movie that would come to mind first for sure, but it’s a nice, unexpected option if you’re looking for some offbeat entertainment for your Halloween party.

Wild Horse Phantom gets your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s full-approval, and as we all know, my full-approval is of tantamount importance. Check it out!

(By the way, where’d I get this movie? This copy comes from Mill Creek’s 20 movie DVD set dedicated to the Billy the Kid series; however, as I haven’t been able to fully devour the entire collection yet, I’m labeling this as a “movie review” instead of my usual “DVD review,” as notating it the latter implies, to me anyway, a review of the whole set – something I can’t satisfactorily do yet. I take solace in the fact that anyone reading probably doesn’t care about trivial matters like this.)

VHS Review: Bowery at Midnight (1942; Goldstar Video Corporation’s “Tales of Horror” Series, 1992)

Welcome to October! Fall! Halloween month!! I essentially took September off so I could get one ostensibly-spooky post up per week. Or at least that was the plan; who knows if it’ll actually work out that way. If nothing else, I’ve got the start and end of the month covered, okay? Stop pressuring me.

To kick things off, I’ve got the return of Goldstar Video’s Tales of Horror series, a 1991/1992 line of budget tapes that, thanks to their extreme early-90s vibes and cool packaging, I have become fond of. We saw their version of 1947’s Scared to Death back in August, but today we have one that just may be my favorite of their line-up: 1942’s Bowery at Midnight.

It’s not because of the packaging, or a particularly unique print of the movie, either; the cover art for all of these was pretty similar, and as for the print, well, I don’t really know, because the tape is sealed and I refuse to open it and ruin the minty freshness. Nope, this is a biggie for me because I just really, really love this movie. It stars Bela Lugosi, so it’s automatically worth checking out anyway, but then it goes one better by having a genuinely engrossing plot. It’s a Monogram production, so the story ain’t exactly high art, but boy did it turn out to be a good flick anyway.

No joke, when it comes to Lugosi, I’m definitely a fan. Sure, Dracula, that’s an easy call. But, because Bela spent so much time on the poverty row circuit after Drac typecast him somethin’ awful, it’s a lot of those cheapie movies from the 1940s that I come to first when I think Lugosi. The Devil Bat? Great flick! The Corpse Vanishes? That too. And amongst those personal vaunted ranks: Uh, Bowery at Midnight, obviously. And don’t think that just because these were quick paychecks for him that his performances suffered; Bela always gave a role his all.

Because it’s long been in the public domain, Bowery at Midnight has had more than a few budget VHS, and now DVD, releases. It’s not one of his more ubiquitous films to be found in this arena though, and that’s a shame, because as far as I’m concerned it’s one of his best cheapies.

The cover art here follows the same template as all of Goldstar’s Tales of Horror entries. That is, white background, accented by a series title that’s dripping blood, a grainy filmstrip screenshot of the movie down the middle, and a volume number at the bottom-right (which is housed in a pool of the blood). This was the set template for the line, with only the specifics changing (movie title, volume number) changing from release to release.

This particular entry was volume 12, of which there were at least, at least 24 volumes. Anyone know exactly how many were released? The screenshot used actually isn’t a single still taken from the movie, but rather a composite; Bela plays a dual-role in the flick, as a college professor by day, nefarious soup kitchen operator by night, and both personas were aptly placed into the scene. Good move on Goldstar’s part!

The only thing I really find suspect here is the misspelling of Bela as “Bella” on the packaging. Hey, it was a budget video, typos happen, but it’s not like his name isn’t at the start of the movie, and besides, they got the spelling right on the Scared to Death cover. (In Goldstar’s defense, I’ve seen this misspelling from other manufacturers, as well.) Oh, and it’s Bowery at Midnight, no The, but that’s small potatoes, yo.

(Also, dig the remnants of a Kash n’ Karry sticker on the front! This tape hailed from a Florida seller, and there’s the proof!)

The synopsis on the back isn’t bad. Bowery at Midnight is, for the most part, more of a crime thriller, though Goldstar did well to point out the legit, albeit somewhat inexplicable, horror twist. Though, referring to Bela as the “night manager” of the mission is, uh, no. He owns and runs the joint; he’s not some underpaid clerk at an all-night convenience store somewhere! “Let me get you your lottery tickets, my friend…” Also, his offing of (most) of the people he enlists isn’t so much because he’s threatened by them as it is a precautionary measure.

I’m not trying to rag on Goldstar’s summary, though; compared to many budget labels and the synopsis on the back sleeve (if there even was a synopsis), this is practically a cornucopia of information!

Plus: 1992 – a 25 year old tape! The sad fact of the matter is that’s a bit newer than much of the stuff I bring home, VHS-wise. I don’t know when any of these were released (the line apparently started in 1991, and I would guess the tapes continuously floated around for a few years afterward), but I’m assuming they were more readily available during the fall months, in which case I was 6 years old for Halloween ’92. Can’t remember what I went as that year, but there’s a good chance it included a mask I couldn’t stand wearing for longer than 12 seconds.

I didn’t have any of these tapes as a child. I was more into cartoons and video games at the time; my love of vintage horror and sci-fi would flourish about 5 years later.

Fun Fact: Freehold, New Jersey was the childhood home of Bruce Springsteen. Also, the Grampa tapes were manufactured in Rahway, NJ. So, was Jersey like the unofficial capital of low-cost VHS or something?

(Yes, I totally used that exact paragraph in my Scared to Death review. You can’t improve on perfection, so I’ve straight-up copied and pasted it here. Stop pressuring me.)

As I said, I can’t bring myself to crack the seal on this. It’s just too cool having it new; I could set up a little rack in my house and continuously pretend I’m at a grocery store circa-1992, if I wanted to be as arbitrary as humanly possible. If my Scared to Death is any indication, this is probably recorded in EP, and the label probably implores you adjust the tracking as needed. And boy was it needed with Scared to Death. (Though in all fairness, I ran that through an old beater VCR, so the fault may very well have been more on my part.)

Bowery at Midnight. Why do I like this movie so much? Besides an undying affinity for poverty row horror of the 1930s and 1940s, and my Lugosi fandom, it’s just a genuinely good movie. I gave it a cursory glance for the first time only a few years ago, admittedly without much enthusiasm, and yet, quickly found myself positively engrossed in it.

It’s also a solid example of 1942 wartime matinee entertainment. It just feels like something that could have come out in the early-1940s, though I’d be hard-pressed to fully explain that feeling. Maybe it’s the fast pace (there’s only a little over an hour to work with here) and dark-yet-also-kinda-wacky plot. Furthermore, I love the NYC setting of the film (though I have no idea if it was actually filmed there or not). I guess what I’m haphazardly getting at is this is a real time-capsule of poverty row cinema, though I guess poverty row cinema is a time-capsule in and of itself, huh? I totally lost where I was going with this paragraph.

With Monogram at the helm and “Bowery” in the title, it’s impossible to not think of the East Side Kids, which truth be told, was initially what I took this for. Bela did two of those, but in my opinion, this is so, so much better  – though aside from the studio and setting and star, there isn’t much comparable between the two (or three). Like I said, Bowery is primarily a crime thriller, but with a random horror twist.

Brief plot rundown: By day, Bela is a mild-mannered college professor. By night, he’s a criminal mastermind using his Bowery-based soup kitchen as a front. He likes to enlist patrons of the kitchen for his robberies, and then off them before they can get too comfortable in their positions. He also has a wacky-jack scientist living in the basement of the soup kitchen, who requires corpses for his experiments, so it’s a win-win for him, even if Bela don’t give him no respect. Add to it a kind volunteer at the mission, her nosey boyfriend (who happens to be one of Bela’s college students), a just-promoted cop, some comic-relief bums, and an ending that’s too head-scratching to not love, and you’ve got a really fun hour or so of entertainment.

The film briefly hints at Bela actually having a legit split-personality, though it never really goes anywhere with the idea. The “daytime professor” plot element as a whole is kinda undercooked too, though with only 60+ minutes to play with, the movie made the wise choice of mainly focusing on the mission.

I really do love this flick, and to have it in this early-1990s, budget VHS form, it just seems so perfect. These Tales of Horror tapes have a very Halloween-ish look and feel to them; they seem like the kind of thing consumers would be stumbling upon not only at video stores but also supermarkets and the like come the fall months.

Needless to say, these Tales of Horror tapes are all way, way out of print, and as mentioned, somewhat obscure in this day and age, though none of them command very much. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. That’s not to say you can’t get your Bowery at Midnight on, though; it’s public domain, so there’s no shortage of options out there, though the best I’ve seen is the terrific Roan DVD.

And so, with that, the post comes to a close and Halloween month has been kicked off here at my stupid dumb blog. Stay tuned, more ostensibly-spooky stuff to come! Hopefully.

Panasonic AG-1970 S-VHS VCR (Circa-1993)

I’m gearing up for October, cause you know, Halloween and all that. The goal is to have one ‘spooky’ post per week, but we’ll see. ANYWAY, this, this is just too amazing to not get an update out of. Besides, I should probably write something for September, huh?

After a long dry spell, my electronic finds have picked up as of late, as a couple of my recent postings demonstrate. This one, however, handily tops ’em all. Indeed, while this may not be my favorite, this is far and away the most high-end VCR in my not-inconsiderable collection. Behold: The Panasonic AG-1970 S-VHS VCR! That’s it up above, man! I have other S-VHS VCRs (in fact, my first was nearly four years ago), but none can hold a candle to this monster. With it, I have, however tenuously, stepped into the professional world of VCRs.

Truth be told, I didn’t find this myself. Rather, my good friend Jesse (who y’all met here) came across it at a local thrift store, and gave me a buzz. He picked it up on the evening of August 18th, and the tag on it stated it had been put on the 16th. My last visit there had been on the 15th. I could have very easily missed out on this had the wrong person waltzed in over those intervening days, but luckily Jesse was the right person, and he very kindly picked it up for me. The wait was actually beneficial too; the AG-1970 was originally priced at $20, then marked down to $10, and Jesse used a 20% discount coupon on top that. Grand total? $8 + tax. You can not beat that; S-VHS decks almost never show up in-person around here, and when they do, they’re not the mega-high-end ones like this (such as the example linked above). The least I could do was give Jesse a straight $10 for his troubles.

This store generally prices their VCRs between $5 and $10, and lately, they’ve been hitting $5 pretty consistently. The fact the AG-1970 was initially priced so high shows that just from outside appearances alone, this thing is (or was) special. Even at the high of $20, that’s not a bad price, but $8? Why, that’s a veritable bargain buck bill!

Here’s the thing: I’m now heading into what is basically foreign territory for me. I’m the first to admit it. I know my way around regular VHS VCRs okay, but here, much of this is all new to me. So, here more than ever, I invite people with the know-how to hit up the comments section, please!

A closer look the front-panel. My pictures actually make things look worse than they are; my AG-1970 is a little dusty, a little dirty, but for the most part it’s in really nice shape. You’re just gonna have to take my word on this. I probably should have wiped it down with something before starting this post, but meh, let’s say it’s in “as found” condition, okay?

This was a “Prosumer” unit. That is, it was commercially available to you and I and Johnny-runs-his-mouth over there, but we couldn’t have just walked into any brick-and-mortar electronics store to get it; no no, from how I understand it, these were available at stores specifically specializing in higher-end electronics. I couldn’t find much info regarding the pricing, but one blurb I saw mentioned it retailing for a whopping $1900! “Pro Line” indeed!

(Also, look close; in this pic, my AG-1970 sits atop my cool Magnavox VCR with the door-flap audio level thing!)

“It’s like a battle station!” – My brother, upon my showing him the contents of the cool fold-down door. The flash on my camera makes this look grimier than it really is.

Open the front panel, and that’s where the magic of the machine is evident. This wasn’t just a VCR for recording and playing a videotape in the best quality (then) possible, this was a legit editing station! With feature upon feature (some of which, I’m first to admit, I don’t know the exact function of), this was the kind of machine you’d want for actual video projects. Even though this was a consumer model, I can see it being viewed as more of an industrial unit by schools, businesses, and the like.

No doubt about it, this thing was a beast. There’s quite a few options for audio preferences, as well as the expected video toggles; I was a little surprised to see the switch for SP or SLP recording, but no LP. When you’re shelling out nearly two grand for a model of this nature, why not give any and all recording outputs possible?

I like the sliding tabs for picture sharpness and headphone jack volume, and the dual sliding tabs for the Hi-Fi audio recording levels.

There’s also a switch labeled “TBC.” No, it’s not a misspelling of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia Motto (alliteration); rather it stands for “Time Base Correction.” This is important: TBC can drastically correct / stabilize the picture of a videotape. Wikipedia has a decent write-up on the feature. Because I’m an admitted neophyte in this area, evidently another, external TBC is needed to get the absolute best picture quality, but honestly, that’s probably heading into a zone I’d never notice much of a difference in. I like a good VHS picture, but I’m not really a full-fledged videophile.

Speaking of which, I duly went about researching this deck upon acquirement. This research took me into legit videophile forums; I mean, there were guys debating aspects of these VCRs that pretty much made my head swim. That’s not a slam on anyone; I’m endlessly impressed with these guys that (seemingly) so effortlessly know all the ins and outs of S-VHS. Anyway, the general consensus seems to be that the AG-1970 was good for its time, but the succeeding AG-1980 is the better unit from an abilities and picture-quality standpoint, though the AG-1970 seems to be more reliably-built.

Hey, you throw an AG-1980 at me for $10, I’ll snap it up with extreme fervor. But until then, I’m going to be happy with my AG-1970.

More coolness as we head to the right. Excuse the glare; the display panel is apparently housed in the most reflective surface in the universe. I dig the cool vertical audio level readouts.

The picture doesn’t show it very well, but the display is actually a bit on the dim side. It’s definitely readable, and if you had the lights out, you could probably see what’s going on from where you sat. But, it really should be brighter than it is; I hope it’s not a power supply issue.

Also: Jog shuttle! I’m a sucker for these things; even when a deck doesn’t really need one, it’s still improved by its presence, as far as I’m concerned. ‘Course, the AG-1970 does need the jog, not only because of the functions it provides but also because it’s the AG-1970 and anything less than a jog shuttle would not be fitting for a machine of this stature.

Okay, so right about here is where I’d have a screenshot of something playing on the AG-1970; show the machine in action. I can’t do that though, and here’s why: The VCR certainly appears to work perfectly, and every function I tested appeared to do its appropriate thing, at least as far as the display, uh, displayed. However, I can’t be sure, because I couldn’t get a picture to show up! Not that I think the machine is broken or anything like that; the counter is telling me that something is being read here.

Y’see, what I’m doing it plugging it into the front jacks of the VCR I have hooked up to the PC; that’s normally how I do my testing with new old decks. BUT, because this Prosumer stuff is all totally new to me, for all I know that could just be all wrong. You experts are gonna have to (nicely) let me know, because I don’t have the manual or the expertise to know what, if anything, I’m doing wrong.

But you know what? Let’s say there’s something wrong with a capacitor or whatever, and that’s why I’m not getting a picture. I almost don’t care, because at $8, the AG-1970 was still a monumental bargain. I can always get it repaired if need be; in fact, I’d rather have it gone over from top to bottom, make sure it’s in full working order, before I start regularly using it.

The back of the unit. Plugs and whatnot, obviously. Actually, I’m a little surprised there’s not more of ’em. There’s the expected antenna jacks, and AV jacks, and the channel selector switch. All pretty par for the course.

The really nice feature is the S-Video outputs and inputs though; was there a higher mode of output than that back in the early-1990s? Was composite video around yet? Super Nintendo had S-Video; that’s gotta count for somethin’!

You’ll notice in the title for the post, I listed the date as “circa-1993.” Near as I can tell from my research, that’s around the time this machine was out. There’s no date on the back of this deck, so yeah, circa-1993.

Final proof this thing was mighty high-end? A big, thick, detachable power cord.

Whether it works correctly or not almost (almost) doesn’t matter; just having the Panasonic AG-1970 S-VHS VCR is enough for me. Look at it up there! Just look at it! It’s not just an S-VHS VCR, it’s a professional S-VHS VCR! It’s heavy duty! It’s feature-packed! It’s built like a tank! And it supposedly has really, really nice picture quality! This thing is my new good friend!

Thanks once again to my pal Jesse for grabbing this VCR for me! It’s a fine addition to my collection! (And fodder for my dumb blog is always nice, too.)

VHS Review: Scared to Death (1947; Goldstar Video Corporation’s “Tales of Horror” Series, 1992)

Meet my newest video obsession: Goldstar Video Corporation’s Tales of Horror budget VHS series. It may not be my biggest video obsession (that title still belongs to Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents tapes), but it’s definitely my most recent. And truth be told, it is in a safe 2nd place…for now, anyway.

You know, these tapes had been nagging at me for awhile, and upon first glance, y’all may be wondering why. After all, the movies featured were the same public domain staples that had (have) been making the home video rounds for decades. And, unlike the Grampa Presents series, there was no made-for-video horror hosting amongst the proceedings. Add to that a graphical layout that’s practically the budget VHS “tradition” in a nutshell and, well, there’s a reason people aren’t bidding these up to $100+ on eBay, okay?

And yet, I was continuously enamored by the series. Made up of at least 24 volumes (cause that’s what this one is), and all featuring the same graphical layout that, while clearly in the aforementioned budget tradition, also aptly recalls Halloween. Seriously, the blood-drippin’ “Horror” of the title, along with the stark white background? Thems like bloody bones or somethin’, man. (In other words, a perfect cheap Halloween video pick-up, circa 1992 of course.)

And don’t downplay the whole ‘volumized’ aspect of these, either. These aren’t just cheesy old movies thrown out there for the penny-pinchin’ consumers to devour; this is, or was, a legit collection. Think of these as the horror movie, home media version of baseball cards; you gotta go after ’em all! What’s that, you’ll trade me your Honus Wagner card for a Tales of Horror? Forget that noise, yo. (Also, that devour pun just now would have made much more sense had this been their release of Night of the Living Dead.)

Plus, I’m just sucker for budget VHS horror and sci-fi in general. There was really no way I couldn’t end up loving this series, truth be told.

So anyway, my tape. That’s it above. As my inaugural entry into this series, I chose 1947’s Scared to Death, starring Bela Lugosi. Bela has gotten more than a little spotlight time on this blog, but Scared to Death, despite my waxing fondness for it, has not. It’s maybe not the coolest release of the film in the budget VHS realm – that would undoubtedly be the Grampa Presents version of it, which I own but haven’t written about (you can only go to that well so often, dig?) – but as a maiden voyage into Goldstar’s series, I was pleased with the decision. I’m a Bela fan, and I (inexplicably?) like the movie, so hey, why not?

As I said, these tapes all feature the same general layout. That is, the bloody Tales of Horror banner across the top, the volume number in the bottom-right corner (fittingly placed in a pool of blood), and in the middle of the cover a diagonal film strip featuring a somewhat- pixelated image from the movie along with the title above it and a starring (or in Dementia 13‘s case, directing) credit within. It’s not exactly something CBS/FOX would have put out back then, but it nevertheless gets the point across. I like it!

One may be tempted to be irked by the fact that a large plot-point is given away on the front cover here, but then, an even larger plot-point is given away by the very title of the movie. Oh, did I just spoil a 70-year-old movie for you? My bad, dawg.

Aside from the extreme early-1990s-ness of this tape’s presentation, I’m fond of it for another reason: It reminds me of my grandmother. No, she never had any of these tapes at her house, but she had budget videos like them. I assume she got them all from Avon. There were a bunch of them though, and from the sparse cover art to the (relatively) obscure manufacturers, as a young tape-head I got a big kick out of them. One time, she even gave me the copy of 1935’s Scrooge that had been sitting in her VHS cabinet for years; I forget who made it, but when I took it home, it promptly got stuck in our VCR. Look, you got a budget VHS tape, you took your chances. That’s how it went.

So no, Grandma never had this at her house, but had her collection featured more horror and sci-fi, I could certainly see it being there. Is it weird that that thought takes me back, even if there’s nothing actually to take me back to? (Fun Fact: This paragraph and the one preceding it were plucked from an unpublished article on a budget Bela 4-VHS-pack that I nixed in favor of this post. Never let it be said I don’t recycle!)

Here’s our back cover. Gotta love the additional blood drips along the top!

I have to say, this tape features a pretty decent synopsis of the movie, waaaay better than I would have ever anticipated beforehand. That’s not a shot at Goldstar or anything, it’s just that with budget tapes, the descriptions on the back could range from good, to mediocre, to downright amateurish. I posit this one falls more towards the “good” side of that scale.

I might have re-worded the second sentence a bit, but that’s the only real issue I have with the description. Also, huge, HUGE props for not saying saying this is Bela’s only color film (more on that in a bit).

Also, I have a feeling that last sentence was intended to be tongue-in-cheek.

There were apparently more than a few companies using the name “Goldstar” back in the day. The one I’m familiar with was the electronics manufacturer (example). So is that the same company that put these tapes out? I’m guessing it’s not; GoldStar of electronics fame capitalized the “S” in “Star.” A look at the copyright info at the bottom of this back cover says that this Goldstar did not. I keep this investigative work up and I’ll have to apply for a private investigator license.

Fun Fact: Freehold, New Jersey was the childhood home of Bruce Springsteen. Also, the Grampa tapes were manufactured in Rahway, NJ. So, was Jersey like the unofficial capital of low-cost VHS or something?

Speaking of which, as was common with budget videotapes such as this, the movie is recorded in EP, though the cover makes no such mention of the fact. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, except man did I have a hard time getting this one to track. Granted, I was using a beater VCR, but even so, this was a little rough, trackin’-wise. Goldstar actually managed to get a fairly decent print of Scared to Death, I just wish the picture wasn’t so shaky…

1947’s Scared to Death is a movie I like, despite the fact that, well, it’s really not very good. Like so much of Bela Lugosi’s 1940s poverty row output, the film has lapsed into the public domain and therefore had more than a few releases on VHS and, now, DVD. That said, it doesn’t hold up as well as The Corpse Vanishes or Bowery at Midnight; the plot is disjointed, Bela doesn’t do a whole lot in it, and none of the characters are all that likable. George Zucco co-stars, which is cool, and the movie as a whole manages to be a fun slice of late-1940s matinee. Still, it’s kinda bad. A good bad, but bad nonetheless; lovers of this stuff will dig it, but others? Well…

Scared to Death does feature a couple of interesting gimmicks. First off, it’s Bela’s only starring color film. The myth that it’s his only color film period has floated around forever, and while that might make a good selling point on the back of some cheapo video release somewhere, it’s not technically true. I mean, for all intents and purposes it’s true, but technically, it’s not. (He was in at least one color film as a bit player, and apparently there’s one or two other instances of color Lugosi, too).

Also, the film is notable for being told from the point-of-view of a dead woman. As in, it’s narrated by a corpse. Since it’s told in flashback, yeah, the title totally spoils the whole thing before it ever has a chance to build any momentum whatsoever. While an interesting idea, especially for a poverty row production, the whole idea doesn’t really play that well; every time the story gets moving, the film will jarringly break to the same shot of the dead woman on a morgue slab, she’ll say a line or two (usually just a brief statement, which is almost comical), and then it’s back to the movie proper. Like I said, it was an interesting idea, and it ‘makes’ the movie, but in truth, it doesn’t work.

Scared to Death‘s plot involves one Laura Van Ee, our body-on-the-slab who, prior to that, is unhappily married to one Ward Van Ee (yes, that’s really his last name), the son of Dr. Joseph Van Ee (Zucco). Dr. Van Ee runs a practice, and is keeping Laura there against her will. Apparently she’s stressed out or something along those lines; she vehemently denies that she needs medical care, and since it’s established early on that her marriage to Ward is in a shambles, and we know right from the start that she winds up dead, it can automatically be assumed Ward and his father are behind the whole thing.

Soon after, Dr. Van Ee’s cousin Professor Leonide (Lugosi) shows up at the facility. It’s eventually established he was once a patient there, and was able to create a number of secret passageways and whatnot during his stay. (Seriously? How would he actually manage that?)

Soon after, disturbances involving Laura increase. A dummy head made to look like her arrives in the mail, and green masks are seen floating about outside the windows. Clearly someone, or something, is trying to drive Laura batty! The fact Laura has a severe aversion to blindfolds, and thus is presumably hiding something, only adds to the drama. (Also, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel sympathy for our ostensible heroine when she claims she’s “alone and friendless,” but is nasty to pretty much everyone.) At one point, Zucco gets conked on the head, and Bela and/or his diminutive assistant pop in and out of secret doorways, so yeah, there’s definitely something afoot at the facility.

Also on the premises are an idiotic private detective, a smartypants maid the detective is in love with, and eventually, a pushy reporter and his annoying girlfriend.

There really aren’t any likable characters in the movie. Dr. Van Ee and his son, despite first impressions, are probably the best of the bunch, though that’s not saying much. The private detective is there for comic relief, but quickly makes you want to shatter your TV in a fit of fruitless rage. The reporter is, well, he’s a typical movie reporter, though he’s also the closest thing to a hero in this movie, which is a wash since he’s also pretty nasty to everyone in his vicinity, not the least of which is his girlfriend.

Eventually it comes to light that Laura, years prior, had given her first husband up to the Nazis (!), and though believed dead, it turns out he became the assistant to Leonide, who was a magician. And then Laura dies. Like I said, the plot is kinda all over the place, though at only a bit over and hour, it isn’t all over the place for very long.

I probably shouldn’t like this movie as much as I do. Bela isn’t in it a whole lot (come to think of it, neither is Laura; the reporter and detective get much of the running time here), the plot is disjointed and silly, and the comic relief totally falls flat time and time again. And yet, I do like the movie; it’s such a sincere bit of post-war, matinee goofiness, that I can’t find myself hating it. It’s a movie that couldn’t have really come from any other time but the late-1940s, and the color-aspect of it really does stand out from the rest of Lugosi’s poverty row oeuvre. It’s stupidly entertaining, if nothing else, anyway.


I think, like the Grampa Presents tapes, one of the most interesting things about this Tales of Horror series is how movies that weren’t going to to scare anyone in the least were dressed up to appear absolutely terrifying. Oh sure, Night of the Living Dead is an exception, but by and large, stuff like Scared to Death wasn’t even remotely frightening. Maybe to very small children, but to an adult? I seriously, seriously doubt it.

That’s not a bad thing though. I always get a kick out of how these cornball old horror and sci-fi movies were dressed up and made to look like legitimately scary features. It’s the same ideal that amuses me about budget video releases of b-westerns starring John Wayne, made to look as if they’re “real” Wayne features and not something that had been floating around the public domain for eons.

In summation, Goldstar did a fine job with what they had; they made their series of videos look visually appealing, but without being prohibitively expensive. The whole Halloween-ish aura that surrounds them is still cool to this day, and if you’re into budget VHS like me, that counts for a whole lot.

The Tales of Horror series ran the gamut of cheesy old horror movies like this one, to 1950s sci-fi (Indestructible Man, Monster From Green Hell), to even some late-1960s stuff (the previously-mentioned Night of the Living Dead). There was even more Goldstar could have put out, and I presume they would have had this series run longer. But, the series as released still holds plenty of interesting, albeit mostly expected, stuff; it’s a pretty solid line-up of vintage horror, if nothing else.

Online searches turn up more than a few of these tapes for sale; while they’re not as common as, say, a UAV or Goodtimes version of a given movie, they *do* pop up frequently enough, and usually on the cheap side. Seems Goldstar was able to get fairly decent distribution for the line, but subsequent interest nowadays is, except for me, a bit low. Still, this is all certainly a nice change of pace from my spending too much money I don’t really have on Grampa tapes.

I hate to say it, but I sense my fascination with these tapes is only going to grow. I can’t just have one volume! And you know, I’m perfectly okay with that!