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DVD Review: A BIG BOX OF COWBOYS, ALIENS, ROBOTS AND DEATH RAYS (S’more Entertainment, 2011)

You know how much I love budget DVD compilations of old movies; I’ve gone to that well more than once here on the blog. I don’t claim to own, or even seen, all that the “genre” has to offer, and so, it’s always a thrill to find a new, unbeknownst-to-me set – especially one that makes my eyes figuratively pop out. S’more Entertainment’s A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is absolutely, without a doubt one such DVD collection.

This was released in 2011, seemingly to cash in on the hype surrounding a movie I have practically zero recollection of: Cowboys & Aliens. I haven’t seen it and I have no intention of seeing it.

Still, I always love it when a new home video release plays into the vibes of a then-current Hollywood product; we saw this big time with Sons of Kong, and in the same vein comes A Big Box… That is old, public domain movies, in this case B-Westerns with elements of science fiction and/or horror, put together to “ride the wave.” All four of my regular readers will recall how much I love B-Westerns, and when they broke out of the mold and included elements not commonly associated with the genre (that is, sci-fi and horror), as we saw this past Halloween season with 1944’s Wild Horse Phantom, well, that’s just double-interestin’ to yours truly.

Given the title, I was expecting an actual box set, but when my copies arrived (that’s right, copies. I had to order these, and I got two; one to watch watch/review, and one to keep minty sealed fresh cause that’s how I roll), but in reality, what arrived was a four-disc, eight-movie set (two movies per disc, giving them a nice “double feature” feel), all housed in a standard-size DVD case with four hubs inside. Rest assured, I prefer this packaging; it’s a sleek, compact design that doesn’t take any extra space on the figurative DVD shelf, but with enough weight to it to really feel like a product, if that makes any sense. I dig it, is what I’m saying.

I like the cover art. The robot on the horse seems to be a modified version of the ‘bots seen in the first movie of the set (more on that momentarily). As you can see, the graphic artist in charge put him on a horse, threw him in a western village, and gave it a flying saucer to loom overhead – complete with big ol’ explosion! This art is also found (in slightly animated form) on the DVD menu screens, and I like it a lot – even if there are no actual flying saucers in any of these films. It absolutely gets the point across, and appears competently made to boot. Well done, me says!

So now, let’s check it out, disc by disc. Being such old films, the print quality obviously varies movie by movie, as (I hope) you’d expect. Yes, there are splices, scratches, dirt, dust, and quite often the edge of the frame is plainly visible. I don’t mind any of that one bit. The print quality lends these films an added air of old-time matinee charm, and besides, scratches or not, they’re all uniformly watchable.


Disc One: The set kicks off with a bang, with Radio Ranch, a 1940 feature version of the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire. This film alone basically sums of the title of the collection as a whole. Starring Gene Autry (in his first lead outing), the flick combines the singing cowboy sub-genre of B-Westerns with a legitimate science fiction bend, and from start to finish, it’s pretty wild.

Gene hosts a daily radio program from the aforementioned “Radio Ranch,” a showcase in which to sing his songs. He’s amassed quite a following; he even has his own fan club on the premises. Unfortunately, not everyone loves Gene’s show; a group of scientists want him off the land so they can harvest the valuable radium deposit right underneath.

Oh, and also located directly beneath the ranch? A lost underground civilization, and guess what? tThey want Gene outta there too. (These are the “aliens” of the collection’s title; no outer space fellas in this one!) The underground city is a trip; it’s a sprawling underground city (think of a cut-rate Metropolis), complete with goofy-lookin’ robot servants, citizens that can’t breathe our air and thus need oxygen masks (we can breathe okay down there, though), and a really icy (as in disposition) queen ruler.

Since it’s a condensed version of a 12-chapter serial, it stands to reason the flow of the film is a somewhat disjointed, but you know what? It’s a lot of fun, and a good summation of what this DVD set is supposed to be about.

Nearly any film is going to appear tame by comparison, but even so, the next feature on the disc, 1936’s Ghost Patrol, seems really tame, which is too bad because the title of Ghost Patrol is pretty cool. But in actuality, it’s a talky Tim McCoy vehicle, and while there is a legit sci-fi element to it, it doesn’t appear in full until the last 15 minutes of the feature, and even then nothing much happens until the last 4 minutes. As such, this is more of a straight B-Western than anything.

In it, a scientist has been captured by baddies and forced to perfect a death ray, capable of causing a plane’s engine to fail. Said baddies use this to bring down planes carrying the, as you would say, big money. Tim McCoy is a government agent out to put a stop to such shenanigans. Also present is the scientist’s daughter, who…doesn’t do much of anything, honestly.

Ghost Patrol isn’t a bad film, but a little slow and definitely a huge step down from the wackiness of Radio Ranch. Still, neat title


Disc Two: For the sake of full disclosure, I muse admit that when I first dug into this set, this was the disc I started with. Under normal circumstances, I steadfastly refuse to enter in the middle of things, as it were. Nope, I like to start at the beginning and go in order until it’s finished. So why the deviation this time around? Two words: Ken Maynard.

No joke, Ken Maynard is my favorite B-Western actor, and quite possibly my favorite western star period. I haven’t seen a film of his that I haven’t liked to some degree, and the first feature here, Tombstone Canyon, is a flick I’ve been jonesin’ to watch. I actually already owned it, as both a standalone DVD and an old VHS release, but for one reason to another, I just never got around to checking it out, despite its cool concept.

(In fact, the whole reason I stumbled upon this DVD set in the first place was because I was researching different releases of Tombstone Canyon.)

Tombstone Canyon falls much more on the horror side of things than the previous two films. In it, Ken rides into town at the insistence of an old friend, but to get there he has to pass through the titular location, and that’s where the trouble starts. Not only are there some villains running rampant right from the start, but more distressingly, there’s someone dubbed “The Phantom Killer” roaming the canyon. He makes weird howling calls, he’s really strong, and he has no qualms about killing people. The character lends a creepy, engrossing air to a film plot that would have been standard western fodder otherwise.

The ending is also slightly abrupt, but in a good way. Think of some of those shocking endings in certain episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O or Miami Vice, where there’s some violence, and then it just ends. It’s a little like that, and it works really well. The entire climax of the film is terrific, come to think of it.

Tombstone Canyon also boasts the best film print of all 8 movies in this set. Oh, there’s scratches and dirt and such, but the image itself is beautifully sharp and clear. It even looked good while being unnaturally stretched to widescreen on my HDTV. (I refuse to fiddle with the picture settings.) Add that on top of an already phenomenally entertaining flick and first-rate star, and you’ve got easily my favorite movie in the entire collection.

The second disc starts strong and finishes strong, with 1937’s Riders of the Whistling Skull. I’m not sure if this or Radio Ranch is the more famous example of the “weird western” sub-genre, but it’s certainly a heavy-hitter. An entry in the long-running Three Mesquiteers film series, Riders… may be a little (but just a little) less overtly nutty than Radio Ranch, but it’s still pretty out there.

Here, the Mesquiteers get involved with an expedition into a lost city, where a fortune in gold resides. A scientist had previously traveled there but never returned, so it’s up to his daughter and crew to try and rescue him. Along the way, there’s a weird Indian cult (complete with a guy dancing around in a skull mask), murder, some double-crossin’, a skull-shaped mountain (not that one!), even a temple with some mummies! A standard B-Western this most certainly is not!

A ton of action, too. In comparison to how the first disc ended, Riders… is incredibly action-packed. It’s a pretty good movie as a whole too, and since I’m not a big Three Mesquiteers fan, that says a lot.

I dare say that of the four discs, this second one is the strongest of the lot. Two excellent films that are pretty much worth the price of admission alone.


Disc Three: The second half of the collection opens with an entry in the “Renfrew of the Royal Mounted” series, 1940’s Sky Bandits. As you may surmise, Renfrew was a Canadian Mountie, and with the Yukon setting, this isn’t technically a western film, but these Renfrews are (seemingly) usually lumped in with the genre anyway, and besides, it has all the other correct ingredients.

Another reason this inclusion fits perfectly? According to Wikipedia, it’s actually a remake of Ghost Patrol! The plots are strikingly similar; both feature a scientist under the thumb of some unscrupulous types, both feature a death ray that is used to bring down airplanes in order to extract valuable cargo, and both feature the scientist’s daughter showing up to get in the way.

Sky Bandits is a better movie by far, however. It moves much faster, with more action, more usage of the death ray, and with some real comedy relief provided by Dave O’Brien as fellow Mountie. Even the daughter actually has a real bearing on the plot here. Throw in a couple inexplicable-but-fun musical numbers, and you’ve got a fun, breezy flick. I had never seen a Renfrew before, but I genuinely enjoyed this movie! More than I was anticipating, quite honestly.

Next: 1938’s Gun Packer, which is the most ‘normal’ western movie in the entire collection (though it’s a close call between it and Ghost Patrol). Honestly, it’s practically a straight B-Western. Oh, there’s a scientist on the premises, and he’s devised some weird method for making gold “disappear,” as well as created a highly-explosive liquid substance, but the science fiction threads aren’t overt at all here.

Unfortunately, Gun Packer also demonstrates the era in which it was produced. Our hero has an African-American sidekick, played by Ray Turner, and, well, he portrays the kind of stereotypical comedic character that was common in movies at the time. It’s pretty uncomfortable, and it’s in cases like this that a film has to be watched with a historical context in mind.

Fun Fact: Dave O’Brien and Louise Stanley are in both of the third disc’s offerings, making me wonder if the pairing was intentional. Stanley is the usual female lead in both, but O’Brien’s roles are polar opposites; goofball comedic relief in Sky Bandits, one of the bad guys in Gun Packer.


Disc Four: The final disc of the collection starts with 1941’s Saddle Mountain Roundup, an entry in the “Range Busters” series. Another one of those trio films like the Three Mesquiteers, (Max Terhune plays the jokey ventriloquist member in the examples of both found in this collection), there are very strong horror overtones in this one.

In it, cranky land owner Magpie Harper is convinced someone is trying to kill him and, well, he’s right. The Range Busters, already hired to watch over his property, try to figure out who done did it.

Sadly, like Gun Packer, the racial stereotypes of the era rear their head again, this time in the form of Chinese cook (and occasional suspect) Fang Way, played by Willie Fung. His sometimes-shifty behavior, nearly-incomprehensible English and scatterbrained demeanor are wildly unacceptable today, so again, this is a case where you have to view with historical context in mind.

That’s the only serious blight on the movie though, because otherwise, I genuinely enjoyed it. Creepy cinematography, rain storms, a murder mystery, cloaked figures, a cave that is essentially the fill in for an “old dark house,” horror vibes are found throughout. The plot is fun and at less than an hour, breezy enough.

And that brings us to the final movie of the collection, 1935’s The Vanishing Riders, and boy is creeeeeeaky. B-Westerns weren’t exactly high-budget items anyway (hence the “B” branding), but even so, the cheapness of this one really shines through.

Bill Cody (not the Buffalo one) and his real-life son Bill Cody Jr. (also not the Buffalo one) star as a (former) sheriff and his adopted child, respectively. There’s a deserted town, a marauding gang of thieves, a crotchety old man, a lovely leading lady and a plot to rustle some cattle, but I’m going to be honest with you, only two things stick out to me about this one: 1) Cody Jr., roughly 10 years old, has a role comparable to the other adults, and he gets a lot of screen time doing ‘heroic’ stuff. We’re talking Gamera-movie levels of importance for the kid. Frankly, it’s pretty annoying. 2) At one point both Cody men dress both themselves and their horses up in skeleton costumes in order to scare the thieves.

It’s those skeleton costumes that lend a horror flair to The Vanishing Riders, so it fits the theme of this DVD fine, but for as much as I love B-Westerns, the kid-friendly nature of the flick drags this one down for me.


A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays is a pretty consistent collection of horror and science fiction-tinged B-Westerns. The overall theme of the set is just so neat that you (well, I) can’t help but love it. Radio Ranch, Tombstone Canyon and Riders of the Whistling Skull are terrific and worth the price of admission alone, Sky Bandits and Saddle Mountain Roundup are fun, solid inclusions, and Ghost Patrol, Gun Packer and The Vanishing Riders, while not up to the level of the other movies in the collection (in my opinion), are if nothing else watchable examples of the B-Western genre and the matinee vibes said genre exemplifies.

Aside from the few noted and unfortunate racial stereotypes that were products of their time, it’s a pretty easygoing set; for fans of B-Westerns, vintage horror and/or science fiction, or all three, it’s not a bad choice. It appears this compilation is out of print, or at least, Amazon currently has no new copies for sale, but methinks it’s worth hunting down; it certainly stands out from the numerous other budget DVD compilations that have hit the shelves over the years!

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DVD Review: Range Riders (1934; 2010 Alpha Video Release)

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Look, I loves me some westerns. I really do. Okay, yeah, you tend to see more horror and sci-fi-related things here at the blog; what can I say, those are my favorite film genres. But, I really am a western fan, too. And of course, it’s not like we’ve never seen anything from that genre here in the past. Just not as much as I’d maybe prefer.

Actually, to be honest, when it comes to westerns, my heart really lies with the cheapie entries. That is, B-Westerns. You know, the hour-long (if that) quickies practically produced for pennies, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. (Are you jealous of my alliteration skills yet?) Sure, they were intended as strict matinee fare, they weren’t exactly technical marvels of movie making magic (alliteration again), and they undoubtedly weren’t a realistic example of life in the old west, either. Doesn’t matter to me, though. They’re simply fun entertainment, and a supreme example of a bygone cinematic era. To watch one of these is to be instantly transported back in time, even if the film itself is hardly a masterpiece. Doesn’t hurt that I grew up watching them on WAOH TV-29, either.

You know, I think the only time we’ve seen a legit B-Western here was when I looked at an old television broadcast of John Wayne’s Blue Steel, though going waaaaay back, the fascination was hinted at here and here, too. I’m going to rectify this omission today, because man, the DVD that recently came into my possession, it’s just jaw-dropping. And not in a good way. (But definitely in an entertaining way.)

Y’see, another movie-based interest of mine is a fondness for the, uh, weaker specimens. In other words, I love watching a good bad movie. And boy, in the realm of B-Westerns, I’m not sure it gets worse than this. Unbeknownst to you prior, that header pic up above wasn’t just an aesthetic choice on my part; in actuality, it was a harbinger of your destiny. Why? Because today’s subject can and must become a part of your life. Ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you the 1934 Buddy Roosevelt anti-masterpiece, Range Riders

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I didn’t pick this DVD up by chance. Oh no, my knowledge of this film actually goes back to around 1999 or so. At the time, I was receiving Sinister Cinema’s big giant catalogs in the mail. In the years before practically anything and everything had been re-released on DVD, Sinister Cinema was the place to go for obscure films. (The company is still fantastic, too; you’d be well-advised to check out their website.) I’d spend the longest time pouring over those catalogs, figuratively drooling over all the interesting, new-to-me flicks they promised.

Almost every genre you could think of was (is) healthily represented by SC, and needless to say, that also included (includes) B-Westerns. Now, I had made a habit out of recording B-Westerns off of TV-29, so I was no stranger to these almost-forgotten artifacts of another cinematic day and age. But, the stuff SC had, man, a good deal of it was uber-rare. The included synopsis for each entry (and SC wasn’t shy about letting you know which flicks were good and which ones weren’t) only served to further whet my appetite.

Unfortunately, SC had a habit of phasing out older titles (presumably ones that weren’t selling in respectable numbers any longer). Keep in mind that I was only 13 or 14 years old at the time, and thus had even less money than I do now (which is really saying something). Therefore, a good many of the titles I wanted to order, I just never had the chance. And that’s where Range Riders enters the picture.

I wanted a lot of movies from SC, but as far as B-Westerns went, Range Riders was one of the biggies. Not because it was touted as being good, but rather because it was touted as being so BAD. Like I said, SC wasn’t shy about saying a film was terrible, and of all their B-Westerns, Range Riders got perhaps the most abuse of any entry in that section (though a few others were comparable). Naturally, I had to see it. Of course, my nigh-perpetually-empty pockets kept me from doing so, and eventually the title was removed from sale. This hurt me deep.

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Needless to say, there was an eventual happy outcome to that ‘ordeal’ (ha!). Here and now, some 17 years later, only mere weeks ago, I discovered that many, many of the westerns I wanted back then have since been put out on DVD by Alpha Video. I had been picking up some single-disc Bela Lugosi releases online, and on a whim decided to see what was available Ken Maynard-wise (one of my favorite B-Western stars). And lo and behold, turns out Alpha hasn’t just put out some B-Westerns, they’ve put out tons of them! And not just the usual John Wayne and Roy Rogers fare, either, but also really oddball, obscure titles. Stuff that, quite frankly, I’m surprised they’d even bother releasing. Indeed, there’s so many titles that were once sold by Sinister Cinema, I’m guessing a common source is shared between the two companies. Or not, I don’t know.

So anyway, over the last several weeks, I’ve steadily added to my movie collection many of the titles I wanted to order from SC so many years ago but missed out on. I was totally like a kid flipping through those catalogs again. And, it seemed that each time I figured “no way they’ve put this one out on DVD,” a quick search proved me wrong. Naturally, the movie would then duly became mine. Some silent Ken Maynard western entries? Mine.Also, Ken Maynard’s final starring vehicle, 1944’s Harmony Trail? Mine. Lightning Bill (aka Lighting Bill, and one that SC also raked over the coals in their synopsis)? I couldn’t believe it, but that too became mine.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Range Riders = MINE. A dream realized, finally! And at a low, low price that even *I* can afford! Alpha Video, you are now my friend and I officially forgive you for tricking me into buying Fury of the Wolf Man on VHS so many years ago. (And by “trick” I mean “not tell me upfront that the film was essentially unwatchable, such was its badness.”)

So, the DVD, I’ve got it, it’s mine. Observation: one thing I really like about Alpha’s single-disc reissues of whatever is that they often (but not always) use original poster art for the front covers. In my opinion, it’s a simple and easy, yet undeniably attractive, design decision. Now, I’m not sure if the artwork for Range Riders is from the original poster or not, and a Google search isn’t telling me what I need to know. Could be the original poster, or a licensed-but-unrelated painting, or even something Alpha themselves commissioned for this DVD release. I have a hard time believing Alpha had someone take the time to draw up a cover for a movie only 8 people would be interested in owning, especially since they’ve mocked up perfectly serviceable covers for their Maynard releases using stock photos and whatnot (I guess; here’s an example).

But on the other hand, if this is something hailing from Range Riders’ original release, the art doesn’t really accurately reflect Roosevelt’s character or the action in this movie, though that wouldn’t be so out-of-the-ordinary (and would be least of the problems with this film, honestly).

Look, no matter what, the cover is colorful and attractive, okay? It belies the actual product, but that’s not so out-of-the-ordinary, either. Sell it however you can, Alpha!

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The synopsis on the back cover is about as helpful as it can be. No kidding, this movie is a mess on every front, and frankly, the most you’re going to gather from the plot is what the bare summary on the back describes. It’s less of a coherent movie and more like a bunch of vaguely-related scenes stitched together with some alarmingly stupid dialogue and horrible camera work. The fact Alpha felt the need to pad the description on the back with a mini-biography of star Buddy Roosevelt (an actor approximately 11 people know or care about nowadays) speaks volumes. Also, “Modestly budgeted” is an extremely polite way of saying “these things were cheaper than dirt.” And don’t let the color screenshots fool you, either; this is a black & white oater.

Also: Copyright 2010?! Yep, this has been out for awhile. Many (most?) of these Alpha B-Westerns have been out for years, actually. I believe my copy of Harmony Trail was copyrighted 2005. Obviously, I haven’t been paying enough attention! Otherwise, these would have all been mine long ago. To be fair, I’d never have thought the vast majority of these films would ever be sold by a real, on-store-shelves company; flicks like this, they just seemed like the sole territory of online specialty dealers. Not unlike Sinister Cinema, basically.

Even though these have been out for quite awhile now, I fear they won’t be in-print forever. These are just such niche western entries. I really wouldn’t be surprised if many of these were technically out of print now, and sellers are just still moving the stock they already have. (I have zero proof of that, mind you; I’m just saying that it wouldn’t shock me if it were true.) So, if you have any interest in films of this nature at all, I’d say ere on the side of caution and pick up a copy while you can – it’s not like these are all that pricey. Even though Range Riders is, without a doubt, an awful film, it’s wonderfully entertaining nevertheless. Think Plan 9 From Outer Space if you must; that kind of entertaining. If that kind of movie is up your alley, head on over to Amazon for a copy of Range Riders now! Please don’t let any of my criticism deter you from getting a copy. I don’t mean to steer anyone away from this one; on the contrary, Range Riders gets a HUGE recommendation from your truly!

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Now, B-Westerns aren’t high art. They weren’t intended to be. These were depression and/or wartime cheapies, serving mostly as matinee fare and aimed squarely at the kids. So, judging one of John Wayne’s early, poverty row features against, say, Stagecoach or Red River, it just wouldn’t be right. B-Westerns have their own set of standards, standards that exist solely within this sub-genre of the, uh, genre. I’m not the first to point this out, of course, but it’s an ideal that’s worth repeating, and certainly something to keep in mind while watching a B-Western.

But, even with the slack that must, by nature, be given to these films, Range Riders comes up short. Woefully short. I mean, this movie is B-A-D. This is quite frankly the worst B-Western I’ve ever seen in my nearly 20 years of watching them. I’ve never seen any quite like it, and thus, I couldn’t stop watching in slack-jawed wonder the thundering stupidity that raged across my TV screen. This movie is great in all the worst ways.

Apparently, the B-Western often considered the worst in the genre is The Border Menace (coincidentally also released by Alpha – need), but the Plan 9 From Outer Space comparison to Range Riders (helpful user reviewer BrianV over at IMDb nails this) is apt. Sure, there may technically be some that are worse, but Range Riders is so inept in every way possible, so obliteratingly dumb, and yet so wildly entertaining, that it really does recall Plan 9. A western by nature won’t have the obvious special effect deficiencies that a Wood film did/does; it’s not like they have cowboys riding paper mache horses. But horrendous dialogue and inept plotting? Range Riders has those to spare! (Not to mention terrible acting, awful editing, wildly inconsistent audio, and camera work that leaves much to be desired…)

When I threw this DVD in the player, my excitement to finally be seeing this flick was dampened only slightly by the Alpha Video bug in the top-right corner of the screen. I understand their reasoning, but I’m not a big fan of video companies doing that. Luckily, it only popped up during the opening credits and the ending card. It took me nearly 20 years to finally obtain this movie, so I can easily live with a little logo in the corner for a minute or two.

Also, “Superior Talking Pictures.” You know a movie is older than dirt when the company behind it touted their ability to include speech! If I recall correctly, Sinister Cinema stated in their catalog synopsis that Superior Talking Pictures were anything but, which is wildly spot-on. Oh, it talks, and it does indeed count as a picture, but superior? Well…

(This isn’t the only Superior film I’ve seen, but it IS the worst – though I haven’t cracked into Lightning Bill yet, so the jury is still out on this subject that probably only I care about.)

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So anyway, Range Riders. It concerns the “Bull Crawford Gang,” causing havoc in a Texas town. In fact, the first thing seen is them riding into a property auction and scaring off prospective bidders. Why? So they can get the land for cheap? Nope, they just want to eat! Seriously, that’s their reason for busting up the crowd; so they can have the free eats to themselves.

Up above, the gang is seen hassling “Pedro,” one of the protagonists and our comic relief for the duration. Pedro is clearly not Mexican, Pedro does not speak with a believable Spanish accent, and Pedro is so incredibly idiotic that merely calling him an “offensive stereotype” doesn’t quite seem like enough. He’s constantly doing so many stupid pratfalls and whatnot that just having him around seems like a liability. Some might even refer to the character as “mentally challenged,” and they’d have a real argument. I hate Pedro. (Or, as every character pronounces his name, “Pea-Dro.”)

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Further evidence the gang doesn’t so much terrorize the townsfolk as they simply annoy them a whole lot: when the owner (“Waldon”) whose land the gang has just trespassed upon begins shooting at them, Bull himself sneaks around the side of the house, and rather than simply plugging Waldon right then and there like any self-respecting gangster would, instead reaches his hands through the window and bonks Waldon and his card-partner Sutton’s heads together. It’s a moment straight out of The Three Stooges, and wow is it strange. Nothing says “big bad bullying gang” like some lighthearted head-bonking!

And then, just to make sure the viewer knows this film isn’t even going to try to be realistic in any sense, Bull steps back from the window, aims, and blasts a bottle of ketchup sitting on a shelf inside. The merits of this action are dubious at best, and Bull’s position and angle outside make it highly unlikely that he could have even hit the bottle, but it does provide another moment of “hilarious” comic relief in which Waldon believes he’s been shot (ketchup all over him, y’see) but then cracks up when the the real substance is revealed.”Oh, this criminal could have easily blown my head off but didn’t? Hilarious!”

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Okay, the film quality of Range Riders, obviously it’s not the best. It’s dusty and scratchy and so on, and I’m not convinced the print here wasn’t sourced from VHS originally (as Alpha’s Harmony Trail certainly appeared to be). Still, considering how cheaply it was made and subsequently how obscure it has become, I’m just glad it survives at all to this day. Films of a far bigger stature have become lost to time, after all.

That said, that screenshot above, don’t think that that picture accurately reflects the condition of the surviving print or Alpha’s transfer (or my screen-capping abilities, for that matter). Oh no, that’s the movie itself; astoundingly, it’s out of focus! Quite a few scenes in Range Riders are. In fact, that was one of the things Sinister Cinema harped on most in their catalog entry. At the time, I simply couldn’t fathom how a B-Western, as cheap as they usually were, could be that poorly produced. I kinda still can’t. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s fantastic, though again, for all the wrong reasons.

I get it, I get it. It was the depression, and it was a poverty row film. Get it made fast and cheap, and get it out there. I understand how this could have been released in this state, but that still doesn’t lessen my astonishment at it.

(You want more astonishment? According to IMDb, and I admit I missed this the first time around, Range Riders has multiple actors in a single role, and multiple roles for single actors. Over the course of a 45 minute film! That’s a cheap movie! Read IMDb’s trivia section and see for yourself!)

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Following that mildly irritating bit of carnage, Sutton bets Waldon that his son Dick (who is away at “Agricultural College”) could take out this gang single handed. When Waldon expresses his doubts, Sutton decides to write him (with a letter that begins “My dear Dick,” which, you know, that’s something that would probably be worded somewhat differently in a movie nowadays).

Cut to “Agricultural College,” where Dick and a couple of friends peruse the letter. That’s our hero, star Buddy Roosevelt as Dick Sutton, above. The wispy little mustache doesn’t inspire much confidence in him, but whatever. Dick seems vaguely apprehensive about going back, until his friends mention that the gang will probably be waiting for him at the train station and he should wear a disguise. From some reason, that’s what convinces Dick to go home. No kidding, he gets a wondrous look in his eye and announces “That’s it, I’ll do it!” Evidently Dick is swayed by only the smallest details, and not the fact his father and/or his hometown are (ostensibly) in imminent danger.

From there on out, our story is fully in motion. It’s up to Dick to put an end to the Crawford gang’s reign of terror (such as it is). What follows is mostly a jumbled mess of half-realized plotlines, strung together with some atrocious editing and truly face-palm-inducing dialogue.

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This is our female protagonist, Elsie Waldon, as played by Barbara Starr. Starr wasn’t much of an actress, I’m sorry to say, and according to IMDb, she didn’t have very many films to her credit, of which Range Riders was the last. (What a way to go out!) Starr’s Elsie gets credit for (occasionally) being fairly gutsy, but she’s saddled with some truly moronic lines, which of course doesn’t do her character any favors.

Poor Barbara Starr. Her most notable achievements were marrying Harold Lloyd’s brother, starring in Range Riders, and now being immortalized on my stupid dumb blog. Just doesn’t seem right, man.

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Want some examples of Elsie’s incredibly dumb dialogue? Okay, take for example this scene:

Crawford’s gang does indeed show up at the train station to “greet” Dick. It’s mentioned that Dick’s father has been bragging his son was coming in that day – way to keep that element of surprise by doing the dumbest thing you possibly could, buddy! Elsie overhears the gang’s plans, and wants to alert the sheriff. When the local grocer (I guess) informs her that the sheriff won’t do anything because he needs the gang’s votes, she heads off to the train station b yherself, though what she could possibly do there is never explained. (And how many people live in this town anyway? 9? 10? Wouldn’t rounding up the gang that’s supposedly terrorizing everyone earn the sheriff enough votes to make up for the loss of Crawford’s bunch?)

Meanwhile, Dick has taken the advice of his friends and arrived in disguise, which is that of a froo-froo college boy. Geeky bow tie, beret, the whole shtick. (To Range Riders’ credit, this is genuinely funny, if that’s what they were going for). It works too, because the gang pays him no mind. He runs into Elsie, and she quickly realizes it’s him, however. The dialogue that follows is painfully stupid:

Elsie: “Why Dick Sutton, what are you doing in this clothes? Have you gone crazy?!”

What do you mean what is he doing in those clothes? Obviously he eluded the gang, didn’t he?! Deductive reasoning can work wonders, Elsie.

But wait, it gets better after he quickly explains his disguise to her: “Well, why don’t you go off to the ranch first and see your dad, and find out what it’s all about?”

Find out about what? You saw his dad write the letter, Dick knows why he’s there! That’s why he’s back in town in the first place! Dick himself says as much, when he says, with a twisted little grin, “I’d like to have some fun with that gang!” Elsie’s beauty of a response: “Aw c’mon, don’t start any trouble!” Don’t start any trouble?! You’ve already GOT trouble! They’re troublemakers! THAT’S WHY DICK IS BACK IN TOWN! I like how she shifts from being prepared to alert the sheriff and then going to the train station herself, to basically telling Dick to stay out of it. Make up your mind, lady!

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Dick’s idea of having “fun” with the gang is to rope five of them together, tie the line to a wagon, and then ride off. They almost instantly get out of the lasso, and since their horses are right there at the station, they’re able to give chase pretty much immediately. Boy, that sure was fun, Dick. There’s no way that’s not going to irk them mightily! Was that Dick’s main plan? Come back home and really, really annoy a gang?

An interminable chase scene follows. Out of nowhere, Pedro is there too, and of course he falls off the back of the wagon during it, which means Dick and Elsie have to circle around to get him. Man, is Pedro indispensable or what; why bother getting Dick back home when you’ve already got the incomparable Pedro on the premises?

At several points during the chase, there’s a close-up shot of Dick and Elsie in the wagon, going through the motions of riding; holding the reigns and the crop, bouncing up and down, etc. You know what would have been an even more convincing illusion of movement though? If they filmed this in front of a sky that didn’t feature a stationary cloud!

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Dick’s next course of action is to borrow some clothes from Pedro and masquerade as a Mexican bandit or something. The merits of this endeavor are, like so much else in this film, dubious. I mean, why? What benefit is there to the bad guys thinking he’s Mexican, or them knowing he’s Dick Sutton? It just seems like a superfluous gesture, is all I’m saying.

And really, all he did was change his clothes. Okay, he uses a Spanish accent too, but it’s not exactly realistic or convincing. Otherwise, his appearance remains the same as “normal” Dick Sutton. So again, what’s the point?

But then, the world of Range Riders is a world where characters like Pedro are considered useful. That is, the normal rules don’t apply here.

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At one point, to demonstrate their terrorizing of the populace, the gang takes a guy’s hat. Oh I get it, it shows their bullying in even the smallest matters or something like that. Nevertheless, Bull’s winking “Now you boys heard him give me that hat, didn’tcha?” after grabbing it comes off less like a rough and tumble gang leader and more like a cranky high school punk, but whatever.

This takes place outside of the local saloon, and while the newly-hatless man goes off to tattle, Bull and his gang head inside, where all he does is yammer about his “new” hat over and over. Seriously, he won’t shut up about it.

I love how hatless guy runs to the sheriff and gives him this line: “That man Bull Crawford is pickin’ on me sheriff! I want you to get my hat!” They actually gave those lines to a grown man! What, was the dialogue written by a kindergartner? “Oooh, big mean man pickin’ on me!”

Since it has already been established that the sheriff is a puss that won’t do anything about anything (“Aww, there’s no use causin’ trouble over a hat!”), it’s up to Dick and Pedro to head to the bar and retrieve the stolen item. They do so, and Dick then proceeds to make Bull eat a bar of soap; apparently Bull talks some smack about Waldon at this moment, but a convenient splice in the film renders the line MIA. No, really, Dick makes Bull wash his mouth out right in front of his gang. Again, Dick isn’t so much clearing the gang out of town as he is just messing with them. Still, it’s a scene that’s actually pretty funny…

…until Pedro trips and causes the distraction needed for the gang to start busting things up. Thanks for all your help, Pedro. Pedro’s failing in life is par for the course by this point in the film, so it’s no great surprise, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be filled with rage over it, either.

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Range Riders features some fight scenes that are so widely amateurish, they wouldn’t fool a blind turtle. Now, B-Western fights weren’t always operatic achievements, but man, they’re taken to new levels of downright silliness here. A scene where Dick swings around by a rope in the bar is just so unbelievably ridiculous; the idea is that he’s swinging around and kicking the bad guys in mid-air, but he never actually gains any momentum to do this. Rather, he just kind of bumps into them whilst hanging from the rope, which of course causes them to scatter as if they’ve just been hit by a wrecking ball or something. Did Superior think anyone would buy this? Even the kids had to have seen right through it!

And the fistfights! There’s some fistfightin’ alright, but they’re less drag-down, knock-out brawls and more like a bunch of guys just flailing their arms about all willy nilly. Buddy Roosevelt in particular, man, any hopes of him being a matinee hero had to have been shattered when audiences saw him winging his arms about wildly, without any discernible sense of genuine fighting ability. And since there’s no sound effects to accentuate any of the punches, the brawls all come off more like pillow-less pillow fights instead of the dramatic battles they were intended to portray.

The fighting action is lame, and Dick can’t decide whether he can hold his own or not. At one point, he’s seen taking on the whole gang at once and coming out victorious. But then later, he pretty much has his derriere handed to him, not that it matters, since the gang then rides off, leaving his unconscious body on the ground. Of course, they later pontificate on what they’d do to him if they had the chance! Does it get any more pointlessly incompetent than that?!

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There’s some nonsense about a map to a goldmine (owned by the wonderfully-named “Hardpan”) that takes up the focus of the last several minutes of the film, but it really just makes for more of the same action we’ve already seen. I do love how our protagonists are surprised, yet only mildly annoyed, each time the gang shows up; they’ll drive them off, figure they’re safe from then for awhile, only to be irritated when that “measly” crew comes back in short order! What, you haven’t figured out the M.O. of these guys by now? Did you just get Dick back in town on a hunch?

(And to prove she lacks the power of accumulative memory, Elsie again suggests they go get the sheriff.)

This is a B-Western, so of course there’s a happy ending. The Crawford gang is eventually defeated, rounded up, and brought to the sheriff, who I guess can’t ignore them any longer. In a shudderingly stupid moment, the sheriff drags them out of the car they’re contained in, and lets them walk into his office – unassisted and under their own power! Yeah, that’s believable!

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In a romance that wasn’t even hinted at prior, the hero gets the girl, but not before we hear this immortal bit of closing dialogue:

Elsie: “Now that you’ve saved Hardpan’s mine, you have got to stop being a bad Spanish boy!”

Dick: “Well then, I’ll be a gay caballero!”

You can file that under “movie lines that would have a totally different meaning nowadays.”

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Ah, another budget DVD for the pile (no, M*A*S*H season six isn’t actually a budget set, but I’m not taking another, rectified closing pic). And boy, was this one a doozy! After roughly 17 years of build-up, Range Riders did not disappoint. It’s everything Sinister Cinema said it would be – and more. It’s incomprehensibly inept in every facet, but don’t take that to mean you should avoid it. Oh no, it’s pretty fantastic. Like I said before, it’s wonderfully entertaining in spite of itself. You can’t help but stare at it in slack-jawed wonder. 1934 was a simpler time, for sure, but even so, this is exponentially amateurish. I wonder if Superior realized that, or if they even cared? Rumor has it this was filmed in only two days and on a budget of $2500, so I guess they’d take whatever they got. (And, as bad as it is, it’s not like I could do any better in that amount of time or with that budget.)

I know I’m six years late to the party, but even so, I’ve got to commend Alpha Video for finally making this and other mega-obscure B-Westerns widely available. I never thought it would happen, but it has, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

When people talk of good bad movies, you’ll probably never hear Range Riders mentioned. Which is a shame, because it’s a great bad movie. If I have anything to say about it, that will soon change, since this article will undoubtedly go viral several seconds after being posted. (Yeah. Sure. Uh huh.)

The bottom line is: the world must know about Range Riders and I will not rest until it does! Pick yourself up a copy and experience the magic for yourself!

Pop Flix’s Bela Lugosi Horror Collection DVD (2009) Review

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I simply can’t resist certain budget DVD sets. Throwing together a bunch of public domain movies in one ostensibly comprehensive collection for $5-$10? I’ll have at that all day. Granted, I draw the line at newer, no-budget, no-name horror/sci-fi/action collections, because I really, really don’t care. But compilations featuring classic movies and TV shows? Those are a severe weakness of mine. And I’m just fine with that. Just by taking a cursory look at the blog, it goes without saying that a premium is placed on those spotlighting the classic horror and sci-fi film genres.

In that arena, we saw TGG Direct’s 3-disc Japanese Monster Movies set a bit over two years ago, and nearly a year ago (almost a year already?!), we looked at Mill Creek’s The Best of the Worst, supposedly featuring the definitive worst movies ever made. Both of those comps were, and are, fun, and I continue to be fond of them. But our subject for today, this release, it’s just outstanding. I love it so much, and it was so cheap, that I seriously bought another copy just to keep sealed for collecting purposes. Not that I think it’ll really be worth anything in the future, but it’s so unabashedly cool, that having both a “watch” copy and a minty sealed fresh collectors copy, it just seemed right. No kidding, this may be my favorite “budget DVD set” ever, and I don’t say that lightly (I’ve got far more of these things littering my DVD collection than I care to admit).

Why the extreme infatuation? Because this set is dedicated to one of my top movie heroes, Bela Lugosi, that’s why! Released in 2009 by Allegro’s Pop Flix division, it’s an eight-movie collection primarily consisting of Lugosi’s 1940’s poverty row output, plus brief excursions into his 1930s and 1950s output. In other words, it’s a ridiculously entertaining set.

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Now granted, this isn’t exactly a revolutionary release. Most of the movies here are entries in Lugosi’s oeuvre that were made during his “B-Movie Period,” and subsequently lapsed into the public domain. (White Zombie being somewhat the exception; it’s the latter, but not the former.) That is, there’s been no shortage of DVD (and before that, VHS) editions out there, sometimes of individual titles, sometimes of compilations like this one. On that front, there are budget DVD sets that include far more of his public domain stuff than this one does.

So why do I like this one so much? Well, there’s something to be said for a clean, concise package, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what this is. It’s obviously up to individual tastes, but for me, Pop Flix has left out a lot of the “chaff,” and kept a fairly strong line-up. As far as PD Lugosi flicks go, there’s really not a dud in the bunch. Sure, some are better than others, but all are entertaining. Personally, there’s not a “man, skip this crap” on here. And it all stars Lugosi – you just can’t beat it!

Plus, I just really like the Pop Flix label in general. Their packaging, while still obviously in the “budget tradition,” is always clean and attractive (our subject above is a good example – kinda classy lookin’!), and they tend to give you a lot of bang for your buck. These sets generally run between $5 to $10, and even at the extreme of $10, you get your money’s worth. Because they specialize (?) in PD material, image and sound quality will of course vary from feature to feature, but I’ve never seen anything unwatchable put out by them. Indeed, in my experience, you’re usually better off going with Pop Flix. They get my thumbs-up, and as we all know, my thumbs-up are of tantamount importance.

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There’s our line-up, and like I said, not a dud in the bunch. I love the inclusion of original poster art by each title, and the synopsis’ are, by necessity, short and to the point. My only complaint? I wish they would’ve added the original release date of each movie to their respective entry.

“Hey, where’s Dracula, man?!”

It seems that’s a pretty common question whenever these releases are brought up. It’s a little amusing until I remember not everyone pointlessly knows the ins-and-outs of wildly obsolete films like I do. No, Dracula is not on here. Dracula will never be on here. These are public domain features; those without a valid copyright and thus can be distributed by anyone and everyone without having to pay a penny for the rights. Dracula is not public domain, nor will it ever be; Dracula is a Universal flick, and Universal doesn’t exactly play fast and loose with their film rights.

(Besides, whenever I want to watch Lugosi’s Dracula, I’ve got my official releases, I can wait for Svengoolie to run it again, or, you know, I can go the Superhost route.)

To be honest with you though, Dracula really wouldn’t fit here; Dracula is almost too good, too big budget, to work with this line-up. It would look like the one ‘real’ film and then a whole bunch of filler. The exclusion of Dracula (not that it ever had a chance of inclusion) allows these to stand on their own; most of them are fun, low budget, poverty row films from a period when Lugosi was down and needed the work. These kept his name on posters and money in his pockets, and no matter how outlandish the material, he always gave the performance his all. His presence can (and does) take a movie that would be a waste with most any other actor, and utterly transforms it. This set is excellent in demonstrating that.

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Again, I like how concise this whole thing is. Eight movies, spread over two discs, and both are good. Sure, like any of these compilations, there’s a film or two that could have been subbed out for something you’re more fond of (I wish Scared To Death was on here, for example), but it’s hard to complain about what is included. None of these are masterpieces, but they’re all wildly entertaining, and with most only clocking in at a bit over an hour, watching more than one in a single sitting is totally doable, especially at only four films per disc.

Rather than go with some mini-digipacks or a double-wide case or some such nonsense, both discs are housed in a single standard DVD-case, one per side. I like that. Doesn’t take up any extra space on a shelf, while still retaining the clean, attractive design of the whole thing. I dig it!

So, what about the picture and sound of the collection? Like I said before, and like any of these sets, they’re both going to vary from feature to feature. Now, if you scroll back up to that front cover, you’ll see the claims of “Digitally Re-Mastered” and “Sound Enhanced.” Sound-wise, this set actually exhibits pretty good sound quality. I’m not sure what exactly “Sound Enhanced” entails, but I could hear everything, which isn’t always the case with thousand-year-old movies like these.

As for the picture, it definitely varies, but it’s uniformly watchable. Oddly enough, the whole thing appeared considerably clearer and sharper when viewed on my old CRT TV than it did when taking the forthcoming screencaps on my PC. I’m not sure where the variation falls, or what the true representation of quality is, but either way, you’re still getting your money’s worth. Besides, these are the kind of films that really should be viewed on a good ol’ CRT TV – seems so much more ‘authentic’ that way.

Speaking of authenticity, the prints used do indeed exhibit dust, dirt, scratches, splices, and so on throughout. Occasionally the picture is too dark or too light. These were digitally remastered in some way, perhaps, but don’t let that fool you into thinking these prints look substantially different from other budget releases. And guess what? That’s a good thing; it totally plays into the vibes of the set.

“WAIT, you don’t want these as HD restored Blu-rays and whatnot bro?” Look, that’s missing the point. Okay, yeah, restored and cleaned up is of course always nice (Kino’s big deluxe The Devil Bat is definitely on my want list). But, with a collection like this, mainly representing Lugosi’s poverty row period, all the scratches and crackles and splices, they just totally evoke watching this or that at some local theater back in the 1940s or on some local UHF TV station decades ago. Clean these up all you want, it’s understandable and necessary, but there’s something to be said for being able to see the accumulated trips through the projector these prints took for who knows how long. Pristine? Not at all. Fun? Definitely. Evocative of the time period they came from? Absolutely.

But maybe that feeling is partly nostalgia on my behalf. Y’see, this set reminds me of my discovering these films and others like them back in the late-1990s, often via WAOH TV-29 and Son of Ghoul. As much as I anticipate watching Kino’s cleaned up The Devil Bat, I don’t think it’ll give me those same “old school vibes.” Sure, most of the prints that introduced me to this stuff back in the day weren’t that great, but I didn’t care; I was seeing a new-to-me old horror or sci-fi flick, and that “vintage cinema feeling” was just part of the fun. This DVD collection has that feeling in spades. (Plus, would you really expect a budget DVD collection to feature immaculate-looking film prints?)

Am I making any sense at all here? No matter, because with all that said, we come to the actual content of the collection…

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The main menu for each disc is basically the same, with only the movie selection changing (“gee, you don’t say!”). Clicking on any title will bring you to another menu with options to play or select a scene, plus a bit of poster art. Don’t go in expecting audio commentaries or deleted scenes, alright? You’ll get your scene selection and you’ll like it! Like the packaging itself, the menus are clean and to-the-point. I dig the bluish/purplish color scheme.

So, the first disc. It’s really good, but relatively speaking, the weaker of the two. With eight films to cover, I don’t want to go extremely in-depth here, lest this become a three-day read, but we’ll briefly check out each one included. I’m a rebel that way.

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Things kick off with 1932’s White Zombie. Unlike the other films in this set, this was made in the more-immediate aftermath of Lugosi’s Dracula triumph. It’s not a Universal film, though it was filmed on the lot. This was an indie production, and for whatever reason, eventually wound up in the often-murky arena that is the public domain.

Without a doubt, this is the most critically-acclaimed film in the set, with some people absolutely adoring it. I can’t claim to have ever been one of those people. Oh, I like it fine, there’s not a film in this collection I don’t like to some degree, but I was just never as enamored with White Zombie as others were/are. It has a great, almost Universal-like atmosphere, but the acting (besides Lugosi) isn’t all that wonderful, and even though this is apparently the first-ever zombie film (these ain’t your George Romero’s zombies, though!), the plot still leaves me a little cold.

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Set in Haiti, Lugosi plays “Murder Legendre,” a whiz at the voodoo he does so well (hence, whiz). With a first name like “Murder,” you can probably surmise he’s not the nicest of fellas. Murder is pretty good at creating “voodoo-brand zombies,” (those are the kind that don’t eat your flesh), and indeed, he’s got a whole league of them.

A bad situation is made worse when the local plantation owner makes eyes at young bride-to-be Madeleine. Through Murder’s powers, she is turned into a zombie (on her wedding night, no less), and it’s up to her new-hubby Neil to save her and stop Murder once and for all.

It’s not a bad movie, just not one that I ever loved as much as others do. Kind of like my weird Dracula analogy a bit ago, White Zombie almost sticks out as “too competent” here; it almost doesn’t fit with the rest of the cheapies in the set. It winds up skirting the issue, though I’d be hard-pressed to explain why. Maybe it has less to do with anything the movie itself does and more to do with the subsequent mega-public domain status it has acquired in the home video era. No kidding, it seems nearly every budget outfit had a release of White Zombie to call their own.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s a good, fun film. It’s not a great film, but that helps it fit in better than it should. I guess.

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Next up: 1942’s Bowery At Midnight. This was the big surprise of the set for me; when I first saw it listed on the package, I didn’t have high hopes. I don’t think I could recall whether it was a Bowery Boys flick (Bela did two of those), or a run-of-the-mill crime thriller. Either way, my initial response was akin to a big “meh.”

Naturally, I had to take at least a cursory glance for this review. As it turned out, while I may indeed have had a copy already (probably on another budget DVD set), I’m almost positive I’ve never actually watched it. In short order, I found myself becoming absorbed in the movie, quite unexpectedly on my part.

Bottom line: I loved it. No joke, Bowery At Midnight instantly found a place in the upper-echelon of my personal favorite “Cheap Lugosi” flicks. We’re talking a top-five’r here. This is just good, solid poverty row entertainment.

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I wasn’t totally off in my initial assumption regarding the movie. It is, for the most part, a crime thriller. But, there’s a surprising, legit horror twist that’s too random to not love.

Lugosi has a sort of dual-role here, though it’s really the same person: by day, he’s college professor Brenner. By night, he’s Karl Wagner, who runs a soup kitchen at the Bowery. Despite putting up a friendly facade (heck, the name of the soup kitchen is “Friendly!”), the whole thing is a front for Wagner’s life of crime; he has a habit of enlisting rough-types that wander into the kitchen for local heists, and then later offing them (often at the crime scene, no less) when they’re no longer of use. Naturally, you can only get away with that for so long before the cops start to piece it all together.

Where does the horror aspect come in? Hanging around Wagner’s secret hideout in the basement of the mission is one Doc Brooks. Doc likes to take the corpses Wagner leaves behind and use them for his own experiments. Eventually, it’s revealed he’s reanimated them as zombies! Honestly, the whole Doc character/horror aspect feels completely tacked-on, but it still, somehow, fits.

Though, I’m the first to admit I don’t quite get the ending. (CAUTION: spoilers for a 74 year-old movie ahead!) Near the end, the boyfriend (Richard) of Wagner’s employee (Judy) at the mission is shot dead by Wagner himself, and his body given to the Doc. At the conclusion, after Wagner is defeated, Richard is seen rescued, alive and well and engaged to married! Say what? Were these guys not really dead? Or does Judy just not care, since he’s up and talking? He appears perfectly fine, so yeah, I don’t get it.

Which of course means I love the movie all the more. Even with guys gettin’ shot and zombies and weird ending and so on, this all still manages to attain an early-1940s movie innocence. If you haven’t seen Bowery At Midnight, try to check it out!

(I’m trying to keep Lugosi in all the “action screencaps” of this piece, and technically the one above sticks with that; that’s him being killed by the zombies! And the scene actually manages to be genuinely claustrophobic and creepy, believe it or not!)

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Fun fact: we almost saw 1941’s Invisible Ghost here at the blog before. Y’see, a month or two back, I got in a real horror hosted-Lugosi mood. As longtime readers know, back in the late-90s and early-2000s, when I was first discovering all these movies, I was an avid watcher of The Ghoul, and two choices via his show popped into my head: The Devil Bat, and this film here, Invisible Ghost.

Now, whenever I review something like that, it’s from one of my old VHS recordings, and a good deal of the time, I haven’t converted it to DVD for posterity yet. So, no time better than the present! (Plus, it makes grabbing screencaps and going back-and-forth for whatever reason easier.) Problem that time was, I was either running low or down to my last blank DVD-R. Another pack required a trip to the store and spending money, neither of which I felt like. So, I had to pick between the two.

As it turns out, I chose incorrect. I made the DVD conversion and got as far as some preliminary writing before I realized the material just wasn’t really suited to a post. It would have turned into a plain movie review with some token looks at the Ghoul segments. I tried, but nothing doing, so I scrapped it.

(That’s not to say it won’t ever show up here, but as of now, there are no current plans for a post.)

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The movie didn’t give me a whole lot to work with, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The title makes it sound more ‘spooky’ than it really is though; It’s more of a psychological thriller than a full-fledged horror film to me.

Bela plays “Charles Kessler.” Kessler’s wife has left him, some time prior, and is presumably later killed in a car accident. She’s not actually dead though; she’s been hidden away in the basement by the gardener. Every once in awhile, she’ll ‘appear’ to Kessler, which then puts him in a murderous trance. Yep, Bela kills without really knowing that he’s killing.

Like I said, not a bad film, and prior to falling in love with Bowery At Midnight, *I* would have considered it a stronger ‘second-tier’ film here. As it stands though, this, for me, is one of the weaker entries, though that’s really only relatively speaking; this is still a good one, but it’s a bit overshadowed by some of the other flicks here, in my eyes.

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1941’s Spooks Run Wild finishes up the first disc. This is one of those Bowery Boys/Bela projects I mentioned earlier. Technically, this is an East Side Kids film, which is fine with me. Of the whole Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys lineage, the East Side Kids entries were always my favorites.

This one is a lot of fun; it’s basically the 1940s matinee movie in a nutshell. It’s more of a comedy than a thriller, but the strong horror-vibe still makes it worthy of placement on the set. (1943’s Ghosts on the Loose was the other East Side Kids/Bela opus, and would have made a good choice for placement in this set, too.)

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If you’ve seen an East Side Kids flick, you can probably guess how a lot of this plays out. Muggs and his gang (The East Side Kids, man!) are New York street toughs; not really bad, just mischievous. In this entry, they’ve been tricked into attending reform camp. Naturally, they don’t hang around there very long, and upon splitting, they wind up at a “haunted” house. To make matters worse, a mysterious killer is on the loose. Wacky East Side Kid situations then ensue, only this time with Bela Lugosi in the vicinity.

Lugosi plays Nardo, who is assumed to be the killer, though in a nice change of pace, he’s not; he’s actually a magician! Also, as the back of the DVD cover correctly points, Bela’s Nardo looks a lot like Dracula. For all you “Where’s Dracula???” folks, there’s your precious, precious Dracula!

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And now we come to the second disc. Look, this whole set is good, but man, disc two is worth the price of admission alone; this is the cool winnins of the set! Just look at that powerhouse of a line-up above! Okay, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, that’s relatively “meh,” but those first three, all in a row like that? That’s where it’s at!

Remember when I was gushing about Bowery At Midnight, and I mentioned that top five thing? Yeah, those first three movies on disc two are easily in my top five. In my humble opinion, there are no better examples of Lugosi’s poverty row output.

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I’ve got to do a little backtracking here: if you’ll recall this terrible old post, you’ll know I was a little lukewarm on the subject of 1940’s The Devil Bat. Apparently it didn’t do too much for me when I first saw it years ago, and I was still riding on that. Well, intelligence allows for a change of opinion. In the years since that post, I’ve become more and more fond of The Devil Bat. It’s cheap, cheesy, and ridiculously entertaining. You just can’t hate it!

Unlike most of the movies on this set, which were Monogram productions (often through their Astor Pictures division), The Devil Bat is a PRC product (that’s Producers Releasing Corporation, folks). Despite the ubiquity of Monogram in the era, PRC is the studio I think of first when I think “poverty row movie.” They made some cheapies, that’s for sure. Immensely entertaining cheapies, though.

I’m not the only one who thinks there’s some merit to this film, either. Kino took the time released a remastered Blu-ray edition, and there’s even a newly colorized version of the movie out there! No one will claim The Devil Bat to rank among Bela’s most accomplished work, but obviously there’s something endearing about it. You know a film is worth checking out when Kino deems it worthy of a release!

And, unlike Invisible Ghost, there’s now a very strong possibility we’ll see The Ghoul’s showing of this episode at some point in the future.

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Because I’m now seriously planning on reviewing that old Ghoul episode, I’m not sure how much I want to divulge about the film right now. But then, this flick is so whacked-out (in a good way), I suppose a whole lot isn’t needed to sell this one.

Listen to this beauty of a plot: Lugosi is Dr. Carruthers, who has an axe to grind with the cosmetics company he works for. And just as any reasonable person with a grievance would do, he follows the obvious path of creating a big mean giant bat. What, that’s not enough? Okay, how about this: he also develops a special aftershave lotion that, when worn by a chosen “test subject,” attracts said big giant mean bat (“The Devil Bat,” as quickly labeled by the press), which of course then kills the aforementioned aftershave-wearer.

Yes, this means you get to see a helpless victim thrashing about under a gigantic rubber bat. And if that’s not enough to make you want to see this movie, well, then I just don’t know.

No kidding, this one is fantastic. I can’t believe I went so many years not loving it!

Fun fact: there was a 1946 sequel titled Devil Bat’s Daughter, which, as of this writing, has been seen by approximately 12 people since its release, and doesn’t star Bela. No Bela? Pass!

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Saaaay, haven’t we looked at this one before? We sure have! I kicked 2016 off with not only a review of this movie, but also Al “Grampa” Lewis, who hosted it for Amvest Video back in 1988. I go way back with 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes; it was of the first episodes of The Son of Ghoul Show I saw back in 1997 (I taped it, but unfortunately didn’t keep it – d’oh!), Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled it once, I have a partial recording of the movie on Enigma Theater somewhere, and there were probably some other instances regarding it I can’t even recall right now. The public domain-status of the film (plus the not-as-lurid-as-it-sounds-but-still-pretty-cool title) ensured that The Corpse Vanishes really made the rounds in the decades since it was originally released.

I really, really like this movie. From the cheap sets to wacky-but-fun plot to, well, Bela, it almost comes off as the definitive 1940s poverty row horror film. (I say “almost” because, frankly, the movie preceding it and the movie following it are both strong candidates for that honor, too.)

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I want my Grampa / Amvest Video review to be my definitive (ha!) take on the movie, but real quick: Lugosi plays “mad botanist” Dr. Lorenz, who uses specially-formulated orchids to put prospective brides into a death-like state (on their wedding day to boot!). The brides are then spirited away to his laboratory, where special fluid of some sort is extracted and injected into Lorenz’s aging (and mega-bitchy) wife, in order to rejuvenate her. Reporter Patricia Hunter soon gets on his trail and helps put an end to such shenanigans – but not before we get to see Lorenz and his wife sleep in a cool pair of coffins!

The Corpse Vanishes is less overtly-wacky than The Devil Bat, but in its own way, just as much fun. As the years have gone by since I first saw it, I’ve only grown to appreciate it more and more.

Fun fact: a poster for this movie is plainly visible in the background at one point in Bowery At Midnight! Aw Monogram, you playful folks you!

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We’ve seen this one here before, too. Do I get around or what!

1943’s The Ape Man was included on that Best of the Worst DVD set I linked to earlier. The title-screen here seems to have some sort of weird border/cropping around it (Bowery At Midnight did too – what’s it mean???), though that’s a small price to pay to watch Bela walk around in a perpetual half-ape state.

This movie is fantastic. It manages to out-goofy The Devil Bat, which is really saying something. I can see similar movies being released in the 1930s, and the 1950s, and even beyond. But the sheer nutbar matinee innocence that rampages across the screen here? It’s a movie that really could have only come out in the 1940s. Oh how I love this one.

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Bela is Dr. Brewster, who has been messing around with apes. Wait, that sounds weird. I meant scientifically. Hold on, that still doesn’t sound right. He’s been experimenting on apes. There, that’s better.

And guess what? By doing so, he’s turned himself into the titular character! This is an undesirable affliction for at least 6000 reasons, so it’s up to him and his pet real ape (and by “real” I mean “very obviously a guy in a suit”) to kill people for their spinal fluid, which will turn him back into a full-human or some crap like that. It doesn’t really matter, because this movie is too insane to take seriously, which of course makes it absolutely terrific.

Also, secret special bodily fluids as a plot point again? Was that like the hot scientific whatever back in the 1940s? We saw it in The Corpse Vanishes, and here it is again. And three years prior, Monogram went this semi-route with Boris Karloff in The Ape, which also focuses on spinal fluid as a vital element. The stuff must be the fruit punch of bodily fluids! Wait, that sounds weird, too.

Louise Currie plays the female lead, a photographer, and she’s cute as a button.

Fun fact: there was a 1946 1944 sequel titled Devil Bat’s Daughter Return of the Ape Man, which, as of this writing, has been seen by approximately 12 8 people since its release, and doesn’t does star Bela. No Bela? Pass! Has Bela? Worth a glance!

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After that phenomenal three-pack that takes up a full 3/4 of this second disc, there’s really nowhere to go but down. Even my personal choice of Scared To Death would have seen a drop in quality (ha!).

1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla finishes up Pop Flix’s Lugosi collection. Like Spooks Run Wild at the end of disc one, this is more of a comedy than a full-fledged horror film. I wonder if that was intentional? End each disc on a lighter note?

The quality of the print here is easily the nicest of all eight films; crisp, clean, clear, with an actual richness and ‘depth’ to it. Which is a wash, because this is also easily the worst film on the set. It’s still entertaining, but it’s also painfully stupid. Like, really stupid. And keep in mind, we just saw a movie with Bela walking around all ape-like for the duration.

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Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo are, uh, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. They play themselves, nightclub comics who have crash landed on an island inhabited by stereotypical tribal natives. They also happen to be the dollar store versions of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. If you liked Martin & Lewis, odds are you’ll be severely offended by this ‘interpretation’ of their act. And if you didn’t like Martin & Lewis, you may want to take several steps back from the TV, because you’re liable to straight up karate chop it in half. Mitchell’s fake Dean Martin isn’t so bad, but Petrillo’s nasally Lewis-impression wears real thin, real fast. He makes the actual Lewis character look like Brando in comparison. I mean, Urkel wishes he could be this annoying.

So yeah, fake Martin & Lewis are stranded on this island, fake Martin falls in love with a native girl, they eventually run into Lugosi’s “Dr. Zabor,” who is naturally conducting weird experiments. In a surprisingly unsettling turn of events, Zabor is in love with the same native girl, so he turns fake Martin into an ape, all while fake Lewis continues to be a total spaz. And it’s all capped off by a phenomenally dumb ending that will make you feel all the worse for sitting through the whole thing.

In all seriousness, don’t think I’m not glad this flick is here, cause I am. It’s entertaining, but unlike the previous films, which were charmingly cheap entertainment, Brooklyn Gorilla succeeds as a slack-jawed, love-to-hate it film. It’s essentially harmless, and Pop Flix gets props for not going with the also-public domain and also-uber bad Bride of the Monster, but still, it’s markedly worse than anything else here. The other movies in this collection,it doesn’t feel right to call them out-and-out “bad.” Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is bad. Entertaining bad, but bad nevertheless.

Honestly, the set as a whole works, but this is the only movie I have any doubts regarding. It steps a bit too far out of the poverty row line-up we’ve enjoyed up to this point; even White Zombie doesn’t stick out as bad. Ghosts on the Loose would have made a better capper, but still, this is a nice, dumb way to finish things up.

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You know what’s neat about this collection? It spans 1932 to 1952. 20 years of Lugosi’s career. No, it’s not a comprehensive set; it mainly focuses on his 1940s poverty row material. Lugosi did make some films for Universal during the time period, but those are absent for obvious reasons.

What Pop Flix has managed to do here is ably represent the Lugosi legend in more ways than one. Lemme explain: you start in 1932, he’s at the top of his game, and then you jump to the era of his career in which typecasting was in full, devastating effect: the poverty row cheapies of the 1940s. Then, you finish in 1952, the twilight of his career, where typecasting is still an issue, and the work is no longer A, or even B, grade. But, he’s managed to attain an almost a mythical aura; his name in the very title of the last movie here demonstrates that. He was legendary enough to receive such billing, even if such legend wasn’t recognized by the major studios.

And the great thing is, Lugosi’s performance never falters. At all. In any of these. Sure, some (most) of these pictures were done more out of necessity than anything else. But, he got paid, they kept his name alive, and he gave them his all. You can’t help but respect him for not half-assing it, whereas, given the material present, most any other actor would have. Like I said at the start of this post, he absolutely elevates a movie all by himself. That’s a good actor. No, that’s a great actor. And he’s on full-display here.

There are lots of budget Bela Lugosi DVD collections out there. A good many have any number of combinations of the same films seen in this one. But, I don’t think I’ve seen one that I’d enjoy as consistently as this Pop Flix product. At only eight films and two discs, that’s plenty of material without being overwhelming. And, it’s consistently entertaining, from start to finish. Even that last flick, as bad as it is, it still somehow works. For movies that have been circulating endlessly forever by this point, Pop Flix managed to do a great job with what they had. It all just clicks. It’s a set that’s far more satisfying than a budget DVD collection has a right to be.

This one gets a big recommendation from your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter. And you know, even if you’re still kinda on the fence about it, those first three movies on disc two alone…