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Front Row Entertainment’s Fantasy Mission Force VHS (1996)

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Unlikely as it may seem, I was super stoked to find this sealed VHS copy of the Jackie Chan film Fantasy Mission Force at the Midway Plaza Goodwill recently. And not because I’m a Fantasy Mission Force megafan, either; lots of people love it (albeit for all the wrong reasons), but I can’t count myself among them. It’s a whacked-out flick, and I probably should enjoy it for the complete insanity that endears it to so many others, but I just don’t. And you can’t make me.

Nor am I an especially big kung fu movie fan. I like some of the Bruce Lee films, and I have a special affinity for The Dragon Lives Again (a nutbar “Brucesploitation” film where “Bruce Lee” dies, goes to the underworld, teams up with Popeye, and fights Dracula. Yes, really), but if I have any kind of kung fu fandom in me, it is only of the most casual variety.

(Anyone who has seen both is probably now wondering why I like a film as oddball as The Dragon Lives Again but don’t like the-also-super-weird Fantasy Mission Force. Search me. Also, while on the subject of weird kung fu, I so wanted to love Bruce Lee Strikes Back From The Grave, but man, aside from that opening intro, dude, screw that. Awesome theatrical poster, though.)

Fantasy Mission Force ostensibly stars Jackie Chan (his role basically amounts to a bit part), is ostensibly set during World War II (cars from the 1970’s show up, and references to Abraham Lincoln, James Bond and Rocky are made), and is ostensibly…well, I don’t really know where I was going with that kinda-gag. It’s a crazy flick, though. (To be fair, all of the inconsistencies are intentional.) It starts off with a bizarre singing-drinking party, then later there’s a Scottish soldier and his ultra-annoying sidekick, a tribe of Amazons, and a sojourn to a haunted house. It’s one “what the hell?” moment after another, and I’m not exaggerating, that reaction is pretty much nonstop throughout the whole thing. Oh, and to top it all off, there’s an obnoxiously catchy theme song that bores itself into your head for 97 years at a time.

Actually, when I describe the movie like that, Fantasy Mission Force does sound pretty awesome. I take back all the awful things I said about it? Nah.

So, if I don’t really like the movie, why get so jazzed upon finding a sealed copy at Goodwill? It’s not even remotely rare, and if all I wanted was a sealed copy, I’m sure they’re found easily enough online. No, only nostalgia could get my adrenaline pumping in regards to a film like Fantasy Mission Force. Here’s the ultimate proof:

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That $2.99 price tag. I know it by heart. The image is burnt into my memory. This sticker is proof-positive that this tape originally came from Best Buy’s fabled (in my mind) $2.99 VHS section. Not only did I dearly love this section, where films of an otherwise-doubtful sales-potential resided (silent shorts, b-westerns, spaghetti westerns, cheesy horror/sci-fi; a lot of crap not unlike Fantasy Mission Force, basically), but that also means that this copy of Fantasy Mission Force is as identical in every aspect as possible to the one I had in the late-1990’s. Where did my original copy go? All will be revealed in due time (settle down, I’ll get there.)

Also, don’t you just love that picture above? Jackie seems to be glaring at the price with so much resentment. “I’m only worth three bucks?!

For a short time in the late-1990’s, I was on a kung fu kick, so when I saw this tape (and having seen no other Chan flick beforehand) in Best Buy’s $2.99 section, I snapped it up right quick. I was already well-acquainted with the section, so it’s not like I didn’t know what could reside there, but that didn’t stop me from happily carrying it to the checkout counter like I’d just found a pot of friggin’ gold. It must’ve been the summer of 1998, because I’m positive I didn’t have this the summer before, and because the clerk asked if I was getting it for my Dad for father’s day. No, nosy checkout guy, this one is [was] mines. Further evidence it was summer of ’98? I had my copy of the film for about a year before it left me.

Where, how and why it went, you’ll soon know. But first, a closer look at the tape itself.

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Front Row Entertainment was a budget outfit, and make no mistake, their Fantasy Mission Force sure looks like a budget tape. You’d never see a major studio putting out something looking like that above. That said, it IS a bit more competent than a lot of cheapo videos. At least as far as the packaging goes. I mean, look at it. The pinks, blues and whites make it look like something akin to an ice cream cone. Do I dare take a bite out of it? It’s an aesthetically pleasing sleeve, even if it doesn’t scream “hot kung fu action!” and completely belies the actual product, which as previously mentioned, is NOT a thing of beauty.

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The back of the sleeve is plain-Jane, but adequate enough. I mean, the description is perfectly serviceable, though the final sentence is a massive understatement. Maybe it’s impossible to properly explain a film like Fantasy Mission Force in the space of one VHS back-cover.

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See, sealed. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t. I can get an opened copy anywhere, so I refuse to crack the seal of my assuredly-from-Best Buy-and-just-like-the-one-I-used-to-have version.

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No, I didn’t succumb to temptation (ha!) and open it. As fortune would have it, I received a totally random and completely sleeve-less copy in a recent tape lot. Why was it in there? Was it a premonition? I don’t have the answer to those burning questions, and you’d better believe I wasn’t even remotely as excited as I was when I found the Best Buy-sealed copy (seriously, what are the odds of that in this day and age?), but if nothing else, it allows me to show you, the reader, what the actual tape looks like. Exciting, isn’t it? Amount of tape used: approximately a foot. High quality it was/is not.

Okay, the preliminaries are out of the way. Now, the real reason I was so excited to find this: my original copy is the subject of one of my fondest Northeast Ohio horror movie host memories. Behold!

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That is absolutely my original copy in The Ghoul’s hand, during the summer of 1999. The Ghoul had been on WBNX TV-55 for roughly a year at that point, and that year had seen me become a big fan of his. I had also watched my copy of Fantasy Mission Force twice in that year, and I just couldn’t stomach a third. I mean, no kidding, it sucks pretty bad. So, my VHS became the subject of the first package I ever sent The Ghoul. The package also included a “Parma Yo-Yo” (which The Ghoul seemed to like a lot but never did anything with again) and a big “Ghoul Power!” banner, but the Fantasy Mission Force tape was a grand finale of sorts. Being a young, 13-year old Ghoul fan, of course I asked him to blow the thing up.

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Being a man of the people, The Ghoul kindly obliged my request (“ask and you shall receive in Ghoul Power land!”), and trust me, there is no more fitting fate for Fantasy Mission Force than one of The Ghoul’s boom-booms. I really was jumping up and down during this whole segment, and the final fate of my awful movie was totally the topper. You have no idea how much I just loved all this. And while it doesn’t translate as well into still-pictures, this was a seriously satisfying blow-up.

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Those final two images are the last looks I ever had of my beloved Fantasy Mission Force tape. I don’t know what kind of firecracker he used, but man, that thing obliterated the video, as you can well see. It was, and is, a beautiful thing.

Keep in mind, not once have I regretted sending The Ghoul that tape. Oh, there are plenty of tapes I had, later got rid of, and ended up regretting, but this wasn’t one of them. The whole segment has become legendary to me. Fantasy Mission Force may not be good for much else, but it was certainly good for this.

And now I have a sealed copy, just like the one I sent to The Ghoul 15 years ago! Has it really been that long? Sure doesn’t seem like it. Maybe if The Ghoul ever comes back to local TV, I’ll send him this copy, too…

Nah, the chances of me coming across another sealed copy from the long-gone Best Buy $2.99 section are just too slim. The only question remains: where to put the tape? It’s stupid sealed Fantasy Mission Force, after all. It’s gotta go somewhere of semi-honor, doesn’t it?

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It’s got action like Commando, and it’s got comedy like Dan Aykroyd. A fitting combination? Hmmmm…

Star Classics Night Of The Living Dead VHS (1985)

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This one comes courtesy of my good friend C, who was thinking of your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter while out hitting up far-away Goodwill Stores (hey, who doesn’t think of me while thrifting?) and kindly brought me back this tape. Thanks C! C’s the coolest.

If y’all will recall this post, you’ll note the mention of my love for old budget tapes of public domain Superman cartoons. Well, unmentioned in that post and unbeknownst to C when he came across this tape, I also get a big kick out of budget copies of the 1968 Night Of The Living Dead, a film that falls into the same murky PD-release arena. There are no shortage of Night Of The Living Dead tapes and DVDs out there, and some of the cheaper ones can be pretty interesting, even amusing. I may not get as jazzed to find a Livin’ Dead tape as I do Supes, but they are indeed something I keep an eye out for, and this particular release is one I would have snapped up myself had I come across it in the flesh (see what I did there?! Flesh! Because the movie is….awww never mind.)

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The side of the box, obviously. Ain’t it cute?

Star Classics put out a lot of stuff on VHS in the earlier years of the format. They were, to the best of my knowledge, strictly a budget label, dealing mainly in public domain flicks. To the best of my recollection, I’ve got this tape, Tulsa, and Godzilla Vs. Megalon (which isn’t public domain now but was, or at least believed to be, at one point) on the label, and they all share a similar, fairly plain, art style. That is, the Star Classics banner across the top, the title and cast above a shot from the film that’s surrounded by lights, while onlookers gawk at all of it.

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Star released a lot of old time classic Hollywood films, and regarding those, the front artwork makes sense. I mean, you’ve got the onlookers, dressed old-school, looking up at a lighted sign that could hold anything from Casablanca to Gone With The Wind to Citizen Kane (not that Star had a prayer of ever releasing any of those those movies). It projects a nice “Golden Age of Hollywood” vibe, is what I’m saying.

Except that it just doesn’t quite work in this case. Night Of The Living Dead, yeah it’s a classic, but it doesn’t really project the same spirit as the movies intended for this kind of art. It’s not the fact that it’s a horror movie, either. Frankenstein? That’d be fitting. Dracula? That would work, too. But Night Of The Living Dead? Ehhhh, not really. There’s some kind of disconnect here, and frankly, it’s that exact disconnect that appeals to my weird sense of humor.

And just so we’re clear, no, Frankenstein and Dracula were never released on the Star Classics label. Not the famous Universal versions I’m referring to, at least.

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It took me far too long to figure out that the logo is a cat with a bow tie and bag full of, I guess, Star’s magic. Besides the fact that Night Of The Living Dead isn’t exactly a ‘magical’ film on par with, say, The Wizard Of Oz, I find it off-putting that my VHS box is subjecting me to a Rorschach test. Don’t judge my precarious mental state, box!

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They eventually moved to regular slipcovers (and a more conventional artwork style), but older Star Classics releases were usually (always?) in larger-than-normal jackets/boxes. As the photos above attest, there’s more air in there than need be. My Tulsa is the exact same way, and my Godzilla Vs. Megalon is in a box just as big, but is actually a flip-lid, rather than a slide-out. This is all important stuff, so pay attention.

Making big ol’ boxes wasn’t unique to Star, though. Lots of companies did the exact same thing. In the days before the innernets and whatnot, many people made their rental selections based on how eye-catching the cover art of a given movie was while walking down the aisles of the video store. The old adage “bigger is better” often applied here, and Star Classics certainly had the “bigger” part down. “Better,” though? The boxes are big, but to be completely honest, they’re also pretty boring. These were budget releases, and they look it. About all they have going for them, besides artwork that’s head-scratching to probably only me, is size.

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The back of the box, featuring the same onlookers marveling at the copyright info. 1985 was a long time ago. Cue some prick telling me it wasn’t long ago at all when this was printed…now.

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WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?!?! WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME?!?! Did they really need to include that little banner? People can figure out that the description on the back pertains to the film within without that extra little fanfare. I’m clearly just being snarky for the sake of being snarky now, because there’s not much I can make fun of regarding the description. The whole “returning satellite” thing in the film was more of a theory than conclusive evidence of why the living dead are, erm, living, but aside from that, it’s a serviceable summary.

High quality VHS? Higher quality, I guess. It was recorded in LP, as opposed to EP, so that’s a good thing.

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With these budget releases of the film, part of the ‘fun’ is to see just how trashed the print is. Public domain and all, yo. You shouldn’t ever go into one of these expecting pristine film quality, and Star Classics release is no exception. It’s certainly not the worst print I’ve come across, but this is a long, long way from Criterion quality.

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Whoa! Did someone drop their cigarette on the film? Most everyone smoked back then, after all (wasn’t it good for you back in the day, too?)

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The print is a bit too bright and contrasty. You could be forgiven for not being drawn to the “Night” in the title and completely missing the car on the road in this screencap.

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Poor Johnny! He’s white as a ghost! Kinda fitting in a horror movie, even if there are no ghosts to be found. His face actually blends in with the car! In fact, it may even be a bit brighter! And the sad thing is, this is all par for the course with these cheapo releases. Don’t get me wrong, I love ’em, but it’s for all the wrong reasons.

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Spot the zombie in this pic and get 100 bonus points. High def this thing most certainly isn’t. Not that anyone should really expect it to be, so where am I even going with this line of reasoning? The print’s not all that great, is what I’m sayin’.

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It may not be the most prestigious of releases when it comes to Night Of The Living Dead, but it is a neat little throwback. Nowadays we have budget DVDs carrying the torch, but the old cheapo VHS’ just seem so much more, I don’t know, innocent? Is that a term that can be applied to a film like Night Of The Living Dead? Anyway, I had some fun with this particular release in this post, but the truth is that I love tapes like this. The old school videos, both big budget or otherwise, of the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, man, they warms me heart like you wouldn’t believe.

Big thanks again to my pal C for providing me with fodder for my silly little blog this tape!

UAV’s Santa Claus Conquers The Martians 1987 VHS Release

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Tis the season? For one of the worst movies ever made it certainly is. If I’m gonna get a post out of this one, baby, the time is now. It’s 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, a movie that not only lives up to the promise of awfulness delivered in the title, but actually surpasses it. It’s widely considered one of the worst movies ever made, and make no mistake, that ranking is justified. It’s not so much an ‘offensive’ bad though; don’t get me wrong, it’s probably capable of killing a few brain cells, but you probably won’t feel like taking a shower afterwards, like you would if this were Manos: The Hands Of Fate or something.

Back in the good old days of late-1990’s Ebay, before films like this were reissued on DVD, I remember this (and other) copies of the movie going for some good dollars. Maybe not mighty dollars, but definitely mightier dollars. It was the same deal with any number of old then-long-out-of-print videos, such as Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis, and the VHS release of the M*A*S*H series finale (and Heaven help you if you wanted a Laserdisc copy of any of those, because then you would need to spend the mighty dollars). Nowadays, you’d be lucky to get even a few bucks for VHS copies of those, but back then, you’d have to pry open the wallet a bit. I know I certainly did, particularly in the case of Moroder’s Metropolis.

When I found this particular copy at Goodwill for the low, low bargain price of $1, those days were long gone, but I still received a residual thrill when I came across it. And what makes it even better is that this copy is sealed, all new and minty fresh-like. This post won’t be the last time you see me talk about Santa Claus Conquers The Martians this holiday season (and I know just saying that now obligates me to a future post that at this point is still only a half-formed idea, but sometimes I need that extra incentive), so I don’t really want to open & play it to take screencaps; how many new sealed copies can still be out there nowadays? Plus, it’s out on DVD (I have a budget copy with the title Santa Claus Defeats The Aliens), and it’s public domain, so you can even download it without fear of the authorities kicking down your door and beating the hell out of you, which is always preferable. My point is, the actual movie is readily available if you want to see it, so lets just look at the finer points of this stupid tape.

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Ignoring the gaudy cover photo, which, if the title somehow didn’t tip you off, points definitively to the fact that this is an awful, awful movie, my favorite part of the cover is actually the Christmas banner at the top. As if this is a heartwarming tape you’d want to bust out every Christmas Eve and watch with the kids or something. Theoretically meant to be a treasured part of your Christmas library, suitable for placement next to Rudolph and Chuck Brown, if you will. There’s also the declaration of “Christmas Videos,” which is just awkward as all hell; is that the best they could come up with? I get it was probably a budget line of seasonal tapes or something, but geez, say “Treasury Of Christmas Classics,” or “Holiday Film Favorites,” or even a quirky “Santa’s Top Flix Pix” (I should be getting a million dollars a week for these ideas). As it stands, the horribly generic “Christmas Videos” works more as a lame descriptive device than it does as a vehicle to get you to add this tape to yer videa library (didn’t stop me from buying it, obviously).

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Of course, ragging on the front cover is really just me being a nitpicky bastard. The back of the box, though, they make it too easy. The description reeks of half-assery. “A bunch of aliens,” huh? That’s the best they could kick things off with? My high school English teacher would have punched me in the face if I turned in a paper that included a line like that. I guess you shouldn’t expect much out of a description that is five sentences long and wastes one of them on Pia Zadora. I get that her name is almost always a big selling-point for releases of this film, and it’s not so much the inclusion of it that bothers me. Rather, it’s the whole “precocious” remark that I find particularly irritating. Never mind that her character isn’t really any more precocious than any of the other kids in the movie (maybe even less so, when compared to the Earth kids), it’s just an odd comment in general. “Oh, Pia Zadora is precocious in this? Well, I had my doubts, but now I’ve gotta buy it!” Seriously, why even bother including that? On the plus side, the first part of the description sums up the film aptly, which is good, because it saves me time trying to explain this crap.

But, maybe I’m being a little harsh on a thousand year old budget tape. It was meant for the lil’ baby childrens, after all. And when you’ve got a movie titled Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, you have to do what you can to make the sale. Maybe it was easier back then, before the innernets, when all you had was Leonard Maltin and his cronies to tell you about ancient movies such as this. Something tells me most parents weren’t consulting Mr. Maltin’s annual movie guide prior to heading to K-Mart where tapes such as this were inevitably found.

“A must for your Christmas video library.” Ha! Told you that’s what they were going for! The best thing about that whole “Christmas Library” ideal actually isn’t even part of this particular video. Rather, there were other VHS releases of Santa Claus Kicks Martian Ass Conquers The Martians that really took the theme to new heights. I don’t have ’em, and thus can’t post photos (I refuse to nab another person’s pics), but some of them went all-out. Ribbons & bows, Santa on his sleigh, and so on. I feel a little cheated on that front, but screw it, mine’s sealed.

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I did done told you it was sealed! Would I lie to you? Never! The fear remains that this could have been opened and re-shrinkwrapped at some point in the past, a revelation that would cause me to lose sleep for several weeks days. But, I doubt it. The box is in too nice of shape.

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That be it, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, via UAV’s 1987 VHS release. For all of my joking, the film has become a perennial holiday favorite. Not for the reasons the producers probably would have intended, mind you. This isn’t It’s A Wonderful Life Part II. Rather, it has instead become the choice of bad movie lovers the world over, having gained a cult following that’s really quite impressive, especially for a film that isn’t the original Night Of The Living Dead. Mystery Science Theater 3000 once tackled it, and for years it was the movie featured in Son of Ghoul’s annual Christmas show. Only the 1959 Mexican Santa Claus holds a similar dubious honor, conversely The Ghoul’s annual Christmas movie choice (and MST3K riffed that one, too). Of the two, I prefer …Martians, if for no other reason than I find it less freakish, but suitably oddball nevertheless. Plus, the persistent rumor that Jamie Farr is in it makes the film all the more endearing to me (no, Klinger’s not really in Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, but I sure wish he was; such is my love of M*A*S*H).