Tag Archives: cinema

Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1988)

Happy Halloween!

It’s here! The big day! Halloween! It comes but once a year!

Now, some of you are out trick-or-treating, some of you are out partyin’, and some of you are watching the appropriately “spooky” movies. Heck, you adventurous-types will quite conceivably get around to all three before the day is out.

But it’s those of you in the 3rd camp that I identify with most. I haven’t trick-or-treated in years, and even when I did, I could never find a costume I really liked and/or a mask that I could stand wearing for longer than 3.7 seconds. And parties? People generally annoy me too much to make me want to go to one of those. (Plus, I don’t know anyone having one.)

But movies? And while we’re at it, Halloween-themed TV in general? That gets your pal me in the holiday spirit! And man, I have found a tape that exudes that Halloween spirit so overpoweringly, they may as well have created the holiday just so it could exist. And the thing is, it’s not even specifically tailored to Halloween. No, this one just hits all of the horrific hallmarks, and it hits them perfectly.

I now present quite possibly the be-all, end-all release of the perennial Halloween movie, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Yes, the film has been released on home video countless times since pretty much the dawn of, well, home video. But this, this version, this is the zenith, the peak, the ultimate. Put out by Amvest Video in 1988, it took 10 years of video releases to do the movie right, and despite all the restorations and remasterin’ and whatnot the film has endured since, I dare say they’ve all fallen short of attaining the sheer magnificence that Amvest managed. This was lightning in a bottle, baby. Or something like that.

Behold!

*Cricket Chirps*

“…So what, North Video Guy? It’s just another old VHS release of Night of the Living Dead!”

NO IT’S NOT AND HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST OTHERWISE. Okay, fine, sure, it looks fairly ordinary – on the surface. Upon first glance, you may very well be tempted to immediately write this one off as just another cheapie video release of the immortal fright flick. Heck, had I not known better, I may very well have done the same thing. You don’t get the whole picture from the cover art alone, is what I’m saying.

Not that I’m not saying the cover art is bad, mind you; indeed, you can’t go wrong using the fantastic original poster for your VHS sleeve. Granted, Amvest wasn’t the first nor last video company to use this original artwork, or at least a portion of it, but considering the sheer number of other, amateurish lookin’ releases out around the same time, this one does look decidedly more competent than many.

The original poster art was black & white, so Amvest (or someone) added some color to make things pop. Remember, video rentals were a big business at the time, and if you were going to put something on those shelves, you had to make it really jump out towards the prospective renters as much as possible. Plus, when you’ve got like 9000 VHS versions of the same movie competing against each other out there (we looked at one of ’em before!), well, details such as that could very well make the difference between a rent/sale, or continued shelf-languishing.

Look, all I’m trying to get at is that the cover art looks good. And, if nothing else, it doesn’t totally give away the ending like one VHS release from around the same time did. (That still astounds me; you’ve got 90 minutes of film to choose a screenshot from, and you go with the ONE scene that ruins the whole thing. But, I digress.)

Okay, so upon first glance, it seems this is a competent but rather unremarkable VHS release of Night of the Living Dead from the 1980s. Not a bad way to spend an old-school Halloween night, granted, but where does the magic come in? Why all that hype during my intro? Well, I presume you read the title of this post, didn’t you?

Yes, this tape was part of the Amvest “Grampa Presents” VHS series, and thus features Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting what is quite possibly the greatest horror film of all-time. Cool winnins! If this don’t don’t get yo’ Halloween spirits fired right up, well then I just don’t know.

“W-w-well where’s Grampa then, North Video Guy?!”

For those of you paying attention (all two of you), this series of tapes is one of my favorite subjects on this blog. Indeed, this will be the fourth (and, I hope, ultimate) article detailing them. As we saw a few weeks ago, these Grampa Presents tapes usually had Lewis’ visage and other appropriate hoopla plastered on them, but that didn’t necessarily mean he’d be on the tape. Well, as we’re about to see, it works the other way too, bucko.

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This post today is the ultimate culmination (blog-wise) of what began last Halloween. As you’ll recall (maybe), last October 31st is when I first looked at one of these tapes. I had long been intrigued by them, and I made a concerted effort to not only finally add one to my collection, but also to review it for that Halloween day. As I’ve semi-jokingly grumbled about time and time again, these Grampa Presents videos were strictly budget affairs (VHS releases that, back then, you’d typically find for around $10 – or less), and that first tape, a copy of 1939’s The Human Monster, demonstrated this aptly; it was duplicated in the LP recording speed, but on a tape with only enough to fit something in the EP speed. In other words, the tape ended before the movie did.

After that wacky little mishap, rather than turn me off the whole thing, I was only further intrigued by the series. Not only because I was begrudged a whole movie/show/whatever the first time around, but also because no one was/is quite sure just how many installments were actually released. I’m going to explain further in a bit, but rest assured, until I got this tape, Night of the Living Dead was one of the ones I wasn’t convinced existed. At least not with Grampa on the premises.

So anyway, that Halloween post last year gave way to my New Years post this year. There, with a (complete!) copy of Grampa’s The Corpse Vanishes added to my collection, I posted what I wanted to write the first time around; an insanely in-depth review of not only the tape itself, but also a look at this Grampa Presents series as a whole. While I wanted all that to be the final word on the subject, I’ve learned more since then, and frankly, Grampa hosting Night of the Living Dead is so unabashedly awesome, methinks I’m allowed to tread over some of the same ground again. And even if I’m not, I’m gonna; it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

(I have a feeling this review is going to get around more than my earlier posts on the series, so I really will be treading some familiar ground here; this is aimed at those new to the subject, so you longtime readers, please bear with me! For many, this will quite possibly be their first look at this obscure video series.)

If you read any of my three previous Grampa Presents posts, you’ll notice that the sleeves feature, you know, Grampa. This series started in 1988, and his caricature and quirky lil’ rating system were supposed to adorn each of the respective tapes, though they were inexplicably left off some. But, that’s not when Amvest/Vintage Video/VideoFidelity/whoever (there’s a lineage of divisions/names, but for the sake of ease, it’s all Amvest to me, okay?) first started releasing movies on VHS; that goes back to *at least* 1985, as you can see in the copyright info above. Their output featured a wide range of genres, and when the Grampa series started in ’88, they just took the appropriate horror/sci-fi titles already released, kept the same catalog numbers, and later ostensibly re-released them as part of the Grampa line.

I say “ostensibly” because prior to finding this tape, I was dubious that any of those earlier titles had actually been later “Grampa-ized” in any way, and I had obtained several ‘plain’ titles that bore that out. I’ll explain further later.

For now, this tape, it has the appearance of one of those ‘plain’ 1985 Amvest tapes. Unlike the decidedly budget-looking qualities of the ’88 releases, these ’85 tapes were, outwardly at least, similar to the Goodtimes and Congress Video products of the era. Even the font and general layout is similar.

Though, I find the summary on the back…kinda strange. That “Look out earthlings!” opening line misleadingly makes this seem like it’s going to be an alien invasion saga. And that whole radiation explanation? That was a theory presented in the film, but the actual cause was basically left unanswered. I object to the “sci-fi thriller” genre labeling (it’s a horror movie!!), and the statement about taking “the horror movie cult by storm” is oddly worded at best. Also, it’s “flick.”

(Also sorely, sorely missed? The “Grampa’s Ratings” feature from the sleeves that were specifically tailored to Grampa Presents entries. How many bats would this film have gotten? Hopefully, all of them.)

Aw, does any of this really matter? Budget Night of the Living Dead releases were no strangers to oftentimes ill-fitting summaries on the sleeves, and besides, we’re about to see what makes this a candidate for greatest home video release of anything ever…

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GRAMPA!

When I purchased this tape, I naturally had my hopes, but from all outside appearances, I figured this was going to be a ‘regular’ Amvest release. Which, hey, if my previously-held theory that this was one of the titles that never had Grampa grafted on held true, this was at least as close as I could get. The catalog number was matched if nothing else, and besides, none of these Amvest tapes, Grampa or otherwise, are easily found. This particular release of Night of the Living Dead proved to be exceedingly rare; indeed, the first copy I saw for sale is the very one we’re looking at this Halloween day!

So, I get the tape, I have to rewind it, I start it at the beginning, and duly proceed to flip my beans. The second the familiar (to me) Grampa intro appeared, I was pretty much already proclaiming this to be the all-time crowning achievement of home entertainment. Look, y’all can watch your mega-deluxe remastered Blu-ray copies of Night of the Living Dead all you want, the fact remains that they (probably) don’t open with a bat being “zapped” by lightning and transforming into Al Lewis, who then continues to flap his arms around appropriately, and all in front of a green-screen (blue-screen?) with generically spooky music in the background. Therefore, this release is clearly the superior choice…if you can find it, that is.

Al Lewis’ famous Grandpa Munster character was going through a resurgence of sorts in the late-1980s and early-1990s. ‘Course, he didn’t go by that moniker, it being copyrighted and all. Thus, the “Grandpa Munster” name gave way to a simple “Grampa,” which was how he was often billed in his post-Munsters endeavors. Everyone knew who he was supposed to be, anyway.

Among his many ventures during the time-period: Starring in a (thematically) similar horror host-showcase for TBS, 1987-1989’s Super Scary Saturday. Also, having his own Atari 7800 game, 1990’s Midnight Mutants; even when ignoring my fondness for Lewis, it’s my pick for best game on the system (and along with Double Dragon, easily my favorite).

Heck, dude even had his own NYC restaurant for a few years. Fun fact: I’ve got a matchbook and a take-out menu from said restaurant in my collection. They make me feel like a big man.

So, these Amvest tapes were just another part of that career resurgence. Even though they seem to have gotten a promotional push by Amvest at some point (well, promotional buttons were made up, anyway; I’ve seen one, they exist), the overall distribution was so limited that they’ve wound up fairly unknown in this day and age. As I’ve stated in my other articles on the subject, these videos range from “highly obscure” to “impossibly rare” (and I’d say this entry definitely falls towards the rarer side of that scale), though truth be told, regardless of rarity they all seem to average around $20 to $30 used. Sometimes even less. Look, these Grampa Presents tapes are worth more than, say, that old VHS copy of Jurassic Park floating around your basement, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re not that valuable.

They are undoubtedly cool, however…

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These weren’t the first tapes to introduce direct-to-video horror hosting; Elvira’s Thriller series was (near as I can tell) the one to kick it all off, back in 1985. (Remember when we looked at Elvira’s VHS hosting of The Cyclops?) Those Thriller tapes were pretty major releases; big, eye-catching boxes, high quality SP recordings, and Elvira at (or very near) the peak of her popularity. In some ways, this Amvest series feels like the budget answer to those Thriller videos, though they probably weren’t intended to be. Or maybe they were, I don’t know.

There were (supposedly) a whopping 59 individual Grampa titles in this series; I’ll give you the whole list in a bit. For those that may want to check out some of these but aren’t weird enough to go after ’em all (like I am), I’ll tell you right now: Grampa’s intros and outros (there are no during-the-movie segments) for each title are exactly the same. What, you thought Lewis was gonna film 59 unique intros and outros? Nope! So, if you’re going for one, you can make your choice based solely on what movie you’re fondest of. ‘Course, that depends on if it was a title actually released with the Grampa segments, and whether it’s even remotely possible to find, and so on and so forth.

The only thing different from tape-to-tape was a moment where Lewis asks the off-screen Igor to tell viewers the name of “this monsta flick!” There’s a silence where a respective voiceover would be added, giving the title and stars, while Lewis looks on expectantly. It’s not a bad idea really, except most of the time Amvest didn’t even bother including the voiceover, which means that Lewis excitedly proclaims “THAT’S THE ONE!!” to absolutely nothing – which is actually really, really funny. My brother, who had never seen one of these prior, joined me for this viewing and got a laugh out of the moment, along with sharing a well-stated “Awkward!”

Lewis’ Super Scary Saturday on TBS is probably the first thing that comes to mind for those that haven’t seen one of these tapes but are imagining a horror hosted showcase starring Grampa. If you pick up one of these Amvest tapes, don’t go in expecting anything close to that show; Amvest was strictly a budget outfit, and boy, it shows. Forget the relatively big-budget, expansive set of the TBS show; Lewis does his entire shtick in front of a green (I guess) screen, with images of a castle (from White Zombie, I believe) and a lab (complete with squiggly neon accents; hey, it was the 1980s) flashed behind him at appropriate moments.

Lewis had his Grampa shtick down to a science by that point, which was fortunate, because he was basically on his own here. Not only does he have to introduce the proceedings and explain this Amvest video series, but he also has to be entertaining. To that end, he cracks jokes about people confusing him with Paul Newman, states this is all taking place in “Downtown Transylvania,” and posits that he’s 316 years old.

And that’s all in addition to yelling at the aforementioned, off-screen Igor. Igor is also unheard, though the voiceover that was supposed to be added (but usually wasn’t) was intended to be him.

These intros and outros add up to under 8 minutes total, but they absolutely give the tape(s) genuine personality. And, Grampa’s promise of “we’re gonna watch it together!” in regards to the movie, obviously it’s just meaningless hype, but it does do a lot for the atmosphere. There’s almost a personal connection here, which was (is?) in the best tradition of television horror hosts. It’s one thing to dryly introduce a film, but it’s another thing to establish a rapport with the audience. Lewis easily manages that. And not just because he was currently hosting movies on TBS when this was made, but also because he was just that good at what he did in general.

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Movie time!

Night of the Living Dead is an intense film, a great film, a genuinely scary film. It’s not exactly a fun film, though. Not in a comical sense, I mean. So, the jokey Grampa segments that bookend it may sound like they’re at odds with the rest of the tape. But, those contrasting styles are part of what makes this so appropriate for today. Halloween is about the scares and whatnot, sure, but it’s also about havin’ some fun.

And, those differing styles are another throwback to honest-to-goodness television horror hosting. The host was there to provide a little levity along with the horrific proceedings. So here, it all just clicks. In a cheap, old, budget VHS sort of way, naturally, but obviously that’s right up my alley. Your mileage may vary, of course.

As evidenced by the screenshots, Amvest did not have access to the highest quality print of Night of the Living Dead in existence. Nope, this is a rough one. It’s pretty blasted, scratchy, dirty, what have you. You can even see the edge of the frame (?) at the top of the screen throughout, as evidenced above. Lotsa crackles on the soundtrack as well. Obviously, this copy of the film made countless trips through the projector before it wound up in Amvest’s hands.

But you know what? None of that really bothers me. I mentioned this in the previous Nosferatu post, but films of this nature, they can sometimes benefit from grainy, worn print quality. Only to a point, granted, but sometimes accumulated wear to a print can enhance the feel of a movie.

“What the H, North Video Guy? You don’t want these movies lookin’ good, G?”

I didn’t say that, you incredible tool. Obviously it’s preferable that a film look as pristine as possible, especially when it’s a movie as important as Night of the Living Dead. THAT SAID, the unflinching storyline, the grainy film stock, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the immersive camera-angles, the gradually-ramping intensity, it’s all somehow made even more otherworldly, even dreamlike, by the quality of the print on this tape. It almost feels more nightmarish, like you’re peaking in on something better left unseen.

So, the condition of this print of Night of the Living Dead, plus some less-than-stellar duplication and the EP recording speed, by all means none of it should work in the favor of this viewing experience. And yet, somehow, it does. Criterion won’t come a-callin’ for a copy of this version anytime soon, but for our purposes here today, it’s perfect.

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A zombie shuffling through a graveyard, in black & white, via a cool tilty camera-angle? Looks Halloween appropriate to me!

I have strong Halloween-connections to Night of the Living Dead. Yeah yeah, real unique, I know. Like so many others I’m sure, that’s when I first discovered the film. Well, technically it was November 1, 1997. I’ve talked about this before, but it was through The Son of Ghoul Show that I first saw the movie. At the time, Son of Ghoul was running on both Fridays and Saturdays, same episode both nights, from 8 to 10 PM. That weekend, October 31st fell on a Friday, but it was some channel surfing on the following night that introduced me to both The Son of Ghoul Show and Night of the Living Dead. I became a fan of both immediately.

Night of the Living Dead gripped me in a way no other film did, at least not up to that point. Even with the customary humorous sound effects Son of Ghoul added to it (this being my first episode, it took me a moment to realize what he was doing, but I loved that aspect, too), I was completely and utterly riveted. I just had never seen anything like it.

Since Halloween fell on a Friday that year, Son of Ghoul naturally had things covered. But obviously, it didn’t always work out that way. Luckily, when it didn’t, that same station (WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35) customarily ran the film itself (as opposed to syndicating America One Network content, as they usually did) on October 31st. This was an entirely different print from what Son of Ghoul had, and truth be told, it exhibited a lot of the scratchy, worn aspects that I feel can and do add an extra nightmarish element to the film. In fact, it’s from those annual airings that I first realized this! For the sake of comparison, I once wrote about one of those broadcasts here.

I consider Night of the Living Dead the capper to my generally-preferred era of classic horror & sci-fi films. Actually, it comes a bit later, to be honest. I usually go for the Universal classics of the 1930s and 1940s, the poverty row films from the same period, and the cornball stuff from the 1950s and early-1960s. After that, my interests wane considerably. I wasn’t always quite so narrow-minded; I wound up like this through years of watching, re-watching, taste refinement, what have you. Hey, I gotta be me.

Night of the Living Dead, however, transcends my admittedly self-imposed limitations. Besides my nostalgic history with the film, I just find it an absolute masterpiece from start to finish. Everything about it works, and works perfectly. The acting, the plot, the claustrophobic intensity, the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) social commentary, the camera-angles, it’s all simply fantastic. The low budget that would have hampered almost any other film instead gives this one a gritty realism. There’s a real substance behind Night of the Living Dead; it’s not just a bunch of zombies eating people in order to give the audience a gory body count and little else. I detest that kind of film making, which is why I respect director George A. Romero so much; there was always more to his work, and this movie is a prime example of that.

Do I really even need to explain the plot of Night of the Living Dead? Just about everyone has seen it; with the public domain status, there were (are) numerous home video releases, television airings, even free and legal online downloads. You almost have to be trying to not see this movie!

Still, I suppose a brief summary is in order: For reasons never satisfactorily explained, the recently dead are returning to life as mindless zombies (or as the film deems them, “ghouls”), who then proceed to murder and eat the flesh of the living. Through various circumstances, on the night this situation first breaks, seven people of differing backgrounds and personalities find themselves in an isolated Pennsylvania farmhouse – a farmhouse that is surrounded by the creatures, whose numbers are progressively growing. The idea is for those trapped inside to work together, to either fortify the house until morning when a rescue party will (hopefully) be by, or safely escape to a rescue shelter in the city. Human nature being what it is, especially in a crisis, well, it doesn’t go quite as planned…

Look, I have a hard time believing anyone stumbling upon this article hasn’t seen the original Night of the Living Dead, but if by some strange occurrence you haven’t, you can watch it here, or at least read more about it here.

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Like I said a bit ago, Night of the Living Dead isn’t just a “zombies eatin’ guys, yo” movie. There’s more to it than that, including some pretty terrific social commentary lurking beneath the surface, with much of the film being an allegory for the Vietnam War. I’m far, far from the first to point out there are moments where Night of the Living Dead resembles gritty newsreel footage, and while the connection may be easy for some modern viewers to overlook, at the time of release it had to be hard for viewers of a certain age to miss.

But probably the most visible influential element, beyond the plot and what it did for the horror genre, is the star: Duane Jones. Jones plays Ben, the hero of the film. Of all the characters, Ben is the most level-headed, resourceful, and calm (to a point). Ben also happens to be black. To have an African-American in the lead role of a horror film, as the sanest voice of reason, in 1968, that was a huge deal. It was a monumental leap from Mantan Moreland in King of the Zombies, that’s for sure! And what’s more, while there appears to be some underlying racial tension, his color is never referenced in the movie; he’s simply another person trying to survive the onslaught of the undead. I like that.

Ben gets a legitimately awesome first appearance, literally jumping into the frame after his truck pulls up to the farmhouse. (In other words, you know immediately he’s cool.) Ben is also the subject for one of the most shocking conclusions in film history. I know practically everybody and their mother has seen Night of the Living Dead, but I’m still hesitant to spoil it. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, go see it. I’ll never forget how absolutely floored by it I was upon that first viewing nearly 20 years ago. (Almost 20 years? I refuse to believe it’s been that long!)

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There were technically zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, (the aforementioned King of the Zombies comes to mind, as does 1932’s White Zombie), but the zombie genre as we know it today basically begins here. Earlier films regarding the subject were more along the lines of people in a trance, products of voodoo, those kind of zombies. The idea of the shambling, mindless, flesh-eating zombie – an idea that found life in a thousand Italian rip-offs (which I hate), the Resident Evil video game series (which I mostly love), today’s The Walking Dead, and of course the sequels to this Night of the Living Dead – it all started here. There’s been some differences over the years: the zombies in Night are scared of fire, whereas those in The Walking Dead are drawn to (or so I’m told; I’m not a Walking Dead fan), but the basic concept has remained the same. You still gotta kill the brain, man!

Part of what makes the film so effective is that we don’t know why the dead are rising and going after our flesh. As I mentioned before, there’s a radiation explanation, in which a satellite returning from Venus was detonated in our atmosphere, but it’s more of a theory than a definitive conclusion.

Or rather, that was a theory presented in the film, but not this particular version of it; that explanatory scene has been edited out of this print! Well, most of it; there’s a short, short piece left in. (There’s also another fairly-obvious bit of editing later, and that one looks then-recently implemented; to make more room for the Grampa segments, perhaps?)

I’m actually okay with the exploding satellite theory being excised from this version, which I’m a little surprised to hear myself say; under normal circumstances, the idea of needlessly chopping up a film, especially a masterpiece like this one, that’s the sort of thing that can cause me to fold my arms and pout for hours on end. But here, it’s so much scarier not knowing why this is all happening. The satellite theory was never conclusive evidence anyway, and all it did was subsequently muck up the reasoning for the outbreak. (Case in point: the back cover for this VHS release!)

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Above: Johnny’s coming to get you, Barbra!

Upon this latest viewing, I was struck yet again by just how perfectly-paced this film is. The ramping intensity is something to behold. It starts out foreboding but calm enough, and then grows increasingly nerve-wracking, until the natural boiling point is hit and it all goes careening out of control. You can almost feel this living dead situation grow from something relatively small and not very well understood into a legitimate, widespread crisis. That the movie is so convincingly able to put this forth when, for the most part, it’s only seen from the viewpoint of those trapped in the farmhouse, it’s a testament to just how well-made it is.

And furthermore, because there’s such a wide-range of dispositions on display via the different people inside, it’s almost like a gauge of how the world at large is dealing with the onslaught. From the relatively calm and resourceful to the angry knee-jerk to the indecisive, and even to the victims of the plague, a large slice of human nature is on display – and over the course of the film, some of those lines are occasionally blurred. It speaks to the different personalities of not only the main characters, or even the fictional world beyond the farmhouse, but to us, the very real individuals watching the film! I’d guess most of us would like to identify with Ben, but in a situation like this, who knows who we would actually resemble?

And, in a broader study of life, guess what? It doesn’t matter who or what they (or we) are or what happens; different roads are taken, but it all has the same eventual outcome. Man this movie is brilliant.

Night of the Living Dead is the first in Romero’s Dead film series. While the social commentary, and number of zombies, increased in following entries, this original film is the only one I concern myself with nowadays. I didn’t like the way things were heading in 1985’s Day of the Dead, and after reading accounts of the following entries, well, I really had no desire to see any of them.

Even 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the first sequel to Night, while there was a point when I considered it my favorite of the series, as I grew older I gravitated back to this original. I know that’s probably anathema to admit, and yes, Dawn is technically a better film, with stronger social commentary, a higher budget, etc. BUT, Night, I just find it so much more effective. I like the comparatively subtle social commentary, but more importantly, the claustrophobic black & white nature of the film, it still grips me in a way no other horror movie can.

And as far as the Dead series as a whole goes, Night seems the purest; no trained, and from how I understand it, eventually intelligent, zombies – a germ of an idea that really turned me off Day upon my first viewing so many years ago. Nope, the creatures in Night are just relentlessly after your flesh; that’s it! Do you really need more of a driving factor than the prospect of your skin bein’ munched on?!

And what’s more, the tone of the following Dead films, I don’t like the increasingly bleak direction they took. Again, probably anathema to admit, I know. But, the idea of the entire world being overrun, a zombie apocalypse, I don’t know, it just doesn’t do it for me. Oddly enough, despite the shocking downer conclusion of Night, there’s still a small glimmer of hope on display: Maybe things can still be contained, maybe this really was just a night of the living dead? I find the uncertain prospects at the end of the film far more appealing than knowing that “y’all is doomed.”

I guess what I’m getting at is that I prefer to view Night of the Living Dead as a standalone film and not as part of a wider series. I know many will disagree with me, and that’s fine; it’s strictly a personal choice on my part, and I’m well aware that I’m probably in the minority.

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One more thing about Night

Chilly Billy! Yep, there’s an added element of horror hosting history on display in Night of the Living Dead: Bill Cardille, popularly known as “Chilly Billy,” hosted Chiller Theatre in Pittsburgh (where this film was, uh, filmed) for years. Here, he plays a news reporter, keeping viewers abreast of the crisis in the world at large.

Cardille passed away in July, and while I myself never had much experience with him beyond this movie, it’s clear that he meant a lot to his local viewers. So, here’s my small, belated tribute to one of the icons of horror hosting. R.I.P., Chilly Billy. If there’s one way to live on, being in Night of the Living Dead, of all films, is it!

(Fun Fact: Cardille’s daughter Lori was the star of the second sequel to this movie, 1985’s Day of the Dead!)

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And that brings us back to Grampa, the element that takes this VHS tape of Night of the Living Dead from “great movie, interesting release” to “I love this I love this I love this so so so muchhhhh.” The movie is pretty untouchable no matter how you see it, but when it has horror hosted bookends, it’s all just so much more fun. Especially when they’re courtesy of Al Lewis.

Because the segments for this series were all the same, with only the voiceover in the intro supposed to have been changing, much of what Grampa says isn’t tied to any particular film (for obvious reasons), and what is movie-related is just generic oohing and ahhing.

For example, the first thing he says upon returning from the movie is “That was so scary, it scared the blood right back into my veins! What a feeling!” Not an unusual thing to say given the circumstances, and in the case of Night of the Living Dead, it works. Thing is, a good deal of the (prospective) movies in this series, they were more silly or cheesy than they were scary, which makes the line either pretty appropriate or wildly ironic, depending on the film.

I’m not really going anywhere with this line of thought, I just wanted a kinda sorta decent transition to this next part…

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No one is quite sure how many titles were actually released as part of this Grampa Presents line. We have a list of titles that were supposedly available, via a scrolling list in the outro segment (above), but only a portion of those have been confirmed to actually exist. It doesn’t help that ones known to exist with the Grampa-branded cover don’t necessarily have Grampa on the tape, and ones that have ‘normal’ covers can sometimes have the surprise host segments. And, as we’ve seen today, there were re-releases of older, 1985 Amvest tapes that left the covers the same, but updated the tape itself to fit the series. And they ALL share the same catalog numbers, which just makes things more confusing. It’s an interesting, though often maddening, mish-mash of releases, and every time I think I’ve got a handle on things, something comes along that makes me question everything all over again.

Before I got this tape, I had basically come to the conclusion that the older ’85 titles were added to pad out the number of supposed Grampa Presents entries during the outro scroll, but I held doubts that they were ever updated to correspond to the 1988 series beyond that. I had obtained enough of the ’85 titles to where I thought I was safe in making that educated (ha!) guess. Needless to say, my finding of this Night of the Living Dead shatters that theory and leaves things pretty much wide open now.

So, my new rule of thumb is “If it’s on this list, and it’s available, give it a shot, because you never know until you play it.” That’s the best and only conclusion I can come to. I strongly suspect Amvest released all of these movies on VHS at some point, and for all I know, there’s corresponding Grampa versions for each and every one.

Here now is that complete list of potentially available titles as given during the outro segment…

(* = Indicates that I personally own a copy of that title, and thus I know for sure it was released by Amvest in some form at some point. [Confirmed] = Indicates this title was indeed released as part of the Grampa Presents series, either with him on the tape itself, on the packaging, or both. If Al Lewis is present in or on the tape in any way, I’m considering it officially released as part of the series. My confirmation is based on what I personally own, what I myself have seen sold online, these two pages over at The VCR From Heck, this page over at VHSCollector, and the Mike’s VHS Collection page over at Cinemassacre. Reputable sources all! And yes, I will continuously update this list as I progressively confirm and/or acquire more titles.)

1. VV-430 – Night Of The Living Dead [Confirmed]*
2. VV-432 – The Little Shop Of Horrors*
3. VV-439 – The Terror* [Confirmed]*
4. VV-442 – The Devil Bat* [Confirmed]*
5. VV-443 – Horror Hotel [Confirmed]
6. VV-446 – The Ape Man* [Confirmed]*
7. VV-458 – Frankenstein’s Daughter*
8. VV-471 – Godzilla Vs. Megalon*
9. VV-476 – White Zombie*
10. VV-501 – Ghosts On The Loose* [Confirmed]
11. VV-515 – The House Of Exorcism [Confirmed]
12. VV-516 – The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant [Confirmed]*
13. VV-517 – Spider Baby [Confirmed]
14. VV-518 – Spooks Run Wild [Confirmed]*
15. VV-519 – The Indestructible Man
16. VV-520 – The Corpse Vanishes [Confirmed]*
17. VV-521 – Phantom From Space [Confirmed]*
18. VV-522 – Who Killed Doc Robin?
19. VV-523 – Killers From Space [Confirmed]*
20. VV-524 – The Human Monster [Confirmed]*
21. VV-525 – Scared To Death [Confirmed]*
22. VV-526 – The Vampire Bat
23. VV-527 – Death Race 2000*
24. VV-528 – The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)*
25. VV-529 – Invisible Ghost [Confirmed]
26. VV-530 – Bride Of The Gorilla [Confirmed]*
27. VV-531 – Carnival Of Souls [Confirmed]*
28. VV-532 – Witch’s Curse [Confirmed]*
29. VV-533 – Snow Creature [Confirmed]
30. VV-534 – Battle Of The Worlds*
31. VV-535 – Dementia 13 [Confirmed]*
32. VV-536 – Alice, Sweet Alice [Confirmed]
33. VV-537 – Vampyr
34. VV-538 – Radar Men From The Moon (Part 1)
35. VV-539 – Radar Men From The Moon (Part 2)
36. VV-540 – The Death Kiss [Confirmed]*
37. VV-541 – Nosferatu [Confirmed]*
38. VV-542 – Yog, Monster From Space [Confirmed]
39. VV-543 – First Spaceship On Venus [Confirmed]*
40. VV-544 – The Crawling Eye [Confirmed]*
41. VV-545 – Giant From The Unknown [Confirmed]*
42. VV-546 – Immediate Disaster
43. VV-547 – The Last Woman On Earth [Confirmed]*
44. VV-548 – The Living Head [Confirmed]*
45. VV-549 – Mesa Of Lost Women [Confirmed]
46. VV-550 – Missile To The Moon [Confirmed]*
47. VV-551 – Monster From Green Hell [Confirmed]*
48. VV-552 – Nightmare Castle
49. VV-553 – The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy
50. VV-554 – Mars Attacks The World*
51. VV-555 – Satan’s Satellites
52. VV-556 – The Island Monster
53. VV-557 – Wild Women Of Wongo
54. VV-558 – Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy
55. VV-559 – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Michael Rennie) [Confirmed]
56. VV-560 – She Demons [Confirmed]*
57. VV-561 – Creature From The Haunted Sea [Confirmed]
58. VV-562 – The Ape [Confirmed]*
59. VV-563 – The Phantom Creeps [Confirmed]

In addition to those 59 titles, there were also four special compilations hosted by Grampa: Two movie trailer collections, and two horror-themed cartoon collections. These four listings were not included in the scroll at the end of these Grampa Presents tapes, and technically probably aren’t officially considered part of the series. Still, they’re Amvest, and they’re Grampa, so for the sake of completion, I’m including them here. It should be noted that the two movie trailer tapes are probably the easiest Amvest Grampa tapes to find. It seems used copies are almost always readily available on eBay and Amazon, especially the Grampa’s Monster Movies compilation.

60. VS-005 – Grampa’s Silly Scaries – Vintage Horror-Themed Cartoons [Confirmed]
61. VS-006 – Grampa’s Monster Movies – Vintage Horror Movie Trailers [Confirmed]*
62. VS-009 – Grampa’s Sci-Fi Hits – Vintage Science Fiction Movie Trailers [Confirmed]*
63. VS-010 – More Silly Scaries – Vintage Horror-Themed Cartoons [Confirmed]

It’s important to note that in 2004, Passport Video (who somehow share a connection to the Amvest of old) released DVDs of the horror trailers and cartoon sets. I don’t own either (yet), but from how I understand it, they were straight conversions of the old Amvest tapes, barring maybe one or two alterations. The VCR From Heck has more info on these DVDs.

It’s wild to think that Lewis was still alive when those DVDs were released; hopefully he got a few extra bucks thanks to them.

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It’s a trip listening to Lewis as the list scrolls. Mostly, he makes generic comments such as “I remember that one!” until he decides it’s time to yell at Igor some more for his apparently bad eating habits. It’s doesn’t make much sense, but it’s better than a dry, silent scroll if nothing else.

The end of the scroll promises “more to come.” This list of 59 titles is the only real resource we have of the Grampa Presents releases, and as previously stated, whether all of those were even put out with Lewis-involvement of some sort is in question.

Still, that statement of “more to come” is thought-provoking. Is it possible that Amvest later released some additional titles with Lewis’ host segments grafted on? As we’ve seen, they wouldn’t have even necessarily included the appropriate hoopla on the VHS sleeve; you never know for sure until the tape is played.

Of course, I have no knowledge whatsoever of further “surprise” titles in the series; everything I have or have seen has corresponded exactly with this list. Frankly, I suspect the promise of later releases to have been little more than hype, hype that eventually went unfulfilled. Still, one has to wonder…

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After the scroll, information is given to order direct from Amvest if a desired title couldn’t be found in stores. And, my guess is, a good many couldn’t.

$12.95 total may sound like a lot for a VHS tape now, but back in 1988, that was most definitely a budget price. Remember, official, big-time movie releases on the format then were over $20 (sometimes way over). But $13? That’s totally doable. And, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that actual in-store copies were even cheaper, especially when establishments were trying to clear out the old stock to make room for the new. Honestly, I can see these running $5-$10 easily in those instances. Now granted, the quality of the tapes often left a lot to be desired, but hey, that’s where the old adage “you get what you pay for” came in.

Anyway, on the off chance you did come across these tapes at a brick-and-mortar video store, you were supposed to look for the “Casket of Horrors” display, which housed all of them in once concise section for your perusal. I have no idea how many of, or even if, these displays were produced; the tapes themselves seemed to have barely gotten around, after all. But, there’s no doubt that the display is painfully, ridiculously, undeniably cool. Do you have any idea how badly I’d flip if I could get one of these stand-ups for my collection? Pretty badly! We’re talking an “only technically an adult” level of excitement here.

I’m trying to decipher what tapes are on display in this scene. Given the less-than-pristine quality of this tape, it’s not an easy task. Third from the left I’m almost positive is a copy of this Night of the Living Dead, and second from the right I’m pretty sure is Godzilla Vs. Megalon. The rest, I have no idea. Despite Grampa’s assurances each tape would feature his face on the cover, these all appear to be 1985 releases, and who knows if they were all actually altered to feature Grampa on the actual video; Night obviously did (at some point), but my Amvest Megalon? Despite showing some signs of potentially being an ’88 reissue, it was not Grampa-ized (much to my understandable chagrin). So again, there’s just no way to tell without having a tape in-hand and playing it.

If one did decide to order direct from Amvest, Grampa gives the standard address, New Jersey residents (where Amvest was based) had to add 6% sales tax, and so on and so on. But, he also states that when ordering, please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery “because in your neighborhood, the bats don’t fly that fast!” Yes, Grampa suggests your tape would be delivered by a bat. How can you not love the guy when he does things like that?

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Grampa’s final pitch before the sensory assault that was (is) this tape finishes? “So listen to Grampa and don’t dig your own grave! Go out and buy Amvest Video!” That’s pretty fantastic. And what if you don’t buy Amvest? Grampa proceeds to vaguely threaten what will happen if you don’t: “One night, it’s dark. You’re alone? You won’t be; I’ll be there visiting!” This statement is then followed by the classic, loud Grampa laugh that continues as the screen fades out.

Again, how can you not love the guy when he does things like that?

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One last touch: the Amvest copyright card punctuates the video, complete with an evocative score (plus some continuing Grampa laughter!) and computerized blood dripping down the screen. If somehow someone hadn’t realized they were watching something sufficiently “spooky” prior (yeah, sure, uh huh), this last image leaves no further room for doubt.


Whew! Done!

This, this tape, I just don’t think I can accurately describe how cool it is. Some may see it as a cheap, wildly obsolete relic from a bygone era in home video. Not me. I see it as an incredibly entertaining product from the earlier years of video. Yes, the quality isn’t the greatest; it’s a budget release after all. But the Al Lewis segments are fun, especially to a fan such as myself. And the movie? You just can’t touch the original Night of the Living Dead. Even when it wasn’t an ‘authoritative’ presentation, it works, because the film is just THAT good. And, despite the somewhat lacking print quality here, like I said before, it adds an extra layer of nightmarish, grindhouse feeling to the proceedings.

Back when I reviewed The Corpse Vanishes as presented via this series, I held doubts that I’d ever do such an in-depth study of one of these titles again. Obviously I didn’t hold true to that. But, I think I was justified in revisiting. You just can’t top this one. My hunt for more of these titles will continue, I’ve gone too far to stop now, but in the way of sheer Halloween coolness, this Night of the Living Dead entry won’t be topped. The game is over, and I have won.

Previously, Grampa Presents The Corpse Vanishes was my de facto favorite entry in this series. But now, I’ve got to amend that standpoint a bit: It’s now safely tied with this one. The Corpse Vanishes is still my favorite “traditional” release; cheaper packaging, the Grampa advertising all over it, etc. Nevertheless, this Night instantly shot right up there next to it. (EDIT: Well, as of 6/28/17, it’s a four-way ‘favorites’ tie; I had since discovered Grampa’s version of The Devil Bat, and now, The Ape Man, too! Instant VHS royalty, both of them!) No, Al Lewis isn’t on the sleeve, but he’s present where it really counts, and that’s more than enough to rank this tape up there not only with my favorites in the line, but also up there with the favorites of my not-inconsiderable VHS collection as a whole. That’s a big statement coming from me, but I have zero problem making it.

And with that, our big Halloween post comes to a close. I can’t think of a better choice for the blog today. Sure, in the realm of these Grampa tapes, there are other appropriate choices, too; Carnival of Souls would have sufficed nicely, had I decided to give it the spotlight. But, given my fondness for this series, my history with Night of the Living Dead, and the fact this particular release is painfully rare, this was the logical, and to me, only, topic I could see myself going with. It’s just so Halloween appropriate! I simply couldn’t have asked for better material to cover on the blog than this.

Have a great Halloween everybody!

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Amvest Video’s Grampa Presents VHS Series: 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes (1988)

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Last year, I started the new year off right with Superhost hosting Bela Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula. Now, I’m starting this year off right, with Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting Bela Lugosi in one of the films he was relegated to doing after Dracula, uh, typecast him somethin’ fierce. Do I know how to live or what!

Hopefully you’ll recall my last Halloween post, in which I looked at Amvest Video’s release of 1939’s The Human Monster as part of their “Grampa Presents” video series of 1988. There was a long line of these tapes, but none of them are all that easily found nowadays, which meant that I really wanted one, any one. I mean, Al “Grandpa Munster in all but official name” Lewis hosting a bunch of cheap, primarily public domain movies? I need that in my life as much as possible.

Fortunately for my video collection (though unfortunately for my wallet), the acquisition of that first tape touched off a severe wave of, well, I don’t want to say obsession, but somewhere around that description. I thought I’d be happy with one or two, but in the months since that initial article, my Grampa Presents collection has grown to include a nice chunk of titles from the series (plus one of the horror movie trailer compilations Lewis hosted for Amvest, which is obviously related but not quite part of the line). Not too shabby considering I only got my first tape in early October, I’d say!

(And truth be told, even ‘regular,’ non-Grampa-branded Amvest releases of these movies have proven to be an area of high interest to me. I’ve managed to gather up several of those, too.)

Much of this had to do with the fascinating backstory, or lack thereof, regarding the line: basically, no one is quite sure how many of these Grampa Presents tapes were actually released. There is a long list of titles attributed to it (which we’ll get to in a bit), but only a portion of those have been confirmed to, you know, exist. Some of them pop up from time-to-time online, but then there’s others that have been confirmed but almost never show up. Even though I’ve managed to acquire a bunch of these tapes since that first one in October, I still stand by my statement in the earlier post that they range from “highly obscure” to “impossibly rare.” And those are just the ones I/we know about!

Anyway, needless to say, the saga continues now, with one of the titles in the series that’s on the easier end of the spectrum to find (relatively speaking), but was nevertheless one of my personal chasers…

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Bela Lugosi’s 1942 poverty row opus, The Corpse Vanishes. Cool winnins!

If you’ve read that Halloween post, you’ll know there were some problems with that first tape: namely, it was recorded in the wrong speed. Thus, the tape ran out out before the movie was over! This hurt me deep, but not as much as it would have had it been a movie I cared more for. I’ve never been big on The Human Monster (aka Dark Eyes of London), but The Corpse Vanishes is a different story; I’ve been fond of the film ever since first seeing it on Son of Ghoul waaay back in 1997 (one of my very first episodes – I had only begun watching Son of Ghoul a few weeks prior).

Because I actually like the movie, your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter was going to be exponentially more irked if there was something wrong with this tape. I’ll say upfront that all is well as far as that is concerned. It played from start to finish without incident, and given the EP recording speed, the picture quality wasn’t exceptional but certainly passable. Considering these videos were strictly budget affairs the whole way around, I was pleasantly surprised.

(Over the course of amassing these titles, and even the non-Grampa-hosted Amvest releases, I’ve learned a lot about the ups-and-downs of them. Indeed, thanks to how much more I know about all of this now, this is probably going to end up being the article I wanted to write last time. I know I’ll end up repeating a few things I said the first time around, so please bear with me.)

The cover art, though simplistic, is appealing. If you go and search out other images of the Grampa Presents line, you’ll see that the artwork can vary wildly from release to release. Some tapes use the original movie posters as a template, some (such as this one) use a real photograph, and others use hand drawn original artwork that can range from okay to, well, lets just say the hand drawn stuff sometimes isn’t the best. Make no mistake though, even the goofier-looking ones I love; these things have charm to spare!

As for this The Corpse Vanishes, like I said, it’s simplistic, but overall still very cool. The Bela image is appropriate, and the red and gray color scheme is attractive…

…Aw, who am I kidding? It’s all about the Grampa banner at the top. It totally takes the cover from “competent” to “I should probably have a poster of it made for my bedroom wall.” I’m seriously considering printing out copies of that “Grampa Presents” header and fixing them to some of my favorite tapes just to make them look better. “Grampa Presents: The Giant Spider Invasion.” “Grampa Presents: The Creeping Terror.” “Grampa Presents: M*A*S*H – Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.The possibilities are endless!

I should be getting a million dollars a week for these brilliant ideas.

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For as good as the front covers (can) look, the back covers are always pretty plain. Indeed, before you actually put the tape in the VCR, that’s where the budget roots of the video are first evident (unless you got one of those particularly cheesy-covered ones, in which case, that’s where the budget roots are first evident). Not that that bothers me in the slightest; budget tape charm and all that.

As far as the movie synopsis goes, it’s not exactly comprehensive or anything, but the one used here for The Corpse Vanishes isn’t quite as perfunctory as the descriptions on these tapes can be. Okay, it’s a straight two paragraphs without any frills, but hey, I’ve seen worse.

‘Course, it’s totally the “Grampa’s Ratings” feature that makes the back cover: three bats and the declaration of “GHOULISH GREAT!” AND it’s topped off with (ostensibly) Al Lewis’ personal signature to let you, the video consumer, know that this has his personal guarantee of quality. That’s awesome.

No kidding, for old public domain flicks like this, there were (and are!) untold multitudes of releases. So, something, anything that could make one particular version stand out from the rest could make the difference between an eventual purchase or continued shelf languishing. And you know, I think that’s another one of the things that I find so appealing about these releases; sure, there are countless ‘normal’ copies out there, but when you’ve got the option to watch the movie with Al Lewis bookends, well, why not take it? Sure, you may have to contend with some tracking issues, and no, the print used for the film won’t be Criterion Collection quality, but the ‘spooky horror hosted’ vibes of the tape easily makes up for all of that.

Also, I totally just thought of “Grampa Presents: Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster.Man that would that be awesome. I should be getting two million dollars a week for these brilliant ideas.

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There’s the cute lil’ tape itself. If you go back to my first Grampa Presents post, you’ll see the difference in the tape casing and reels. The Human Monster was in a more standard case but with thick, white, mega-cheap wheels. This one however uses more standard reels and a casing akin to the kind Memorex used for their late-1980s/early-1990s blank VHS tapes. (Not so unusual there; I’ve seen copies of Batman ’89 with the same casing.) Unlike The Human Monster‘s LP recording, The Corpse Vanishes is, as I said, in EP/SLP.

That anal-retentive description above isn’t just me being particularly pretentious; I do actually have a point to make. And that is: I’ve come to learn that there just isn’t any rhyme or reason to any of this. I’ve got a nice cache of individual Grampa titles, as well as several ‘plain’ Amvest titles, but there’s almost no standard formula to any them. Casings and reels vary between them, and more importantly, so do recording speeds. The majority were recorded in EP or LP, though there are some SP tapes out there, Grampa Presents included (of which I have three). As far as the Grampa versions go, the SP tapes seem to usually have a sticker of some sort on the back stating the fact (like this one), but EP and LP tapes have no such distinction. If you want to know before actually playing the tape, you generally have to look at the reels themselves (and with tapes that have larger wheels inside, that can sometimes be difficult), or gauging the weight of the tape itself (general rule of thumb: the heavier, the better).

Something else you need to be on the lookout for: Grampa’s host segments aren’t necessarily on each and every one. Yep, despite the appropriate “dis got Grampa” packaging, some tapes only feature him on the sleeve; the movie itself doesn’t feature the Al Lewis bookends. Four of my tapes demonstrate all the pomp and circumstance of Grampa, but he’s nowhere to be found on the actual recording (and three of those four are the aforementioned SP-recorded ones, so maybe those were later issues of some sort?).

Since both Grampa and non-Grampa releases of the same movie share identical catalog numbers, and because there’s nothing that singles out one version or the other on the actual label affixed to the tape itself, it’s certainly possible that opposing editions could accidentally be thrown into the opposite box, or maybe even as a substitute when they ran out of the ‘appropriate’ version? I’m just spit-balling here.

Or maybe, and this is just another hypothesis on my part, they didn’t want to pay licensing fees for Grampa’s filmed segments anymore (provided there were licensing fees; I don’t pretend to know how this all initially went down), and began intentionally leaving the host segments off of later tape runs, but kept paying to use his image on the cover for the “name” factor? Remember, the sleeve promises us Grampa’s guarantee, but it never actually says he’s going to be hosting the movie. Maybe Amvest eventually decided to go the Gene Shalit route?

BUT WAIT! Conversely, my Amvest copies of First Spaceship On Venus and Missile To The Moon are plain, no Grampa on the artwork, and yet, his host segments are included on the actual tapes! Surprise cool winnins! So theoretically, any Amvest, supposedly-non-Grampa release from 1988 under their “Vintage Video” subsidiary (which goes back to at least 1985, but those are more reminiscent of the Goodtimes tapes in cover-style from the period, and pre-date the Grampa Presents series by three years anyway) could conceivably be unmarked Grampa titles!

Like I said, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on matters, something comes along that makes me rethink everything I thought I knew beforehand. I’ve had my preconceived notions, and time and again they were dashed.

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Lucky for me, The Corpse Vanishes does indeed include the Al Lewis intro and outro. This is a good thing, because I can easily see this movie as-is any number of ways, and if watching it via a cheapie VHS from the 1980s is the way I wanna go, there are plenty of options available there, too. All it takes is a quick run through eBay and a couple of bucks in my pocket. (Though after getting all these Grampa videos, the latter is decidedly tougher than the former!)

But by now, it’s pretty obvious to anyone taking even a cursory glance at this blog that I prefer my horror movies, uh, horror hosted. Oh sure, I love ’em straight too, but having grown up with all of the Northeast Ohio movie hosts (as well as the enduring fondness for the local hosts before my time, i.e. Ghoulardi), I have a strong affinity for anyone dressing up in cheesy/spooky garb and throwing out hackneyed puns. These movies are just so much more fun that way, at least to me. Plus, it’s an aspect of television broadcasting that has largely (but not completely) fallen by the wayside, making it all doubly-interesting to me.

Needless to say, horror hosting had its roots in television, but by the late-1980s, when home video had not only become entrenched as a de facto part of any well-rounded entertainment center but had also progressed to the point where it was actually feasible to have budget tapes such as this, the genre also found a place on home video. I.V.E.’s Thriller Video spearheaded the concept three years prior with their Elvira-hosted tape series (which we’ve seen here before), and in some ways (I also said this in that Halloween post), Amvest’s Grampa series feels like a more cut-rate version of those Elvira tapes.

Al Lewis’ Grampa was a natural fit for hosting horror and science fiction films, and a year before he started this Amvest series, he began hosting movies for TBS’ Super Scary Saturday, which we’ve seen here before, too. The Amvest Grampa Presents series was quite a bit lower-budget than the TBS show; these segments were shot in front of a green screen, with Grampa superimposed over still-images.

The very beginning of this intro, I hope you’ll recall, I didn’t get to see last time; the start of that tape was basically “in progress,” and by the time the tracking and whatnot had settled to a watchable state, Grampa was already into his pitch. Luckily, it’s all complete on The Corpse Vanishes, though the program starts playing early enough that tracking is still a bit of an issue.

So what did I miss the first time around? Not that much; shots from, I’m pretty sure, White Zombie open the whole thing. Then a two-framed, single-colored bat flies on-screen, neon lightning bolts hit it (to signify transformation, though it doesn’t make much sense when you think about it), and then, there’s Grampa! That’s right, the tape posits that Al Lewis has the power to transform into a cartoon bat at will. That…is pretty fantastic.

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For the Amvest tapes that actually include the Grampa footage on them, these host segments are the same for each and every one. What, you thought Lewis was gonna film a unique intro and outro for each and every title? Nope!

So, after that whole bat-transformation thing (and a few token movie clips, ostensibly from other films in the series), the scene then shifts to a Dr, Frankenstein-like lab. This is where the tape we looked at last time essentially began. It’s basically Al Lewis being Al Lewis; he had his shtick down to a science by that point. So, when he’s forced to banter with an off-screen “Igor” or explain to the audience that he’s not Paul Newman (apparently, people get them confused!), it actually does come off pretty funny. It would have been easy for this all to come off flat, awkward, forced, or what have you, but Lewis is so sincere and energetic that you can’t help but get a kick out of the whole thing.

I love the backdrop for this part of the intro: like I said, it looks like Frankenstein’s lab, albeit a still of said lab, and it’s accented by random neon-squigglies, which, you know, 1988 and all that.

There is one thing different for the respective intro of each tape: at one point during the opening segment, there’s a space where a voiceover (“Igor”) announces the title of the movie and who stars in it, all while Lewis looks on expectantly. ‘Course, sometimes (many times!) they forgot to add the voiceover, which means Lewis exclaims “that’s the one!” to absolutely nothing, which is actually pretty funny, albeit unintentionally (I said the same thing when I reviewed the Human Monster tape, and the trend continues not only on this one, but on several other Grampa tapes I have).

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And that brings us to the movie itself: 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes. I really, really like this movie. Like I said earlier, this tape was one of my personal chasers in the series, and it was basically because of how fond I am of The Corpse Vanishes.

This is one of the poverty row, cheapie horror films that Bela Lugosi was increasingly relegated to doing as the 1930s wound down and the 1940s began. Sure, he still had ‘big’ pictures now and then (1939’s Son of Frankenstein, 1941’s The Wolf Man, etc.), but his output was becoming increasingly less glitzy. I mean, by the last decade of his life, he was starring in Ed Wood movies, which were the very antithesis of glitzy!

It was all a double-edged sword; sure, films like this kept Bela working and in the public eye, but for a performer that started out as a star of big-time, A-list films, it had to sting.

That said, regardless of the source material, Bela was still magnetic. You can’t help but be entertained by the guy. It’s no exaggeration to say that he saved even the least of these films all by himself; a star of lesser magnitude probably wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. It’s the same deal with Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.; if their names are on something, it’s worth at least a quick look, because they were that good.

Furthermore, many of these low-rent Bela flicks have lapsed into the public domain. The Corpse Vanishes, obviously, but also others (like The Devil Bat and The Ape Man). The good news there is that, back in the day and today as well, there’s always something with Lugosi’s name on it out there on store shelves. Make no mistake, Bela is still a name draw. Sure, these public domain films (with the possible exception of White Zombie) aren’t really the definitive way to introduce someone (or yourself!) to Lugosi’s work, but they’re cheap and readily available, and if nothing else, like I said before, the guy had a magnetism about him that carried even the weakest films in his canon.

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As for The Corpse Vanishes itself, no one will ever claim it to be among Bela’s finest work, but taken for what it is (a wartime, poverty row horror film), it’s definitely an entertaining watch. It’s so simple, quaint, and despite the plot of a mad botanist killing virginal brides, somehow innocent. It almost seems like the kind of movie that could have only come out in the 1940s, with all of the ‘big’ Universal horror flicks of the previous decade to take inspiration from, and all of the sci-fi stuff of the 1950s yet to come. Sure, it’s something that probably could have been made in the 1930s, but it just feels so 1942.

The plot, yeah, it’ll sound like fairly formula stuff. And you know, it is. I’d never argue otherwise. But again, taken for what it is, it’s still fun. Lugosi plays a mad scientist (gee, you don’t say!), one Dr. Lorenz, who has a shrewish, aging wife. Wifey wants to stay young and beautiful forever, so Lorenz concocts a plan wherein he’ll poison the orchids sent to brides on their wedding day. When they collapse from said poison (and appear dead, though they’re really not), he kidnaps the body and takes it back to his lab (hence, “The Corpse Vanishes”). Once back at the lab, he extracts vital fluids from the bride and then injects them into his wife, which temporarily renews her youth.

It’s a scheme that has any number of holes in it (and it doesn’t take much for the viewer to realize that, either), but Lorenz goes ahead with the plan anyway. Eventually, this all attracts the attention of journalist Patricia Hunter, who is eager to get a story out of the deal, and sets off to get to the bottom of things…

Look, you don’t have to rely solely on my word for any of this; this film has been in the public domain for years, so check it out for yourself here. It’s only a little over an hour long, so have at it next time your favorite prime time drama is in reruns!

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Despite the inherent cheapness of the film, it still manages to pull off some pretty cool scenes. I mean, geez, Bela and his wife sleep in coffins! With movies like this, where the budget is obviously on the really cheap side, the idea of the baddies nappin’ in coffins is a good, simple way to get the creep factor going, even though it’s become a pretty common trope. Heck, it was probably a common trope back then.

But, in that small way, the movie even more recalls 1931’s Dracula, and that can never be a bad thing when Lugosi is in the vicinity (even if it does plays into that typecasting that hurt his career so much).

They sleep in coffins, man!

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Another cool aspect: Bela’s basement laboratory.

I really like Bela’s mad scientist lab. It’s not especially expansive, and it’s clearly limited by Monogram’s $5 budget, but at the same time, it’s so sincere. The very presence of a cut-rate lab just adds volumes to the film, though I’d be hard pressed to really explain why. Just seems more ‘complete’ that way, I guess?

Bela’s got a cool lab, man!

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Oddly enough, the ending card is rendered as a still-frame, complete with the dust and whatnot frozen in it, all while the music continues to play. I’m not sure if Amvest themselves did that, or if that’s how it came to them. The who and why of this I couldn’t say, but it’s a little strange.

In addition to countless budget videotape releases such as this one, The Corpse Vanishes was also the subject of an early episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is probably how many people recognize the film nowadays. Being one of the first episodes of the national iteration of the series, it’s not one of their stronger efforts, though things always go better with MST3K.

‘Course, things always go better with Al “Grampa” Lewis, too…

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Which brings us to the part I was totally begrudged the first time around: Grampa’s outro segment. Like his intro, these were always the same for each tape.

Playing off his whole “comical undead vampire” act, the first thing he says once returning from the movie is “Oooh, that was so scary, it scared the blood right back into my veins!The Corpse Vanishes is many things, but by 1988, I really can’t see too many people finding it genuinely frightening. Was it even that scary back in ’42? Anyway, Grampa then follows that statement up with “Blood and gore, that’s my meat and potatoes!” That applies even less to The Corpse Vanishes, but the dialog absolutely adds to the atmosphere and general theme of the tapes nevertheless.

Plus, the outro segment was the same for every movie presented in the line, so what can you really expect in the way of accuracy?

That said, given the jokey Grampa open and close to the tapes, and most of the titles in the series, much of it is (well, was) pretty safe for the kids to watch. I made this comment last time, but it seems like these tapes would make good TV viewing for those that were too young for trick-or-treating but still wanted a Halloween experience.

Well, most of the movies fit that bill, anyway…

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This is the part I was pretty bummed about not having on my first Grampa Presents tape: after coming back from the movie and goofing around for a bit, Lewis then presents a “complete” list of titles in the Grampa Presents line!

This is important, because this is the only solid listing we have (that I know of anyway) for the Grampa Presents titles. Now, it’s highly doubtful that all of these were released with the Grampa branding; some of these were released by Amvest back in 1985, though with the same catalog numbers as given here. My guess is that all of these movies were, at some point, released by Amvest, but not all of them featured Grampa.

I make that distinction because Lewis himself says that each and every one will be presented by him, which, I’ve got four releases (Monster From Green Hell, Giant From The Unknown, The Living Head, and The Last Woman On Earth) that have him on the cover but not actually hosting. But then, I also have two that don’t mention him on the cover but he does host (the aforementioned First Spaceship On Venus and Missile To The Moon). I said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s just no rhyme or reason to any of this.

Throughout the scroll, Lewis speaks via voiceover, making generic comments such as “Ooh, I remember that one!” When he’s not being generally excited over the offerings, he’s yelling at the unseen (and unheard) Igor about his eating habits; apparently, Igor refuses to learn how to use a knife, fork and spoon.

I said before that this shtick was funny rather than awkward. Mostly, it is. However, for this spot, it’s clearly just filling time. I mean, it makes sense; it was either have Lewis babble in the background or have dead silence as the titles scroll, I get it, but yeah, his dialog here is amusing but pretty much just filler.

The list of titles consists mostly of standard public domain stuff: The Little Shop Of Horrors, The Terror, and so on. But, there are some really surprising offerings, too. Alice, Sweet Alice and The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant are there, and those are both confirmed to have actually been released. (They’re also definitely NOT for kids!) And, there’s a few that haven’t been confirmed to have been released as part of the Grampa Presents series (that I know of) but MAN I hope they were; namely, Night Of The Living Dead, Godzilla Vs. Megalon and Vampyr. You have no idea how badly I’d flip if I stumbled across any one of those three at a thrift store.

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After the scroll finishes, Lewis then goes into where you can actually buy these tapes. You need to look for the tapes with his face, which as we’ve seen, wasn’t quite true, though I doubt Lewis knew that while filming. (In an argument with the still unseen and unheard Igor: “Forget Tom Selleck with the mustache and everything! MY face and the official ratings are on the box!” That’s right, Al “Grampa” Lewis just referenced Magnum while pitching horror movies – now THAT is awesome!)

What’s more, there was a specific Amvest “Casket of Horrors” display for video stores; how cool is that! Given the rarity of most Amvest tapes nowadays (both with and without Grampa on ’em), distribution was almost certainly very limited. I’d like to say for every 20 online listings for a similar title from Goodtimes, there’s only 1 for an Amvest, but even that wouldn’t be true; Amvest tapes are generally few and far between.

Therefore, I can’t imagine too many of these “Casket of Horrors” displays making it out there, and even less surviving to this day. Who knows if any were even produced beyond the one seen in this outro. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that I. NOW. NEED. ONE. Coolest Halloween party decoration ever!

As far as I’m concerned, it just doesn’t get much cooler than the image above. That screencap succinctly sums (allitration) up everything that is right with these tapes and the whole horror movie ideal that they present so vividly. Would it be wrong for me to create posters of that image above and hang them all around my house? Because I’m coming dangerously close to doing just that.

Well, maybe just one to hang up somewhere…

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AND, if you couldn’t find one or any of these tapes in an actual brick-and-mortar store (and odds are most people couldn’t), Grampa gives you the details on how to order direct from Amvest! And even with ordering direct from the company, these were budget affairs; $13 was a pretty cheap price for a VHS tape in ’88. Granted, you wouldn’t be getting something on par with a, say, CBS/FOX release, but still…

Rahway is pronounced “Raw Way,” to which Grampa takes particular delight. “These are our people! That’s the way we like it – raw!” I’ll let you make up your own mind regarding that bit of dialog.

I wonder what happened if/when someone ordered a tape that didn’t actually exist as a Grampa version? Refund? Replacement? Given that this info is shown right after the list of videos supposedly available, while I don’t think each and every title had a respective Grampa Presents version, my guess would be that, at the very least, the person ordering would get a non-Grampa edition. Like I said before, I suspect there were Amvest releases for all or most of these, but which ones were released with some form of Al Lewis involvement is the big question here. I don’t know, and it seems nobody else really does, either.

Anyway, keeping up the act to the very end, Grampa admits that the 4 to 6 weeks delivery time is due to the bats in your neighborhood not flying that fast. Yeah, Al Lewis posits that your tape would be delivered by a bat. How can you not like the guy when he says things like that?

Grampa’s final pitch? Go out and buy Amvest videos, because if you don’t, one night when it’s dark and you think you’re alone, you won’t be – he’ll be there. He then bursts into that famous Grampa laugh as the screen fades out and then into the final image of the tape:

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As a final touch, the copyright info contains computer-generated blood steadily dripping down the screen! And to make things complete, ‘spooky’ music plays in the background! Very, very cool!

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The Corpse Vanishes is public domain, and thus, there is no shortage of varying releases. Mystery Science Theater 3000, Son of Ghoul, any number of other horror hosts out there, any number of cheapo DVDs out there, free and clear online downloads, there are countless options available to you. It’s not even remotely hard to find a copy of this movie.

But, if you want to watch the film in a way that only the late-1980s video era could present, Amvest’s release of the movie via the “Grampa Presents” line of tapes is the best way to go. It’s not perfect, it’s not a restored print of the film or anything like that, but as far as sheer coolness goes, it’s hard to beat. This is a perfect slice of late-1980s budget VHS memorabilia, one that I am absolutely thrilled to have in my collection.

Will I ever do another post on one of these tapes? Well, probably not. Maybe if/when I get the ever-elusive Grampa Presents version of 1922’s Nosferatu, or a previously ‘unknown’ release, but otherwise, I’d just be saying the same things about the Al Lewis segments over and over, with only the movie review portion changing. I mean, you never know, but as of right now, I’m pretty happy with this one as my final word on matters.

I’ve actually wound up gaining a real respect for Amvest. They had a real quirky sensibility, and as these Grampa tapes prove, they occasionally went out of the usual budget video “domain” and did their own thing. When I started collecting these (only a few months ago), I never thought I’d feel that way.

Furthermore, in whatever small way I may have helped unravel some of the questions regarding these Grampa Presents tapes, even through the confusion and disappointments, I enjoyed progressively learning more and more about them. There just aren’t many companies and their associated video releases that I can say that about.

And needless to say, I still want more of these! The search will continue! I won’t rest until I can fill an entire shelf with Al Lewis-hosted cinema!


Hey, wait, hold up! We’re not quite done yet!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the entire list of Grampa Presents titles as given during the end segment of this tape! Besides numbering them and correcting a few grammatical errors, I have also gone ahead and listed the titles that are actually confirmed as being released as part of the Grampa Presents series. Besides what I personally own, I am citing The VCR from Heck (these two pages specifically), VHSCollector.com (this page in particular), the Mike’s VHS Collection page over at Cinemasscre, as well as various online sales I have personally seen. Also, here’s a specific thread on the subject over at the Our Favorite Horror Hosts forum. (And yes, I plan to share what I’ve learned there as soon as this page goes up!) Please check out those sites once you’re done here; there’s a wealth of information not only on these Grampa Presents tapes, but on so many other subjects, as well.

Keep in mind that while this is the complete list of titles as given on this tape, the ones marked as “confirmed” are by no means the final say on the matter. These are just the ones that *I* am aware of. If you know of or even own one that hasn’t been confirmed as existing, hey, speak up in the comments! (Pictures would be helpful, too!)

And of course, the possibility exists that this actually isn’t the complete list of titles; there may well have been further videos released that included the host segments or appropriate packaging. I have no evidence of anything like that ever happening, every title I’ve found or seen has corresponded appropriately to this list, but hey, you never know!

(* = Indicates that I personally own a copy of that title, and thus I know for sure it was released by Amvest in some form at some point. [Confirmed] = Indicates this title was indeed released as part of the Grampa Presents series, either with him on the tape itself, on the packaging, or both. If Al Lewis is present in or on the tape in any way, I’m considering it officially released as part of the series.)

1. VV-430 – Night Of The Living Dead [Confirmed]*
2. VV-432 – The Little Shop Of Horrors*
3. VV-439 – The Terror* [Confirmed]*
4. VV-442 – The Devil Bat* [Confirmed]*
5. VV-443 – Horror Hotel [Confirmed]
6. VV-446 – The Ape Man* [Confirmed]*
7. VV-458 – Frankenstein’s Daughter*
8. VV-471 – Godzilla Vs. Megalon*
9. VV-476 – White Zombie*
10. VV-501 – Ghosts On The Loose* [Confirmed]
11. VV-515 – The House Of Exorcism [Confirmed]
12. VV-516 – The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant [Confirmed]*
13. VV-517 – Spider Baby [Confirmed]
14. VV-518 – Spooks Run Wild [Confirmed]*
15. VV-519 – The Indestructible Man
16. VV-520 – The Corpse Vanishes [Confirmed]*
17. VV-521 – Phantom From Space [Confirmed]*
18. VV-522 – Who Killed Doc Robin?
19. VV-523 – Killers From Space [Confirmed]*
20. VV-524 – The Human Monster [Confirmed]*
21. VV-525 – Scared To Death [Confirmed]*
22. VV-526 – The Vampire Bat
23. VV-527 – Death Race 2000*
24. VV-528 – The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)*
25. VV-529 – Invisible Ghost [Confirmed]
26. VV-530 – Bride Of The Gorilla [Confirmed]*
27. VV-531 – Carnival Of Souls [Confirmed]*
28. VV-532 – Witch’s Curse [Confirmed]*
29. VV-533 – Snow Creature [Confirmed]
30. VV-534 – Battle Of The Worlds*
31. VV-535 – Dementia 13 [Confirmed]*
32. VV-536 – Alice, Sweet Alice [Confirmed]
33. VV-537 – Vampyr
34. VV-538 – Radar Men From The Moon (Part 1)
35. VV-539 – Radar Men From The Moon (Part 2)
36. VV-540 – The Death Kiss [Confirmed]*
37. VV-541 – Nosferatu [Confirmed]*
38. VV-542 – Yog, Monster From Space [Confirmed]
39. VV-543 – First Spaceship On Venus [Confirmed]*
40. VV-544 – The Crawling Eye [Confirmed]*
41. VV-545 – Giant From The Unknown [Confirmed]*
42. VV-546 – Immediate Disaster
43. VV-547 – The Last Woman On Earth [Confirmed]*
44. VV-548 – The Living Head [Confirmed]*
45. VV-549 – Mesa Of Lost Women [Confirmed]
46. VV-550 – Missile To The Moon [Confirmed]*
47. VV-551 – Monster From Green Hell [Confirmed]*
48. VV-552 – Nightmare Castle
49. VV-553 – The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy
50. VV-554 – Mars Attacks The World*
51. VV-555 – Satan’s Satellites
52. VV-556 – The Island Monster
53. VV-557 – Wild Women Of Wongo
54. VV-558 – Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy
55. VV-559 – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Michael Rennie) [Confirmed]
56. VV-560 – She Demons [Confirmed]*
57. VV-561 – Creature From The Haunted Sea [Confirmed]
58. VV-562 – The Ape [Confirmed]*
59. VV-563 – The Phantom Creeps [Confirmed]

———————
Special Compilations:

60. VS-005 – Grampa’s Silly Scaries – Vintage Horror-Themed Cartoons [Confirmed]
61. VS-006 – Grampa’s Monster Movies – Vintage Horror Movie Trailers [Confirmed]*
62. VS-009 – Grampa’s Sci-Fi Hits – Vintage Science Fiction Movie Trailers [Confirmed]*
63. VS-010 – More Silly Scaries – Vintage Horror-Themed Cartoons [Confirmed]

Blockbuster-Branded Batman & Robin VHS (1998)

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I get excited over the weirdest stuff. For instance, take this thrift-store-find from a few nights ago; I was legit stoked to come across it. Maybe it’s because I’m a Batman Batfan and totally remember the massive hype (and even more massive letdown) that was the summer 1997 release of this movie. Maybe it’s because I miss the all-but-dead video rental store days (and have been looking for something to pay tribute, albeit belated, to the now-gone Blockbuster). Or, maybe it’s simply because I already had a Blockbuster-branded copy of Batman Forever and in my weird little world this compliments it nicely.

Aw, who am I kidding? It’s all of those. And more?

Despite the fact the movie is one of the worst things ever, I have an inexplicable fondness for the film. Well, not really for the film per se. More for the time period and where it falls in my lifetime. Going further into all that would be a huge digression, so let me stay kinda on track here. Batman & Robin: I remember the release, I remember (and sampled) the stupid Taco Bell tie-in promotion, and I remember the revelation that it apparently made theater-goers cry. I wouldn’t know, though; we tried to go see it, but the only available-to-us showing was sold out, so we settled for, I’m pretty sure, Men In Black.

(I’ve kinda made up for not seeing it in theaters, not that it matters, though: this is my actually my second copy of the film on VHS, and I even have the stupid thing on DVD and freakin’ Laserdisc. Now if I can just find a Betamax copy, my collection will be complete*.)

Despite there being other Batman movies released to theaters in the 1990s, Batman & Robin feels the most overtly 1990s-ish to me. No doubt that’s due to my memories of that summer of ’97. At any rate, the fact remains that I have a copy of Batman & Robin with Blockbuster stickers slapped on it, and on the freakin’ VHS format to boot. Thus, it goes without saying that I am currently experiencing an all-encompassing 90s rush that’s threatening to drive me straight-up nutz; it’s taking every ounce of my energy to refrain from playing a Smash Mouth CD** whilst watching an episode of Boy Meets World. That’s what everyone was doing in the late-1990s, right?

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I’ve seen the film, and it lives up (or is it down?) to the reputation it has acquired. It is not a good flick. Yeah, I know, big revelation. That said, I find it more gloriously entertaining than the higher-regarded Batman Forever, even if that entertainment is only derived from how jaw-dropping bad it is. I cannot believe this was a major Hollywood production. But, look at the damn tape. I don’t care what you say, everything about it is 1997 in a nutshell. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t (and considering the movie can and probably has been used as a torture device, maybe that’s a good thing).

The pic above is worth clicking on for a super-sized version, because the description on the back is kinda out there (yes, I know the Blockbuster sticker obscures some of it). My favorite part is the mention of “New very special effects…“, as if these special effects are substantially more special than your usual , run-of-the-mill special effects. I love this tape.

Also, “From our Batfamily to yours“? That’s adorable Give me a break.

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According to Amazon, the VHS was originally released on October 21, 1997. Upon first finding this tape and seeing that January 6, 1998 date printed on the sticker, my initial thought was “so soon after release?” But, I figure, there were probably plenty of copies put up for rental following the release date, then once the “fervor” died down, nearly as many put out for sale. Plus Christmas sales, plus johnny-come-latelys, etc., and well, 1/6/98 actually seems kinda late to the game. Also, 1/6/98 was when this copy was presumably put out for sale, it’s not a sale date. So who knows when Blockbuster finally unloaded this burden video. Anyway, it was put out for sale in ’98, which is why the title of this post is dated “1998” and not the probably-more-accurate “1997.”

My aforementioned copy of Blockbuster-Batman Forever features all of the same branding, except it also features a cute little sticker on the front proclaiming the low, low bargain price of only $4.99. Batman & Robin features no such pricing identification, and the sticker on the back, as evidenced by the photo above, is silent on the matter. I don’t know what “*” means in regards to what some unlucky video purchaser paid, but I assume it meant “cheap.”

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Oh now that’s just precious. Remember the days when Blockbuster was the go-to place for not only the hot new movie hits, but all of your entertainment needs? I’m pretty sure we rented more video games there than we ever did movies. Nevertheless, the sticker brings back serious memories.

Back in the late-90s when I started doing the whole Ebay thang, there were some VHS videos that were going for what we I call “the mighty dollars.” DVD hadn’t quite taken off yet, and thus VHS was still the predominant format. That market would eventually drop hardcore, but at the time, if you had a copy of the M*A*S*H series finale or Giorgio Moroder’s restoration of Metropolis on VHS (or even better, Laserdisc), and they were in halfway decent shape, you stood to make a good chunk of money fast. Well, collectors being collectors, rental store stickers such as the ones on this tape were seen as detriments. Not that I’m arguing with that; if you’re spending $40-$50 for a VHS, preferably it should be in the best shape possible. I don’t recall ever being too bothered as to whether a tape had stickers/fading/etc. or not, as long as I got what I was going after, but that sort of thing could and did affect prices for other collectors.

Nowadays, I really don’t mind finding these kinds of markings on tapes (obviously). They add a nice bit of historical value. I’ve got an ancient VHS copy of Jaws with Fotomat stickers all over it, and I actually care more about those stickers and the earlier release date than I do the movie (I know, I know, it’s a classic, but I just don’t like Jaws nor any of the sequels nor any of the countless rip-offs it spawned). This copy of Batman & Robin could never be described as “mint” or “fresh outta da shrinkwrap,” but since copies are plentiful and generally worthless (for so, so many reasons), these Blockbuster stickers add a whole different dimension to the thing, one that many may tend to overlook.

Plus, there’s a lot of people that would claim that the Blockbuster stickers on this thing are worth more than the movie itself. I’m not gonna argue that, either; Batman & Robin is really bad.

To be completely and totally honest, and this shows just how friggin’ strange I am, I’ve specifically been looking for a copy of Batman & Robin just like this to go with that previously-mentioned Batman Forever, if only because they represent the 1990s rental store period so well. Since copies of the film are plentiful and Blockbuster stores were plentiful, I’m kinda surprised it took me as long as it did to actually come across one. Victory is mine?

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There it is, a Blockbuster-branded copy of Batman & Robin, from back when people relied on video rental stores and before the internet became so widespread that it went and spoiled everything for movie studios/tape manufacturers that were hoping against hope that potential-purchasers hadn’t heard just how unrelentingly bad a movie was/is.

‘Course, I’ve just written over a thousand words about a film and the VHS release of said film that, for all intents and purposes, isn’t really worth it. This begs the question: the hell’s wrong with me?

(And hey, look, the last owner was indeed a friend and rewound when he or she reached the end! Thanks, Blockbuster!)

* = I know full well there’s not a Betamax release of Batman And Robin, settle down.

** = While I do indeed have an extensive music collection, I don’t actually own anything by Smash Mouth.

TGG Direct’s 3-Disc Gamera DVD Set (Review)

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Remember this picture from the end of this post? Of course you don’t! Well, this is Wal-Mart’s current (well, current when I started writing this post approximately 112 years ago) display in support of the 2014 Godzilla remake. In that previous post, I made a mention of the $5 Gamera set that I bought from said display. Look at the bottom row, near the center – thas da one. As you may very well surmise (because I just told you), this is that very set! What are the odds?! Well, technically, the subject of this post is a second set I bought from the very same display. Why? Because I’m a complete and total weirdo, THAT’S WHY.

Released by TGG Direct (ostensibly in 2013, though the first time I saw it was in the aforementioned Wal-Mart display capitalizing on the 2014 Godzilla), this looks like it could quite conceivably be the end-all be-all budget Gamera set. Officially titled Japanese Monster Movies, that’s erm, exactly what it consists of.

For those lacking in such important knowledge, Gamera was a giant flying, fire breathing turtle, more or less Daiei’s answer to Toho’s Godzilla. I’ll get to this more as I look at the actual contents of the set, but real quick: The first film was released to U.S. theater’s in 1966 as Gammera The Invincible, and several of the sequels went straight to U.S. television via American International Pictures. In the 1980’s, Sandy Frank, purveyor of such imported fare, re-released five of the films in the original series with new titles and dubs to U.S. video and television. Frank’s versions were the ones seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for the most part (Gamera Vs. Monster X being the exception), they were the versions I was most familiar with growing up.

Nowadays though, I prefer the original U.S. theatrical version of the first film and the AIP versions of the sequels. Sure, I know there are super-deluxe versions of the original films now out on BluRay, but my preferred Gamera’s are the old school U.S. versions (as usually seen in these budget releases, because they lapsed into the public domain years ago.) Yes, the picture is often faded/blurry/grainy/scratchy, and yes, there was some editing for television, but I can’t help it, these are the ones I want to watch. I don’t know, I guess I just find them more charming. Mega-fans will want the subtitled uncut Japanese prints, sure, and some may argue that the Sandy Frank dubs of the 1980’s are better just because they aren’t (as?) edited, but as much as I like Gamera, these older U.S. versions are the ones I dig the most.

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Anyway, I grabbed this second set for strict reviewin’ purposes, after which it will be relegated to downstairs TV-viewing status (that is, it’s something that will play in the background while I screw around on my sad little blog.) That way, should some calamity befall it, at least I wouldn’t be messing up my ‘good’ copy. Besides, at $5 a pop, I couldn’t afford not to buy a second copy (whatever that means.) When I went back for this one, it was the very last one in the display. Will they get more in, or did I get the last one ever? I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ll go back to Wal-Mart for awhile, just so I can maintain this almost certainly unwarranted feeling of pointlessly smug superiority.

Besides, look at it up there. Look at it. It’s a slick lookin’ beast. Yeah, it’s definitely a budget release, but I’ve seen waaaay more amateurish looking things in the bargain bins than this. It’s a fairly simple cover, I guess, but *I* certainly find it aesthetically appealing. Relatively so, at least.

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And just look at that movie line-up listed on the back cover! Pretty darn impressive! Now, I don’t want to say that’s every classic-era Gamera flick, because I know the second I do I’ll actually be forgetting one and someone will call me on it. Nevertheless, that’s a lot of Gamera (plus one non-Gamera) for the money.

To be completely honest, I’m a total sucker for cheapo DVD sets like this: $5 for 3-discs of (supposedly) public domain Gamera goodness? I never can resist. Previously, I had stuck with a few other sets for my cheap Gamera fix, but based on the first impressions generated by the cover art of TGG Direct’s product, this could be the “ultimate.”

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I also really, really like the fact that these come in a normal-sized DVD case, as opposed to a double-wide case or something. Just looks nicer and more neat on a shelf to me. There is one caveat to this format, however…

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Rather than use separate spindles, the discs come on one hub, stacked on top of each other. I haven’t any problems (yet,) but it seems like this way to store the discs makes it too easy to inadvertently scratch them. Plus, it’s just more of a pain getting the disc you want out. I know, I know, it’s only $5, why complain.


DISC 1

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The menus are, save for the respective movies, the same on each disc, featuring a variation of that cover art that I’m so, so fond of. The menu screen isn’t exactly flashy, and certainly not interactive, but hey, it don’t take much to keep me happy.

This disc menu also points to something I didn’t bring up when looking at the back cover: these flicks aren’t in chronological order. It’s a mild irritant, sure, but for first-time viewers (and those are the people I’m guessing this set is really aimed at; those that like ‘Zilla and are cravin’ more big giant monster action), the disjointed nature of the film selection may be a bit confusing.

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Case in point: the set kicks off with the second film in the series, which makes references to the first film, which doesn’t come until the second disc. War Of The Monsters, later known as Gamera Vs. Barugon, is the most serious in the series. The thing with the old Gamera flicks is that by and large they’re aimed at kids; that’s to say, most of ’em are pretty juvenile in nature. There was an annoying kid in the first film, but the initial two movies are more serious affairs. The sequel, though, has no annoying children and a relatively dark plot. It’s probably the most “Toho-ish” of the original Gamera series.

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The first time I saw it (under the Sandy Frank Gamera Vs. Barugon title) I wasn’t real big on it, but the more I see it the more I dig it. The particular print used in this DVD is one of the rougher ones. It definitely has that old-school “ran on TV 8000 times back in the day” look to it. I mean, you can see the edge of the film’s frame, for cryin’ out loud! It looks similar to an early-1980’s recorded-off-local-TV Beta copy of the film I have.

But, that old-style look of this and (most of) the other prints used in this set is precisely what I find so endearing about this whole thing. Hardcore fans will of course want pristine prints, and in that case TGG’s product will irritate them mightily. But me? I love the images of Saturday afternoon monster movie matinees that the whole thing evokes.

Lest the uninitiated be confused to the point of a crying jag, that’s Barugon up above.

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Not to be confused with Destroy All Monsters, which is a ‘Zilla romp. Also known as Gamera Vs. Viras, this is Gamera #4, chronologically speaking. I’ve had this one for years on a dollar-DVD, but aside from “playing on the TV in the background” status, I never paid much attention to it. This is one of those juvenile-oriented entries; I mean, there’s a scout troop in this one! Naturally, two of those “precocious” kids figure prominently in the plot. I don’t need mah monster films to be strictly “all bidness,” but overtly childish is something I don’t always find entertaining.

Then again, I like Gamera films, and most of them are childish, and I knew that going in, so I’m probably just full of it. Plus, to be completely honest, not too long ago I watched this film again (or for the very first time, depending on your viewpoint) on Off Beat Cinema, and I really didn’t mind it. Silly, sure, but surprisingly not bad, in my worthless humble opinion.

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Just to spite me, at one point Gams gets stabbed in the gut. What could be more endearing to the lil’ baby childs than that? Of course, Gamera ends up no worse for wear by the end.


DISC 2

Disc two kicks off with the first film in the series, follows up with perhaps the most whacked out film in the series, and ends up with something pretty interesting. Are you thinking they spelled “Gaos” wrong? They got it right on the back cover, after all. I’ll get to that in a bit, homeslice.

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The first Gamera was initially released in the U.S. as Gammera The Invincible in 1966. Sandy Frank’s version from the 1980’s was titled simply Gamera and didn’t have a whole lot changed in it aside from new English dubbing. The original ’66 U.S. version, however, took a route similar to the 1956 U.S. release of the first Godzilla film, by inserting newly shot footage of American actors. Albert Dekker and Brian Donlevy appeared in this new footage, as well as Dick O’Neill, who was in a lot of things but I know him best as the former-shop teacher that yelled at Tim Allen in that one Home Improvement.

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I don’t care how much it was tampered with, I much prefer this original 1966 release to the less-tampered with later-dub. I just find it more entertaining. I even like the stupid double-M thing they did with Gamera’s name, though I’d be hard-pressed to explain why. Uniqueness, I guess? Plus, it has a swingin’ 60’s rock song in which “Gammera” is repeated endlessly. It’s performed several times throughout the film, including a memorable moment where the military tries to get the band playing it to evacuate a soon-to-be-attacked building. The band/crowd refuses, preferring to instead to continue rocking out to Gammera’s unofficial theme song. The consequence of said refusal is seen in the screencap above. Whoops!

I really dig this one, and since it’s public domain, you’ll trip over stray copies while waltzing down the street! Cool winnins!

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Attack Of The Monsters is the original AIP TV version of what was later released as Gamera Vs. Guiron, the fifth film in the series. As previously stated, it’s one of the more whacked out entries in the Gamera series. I’m actually kind of on the fence as to which is the better version, this one or Frank’s dub. Both are nutty, but Frank’s features flat-out awful dubbing, which either adds to the craziness or detracts from the watchability. The decision is up to you.

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Like Destroy All Planets, this one features two ostensibly lovable kids being kidnapped by aliens. The best part is Gamera’s high-wire Olympic act, which is a total “say what?” moment.

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Here’s where things get a bit interesting. In stark contrast to the worn, obviously-television-used prints we’ve seen up to this point, Gamera Vs. Gaes aka Gamera Vs. Gaos aka Gamera Vs. Gyaos aka Return Of The Giant Monsters features a terrific widescreen print. I’m so accustomed to seeing Gamera flicks looking like, well, the way they do in the rest of the films in this set, that it’s easy to forget just how good they can look.

After an intro, the title card seen above pops up. Besides the misspelling of “Gaos” as “Gaes” (well, I guess officially it’s supposed to be “Gyaos,” but nevertheless, I’ve never heard of a “Gaes” variation), the fact that things go full-frame for the title and the fact that the title consists of computer-animated water drips over wood paneling (the hell?) that progressively reveals the title points clearly to the fact that this is a modern innovation. Needless to say, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

For a mere fraction of a second, after the title card ends but before heading back into the movie proper, a part of the original Japanese titles remains:

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No joke, it’s only onscreen for a split-second. It took me several tries to even get this screencap. I’m still kinda surprised I even manged to get it. Could they not have left the new “Gaes” title on-screen for a millisecond longer? is this some bizarre form of subliminal advertising? “Buy more Gamera?”

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Odd title-screen aside, it really is a gorgeous copy of the film. Look at that screencap; it’s a beautiful picture of the Japanese skyline (provided you ignore Gaos in the sky.) This brings up a burning question, however: where did this print come from, and how were they allowed to release it? The films seen in the set up to this point are all long in the public domain, but aside from the AIP U.S. version called Return of The Giant Monsters (which I *assume* is public domain as well), I don’t know of any PD copies of Gaos. That said, there are budget releases of the Sandy Frank dub (no kidding, there’s a $1 DVD featuring that particular version of the film lying on the floor mere feet from me, where I have thus far neglected to pick it up) which I can only assume are less than legit, since as far as I know Frank’s version hasn’t lapsed into the murk that often makes up the public domain library. In fact, when I first came upon this DVD set, seeing the title and how it’s spelled on the back cover, I figured that’s the version that was on here. Obviously, not so. I’m assuming neither AIP’s nor Frank’s dubs were used for it, either. So what would it be? Some kind of international version?

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Gaos/Gyaos/Gaes ends with this strange, Star Wars-inspired scroll. Again: the hell?


DISC 3

Third and final disc. it includes a movie I love, a movie I don’t, a movie that bores me, and some bonus features that define “superflous.”

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Gamera Vs. Monster X (aka Gamera Vs. Jiger) is the barometer by which I measure all Gamera DVD sets. If a set doesn’t have it, it’s “decent” at best, “woefully incomplete” at worst. If it does have it, though? Automatic passing grade, man. I love Gamera Vs. Monster X. It’s probably my favorite of the series. Not because it’s good; oh dear my, no, it’s certainly not. It’s pretty awful, and based solely on fun-factor, there are others probably considered more wacky. I don’t care, I will forever digs it.

Why? Because it was my first Gamera, that’s why. Also, because at one point it was pretty tough to find. Back in the VHS days, the Sandy Frank dubbed Gameras were easily found on tape, but Frank never touched Monster X. I quickly became obsessed with obtaining the movie following a mention of it in The Ghoul’s (S)crapbook, and eventually I had to resort to obtaining a bootlegged version that was (naturally) sourced from an ancient TV broadcast. I think it’s in the public domain, but even if it’s not, I now own approximately 8000 legit copies to make up for it. Perhaps fittingly, the version found on TGG’s set appears to be sourced from a VHS. Go figure.

And tell me that title screen isn’t completely awesome. I think it’s the font used for the “Monster X.” Plus, Gamera Vs. Monster X is just a cool title to me, up there with Godzilla Vs. The Thing as far as “neat soundin’ titles” go (that’s just me though; your mileage may vary.)

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Gams looks dangerously close to my pet turtle in this screencap. My turtle doesn’t have the ability of jet-power or to carry enemies skyward, as Gamera is clearly shown performing above. But my turtle does splash furiously whenever he wants food, and that’s pretty darn special too, isn’t it?

(The preceding paragraph is what we like to call “filler,” because I can’t think of really anything else to say about the screencap. It’s Gamera carrying Jiger, okay?)

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I was on an emotional rollercoaster ride with this one (figuratively speaking.) Prior to playing it, I figured this was the usually-seen Sandy Frank version, since I knew Frank’s dubs could show up on these types of sets. But after seeing Gaos and then reading how Zigra‘s title was listed on the back cover, I figured this would be another widescreen print of perhaps shady origin. But then, it turns out this IS the same Sandy Frank dub that’s been floating around for some three decades now, which was exactly what I was expecting with Gamera Vs. Gaos. Wrap your mind around all that, because I sure can’t.

Released in 1971, Gamera Vs. Zigra was the last Gamera until Gamera: Super Monster in 1980. From how I understand it, Daiei went bankrupt and had to be bought out, hence the nine year absence. Even though that 1980 film is considered the last of the original Gamera series, I’ve really always thought of Zigra as the real last one. Super Monster just seems too different. Most of the Gamera footage is taken straight from the old films, it wasn’t made by the same Daiei that made all the other Gameras, and truth be told, I really, really don’t like the ending. Super Monster just doesn’t feel right to me.

So, yeah, I consider Zigra the last of the original Gamera series, and Super Monster a bizarre offshoot. Maybe that’s not the purists viewpoint (or maybe it is, I don’t know,) but it’s certainly my viewpoint. And as we all know, my viewpoint doesn’t amount to a hill of beans is of tantamount importance.

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That’s not to say that I really like Gamera Vs. Zigra, though. In fact, it’s always been one of my least favorites. I should love it, with the vague ecological theme (kinda sorta shades of Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster!) and overwhelming cheapness (I mean, just look at Zigra up above!) But, for whatever reason, it’s always left me cold. That said, it has been awhile since I’ve seen it, so maybe it’s time to revisit. Something tells me it won’t destroy my unwarranted and incomprehensible love for Gamera Vs. Monster X, though.

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Okay, the name of TGG Direct’s set isn’t “The Gamera Collection” or anything like that. It’s called Japanese Monster Movies. Since it’s a budget set, it stands to reason that it is going to consist mainly of Gamera flicks, as most of those are (supposedly) in the public domain. That is to say, despite whatever knowledge I gathered via cheapo VHS companies whilst growing up, Godzilla Vs. Megalon is NOT public domain. What I’m getting at is that TGG presumably only had so many movies to work with without having to shell out the mighty dollars. Keep in mind, I’m not saying they didn’t license some of the flicks found in this set, but conventional wisdom says that these kind of releases don’t have more money poured into them than necessary.

That said, the overwhelming theme of the set is obviously “Gamera.” Look at the cover, look at the menu screens, look at the selected movies. And if that’s not enough, go back up and read the descriptive blurb on the back cover; there are eight movies in the set, and it clearly says they’re all “Gamera Movies.”

Gappa The Triphibian Monsters is NOT a Gamera flick. I knew that going in; I’ve had a recorded-off-TV copy for years, under the title Monster From A Prehistoric Planet. That’s the public domain version, and it appears that that is the version used here, just with a replaced title and end card. Kinda like Gamera Vs. Gaos, but kinda not. Like that one, the newly-created titles stick out like a sore thumb, Unlike that one, we don’t benefit from a crystal clear widescreen print. It almost makes you wonder why they bothered. Maybe the change was made by whoever TGG got this print from, I don’t know.

At any rate, it’s very obviously not a Gamera film, which makes me wonder if they weren’t paying attention, or just trying to sucker the unsuspecting buyer. Though I suppose they couldn’t really say “Here’s seven Gamera flicks, plus one filler” on the back, either.

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I do not like this movie. I never have. Even back in the day when I first taped it, it left me cold, and at that time, I was all about the big ol’ Japanese monsters. Gappa is sort of like a Japanese Gorgo, which in turn was a British Godzilla. Bottom line: a baby “Gappa” is captured and put on display in Japan, and the parents (one of which is what you is did done seein’ above) are none to pleased, so they come to retrieve said baby Gappa. If nothing else, I like this film more than Gorgo, but then, I’ve never liked Gorgo. And yet, I love Gamera Vs. Monster X. Hey, what can I say, I’m complex.

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Disc 3 and (thus the set) ends with two bonus sections: a gallery of scenes that is little more than screencaps from the movies; candid backstage photos they are not. After that there are Gamera trivia facts, which are less fun factoids and more general statements about the films, capped off with generic Asian-y sounding music. If you had watched all of these films in order as placed in this set, you’d know all of this stuff already, which makes them putting the trivia section at the end of the third disc a bit of a head-scratcher. You’ll never watch any of these bonus features again, but if nothing else, they do add a quirky charm to the whole thing.


 

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And there you have it, TGG Direct’s 3-disc Japanese Monster Movie Collection. It’s a cool little set. No one will ever mistake it for something from The Criterion Collection, and there are restored/cleaned up/etc. BluRay releases out there, but for $5, I’d say this one is worth the purchase. There’s some vintage Saturday Afternoon-worthy fare here, and with the few extra ‘odd’ bits, well, I think that just makes this all the more endearing.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem this is available at Amazon.com at the present time. Did it go out of print that quickly? I couldn’t say, but if you come across it, I think it’s worth picking up.

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I’m totally gonna have that “Gammera!” song stuck in my head for awhile now…

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…

An Interview With Marty “Superhost” Sullivan.

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Ah, Superhost. Portrayed by Marty Sullivan, he was a bonafide institution on Northeast Ohio television for 20 years. From 1969 to 1989, Mr. Sullivan hosted Saturday afternoons on WUAB Channel 43. Through his program, untold numbers of kids were introduced to The Three Stooges, as well as classic (and maybe some not-so-classic) horror and sci-fi movies. Even those viewers already familiar with the films found an additional reason to watch in Superhost himself. Indeed, my very first glimpse of the Northeast Ohio movie-hosting tradition was through Superhost, specifically the promos featuring him doing “The Curly Shuffle” that aired during the kids’ programming on WUAB. Even if I was a bit too young to “get it” then, the memories of Supe stayed with me, and found a natural place in my heart when I was old enough to “get it.” And the show has really held up. Unlike some similar programs that show their age or are otherwise “had to be there” viewing, I find myself constantly and consistently laughing out loud at Supe.

I recently had the honor and privilege of interviewing Mr. Sullivan for this blog. He couldn’t have been more gracious with his time or more forthcoming with his stories. A true class-act all the way (it’s obvious why he was and is so beloved by Northeast Ohioans). Here, now, is my interview with Marty “Superhost” Sullivan.

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Me: First off, thanks again for allowing me to talk with you.

Marty Sullivan: No problem!

Me: It is a huge, huge thrill for me.

MS: Well I’m glad! Thank you!

Me: When did you first become interested in becoming a broadcaster?

MS: Oh, that’s a question! I was always interested in radio as a youngster. It was the year of The Lone Ranger and all those dramatic radio shows. Inner Sanctum and Lights Out and all those radio shows. And I used to listen to those as a child, and the interest just kept on. I don’t know when I actually wanted to become an announcer, but I think it was not until I was in college. I worked in a little theater group in college, and I didn’t have a lot of nerve to get up in front of people! So…

Me: [Laughs] So, who would you say were your early influences that sort of pushed you into becoming a broadcaster?

MS: I took some psychological tests when I graduated from high school, and they indicated I was not really sure of myself. I was kind of a quiet kid, and they advised taking some public speaking courses to build-up my self-confidence. So, I did. I took a course that was run in Detroit by two local broadcasters, two big time announcers in Detroit. I went to their school and I learned about radio broadcasting from them. So that’s how that happened.

Me: When did you first actually go into broadcasting?

MS: Actually, I finished the broadcasting course, and I was going, also at the same time, to the Meinzinger School Of Commercial Art in Detroit. I had some ability as a draftsman, so I was taking a course in commercial art. And the commercial arts school went belly-up! I had only been there through the latter part of the summer, and one day I went in to attend class, and there was a note on the board that said “Don’t bother coming in anymore!” So, then I didn’t know what to do, so I figured I’d finish the broadcasting course, “maybe there’s somebody that needs a pronouncer!” Somebody at the school told me that this little station down in Indiana might be needing a disc jockey or announcer or something. So, I sent them a tape, and they said “Come on down! You’re hired!” And that’s actually how I got started in broadcasting, it was a little station in Peru, Indiana, WARU, a little AM station. But it was just a daytime station. At night they had to go off the air, because radio waves traveled further at night. So they went off the air at local sunset.

Me: So how did it end up that you came to Northeast Ohio?

MS: I went back and got into Detroit radio, and had a couple stints there. I was working for WJR, the Goodwill station in Detroit at that point in time. And, I got myself fired at WJR! Then one of the chaps I used to work with at WJR, one of the newsmen, had moved to Cleveland as a newsman. And he called me up and asked me if I wanted to be a newsman down in Cleveland. So, I figured “Well, sure, why not!”

Me: Was that WUAB?

MS: WGAR in Cleveland was where I first started as a newsman. Then George left, the guy who hired me in, was news director. He was unhappy there, so he moved to New York, got a job in New York as a newsman. I think it was WNEW New York. And I thought since he left, he was the one who hired me in, I’d be thrown out! Then, I was hired into an advertising agency in Cleveland. It was Ritchie and Sattler, and they specialized in industrial advertising. One of their clients was RicWil, it was a pipe making company down in Akron, I think it was. I stayed with them about a year, but then that’s when WUAB opened up. Somebody told me it was open. So, again, I was canned at the advertising agency, because they knew of a chap who had a client, a big electronics company, that they wanted to get in the office. So they moved me out to move him in, along with his client. That’s when I got in touch with WUAB, the program manager; sent him a tape and he told me to come on in. Put me to work!

Me: You started there as a newsman?

MS: Announcer, newsman, audio man, camera man…

Me: [Laughs] So pretty much everything!

MS: And nighttime switchboard operator!

Me: So how did it come about that they wanted you to host a Saturday afternoon show? What were the origins of Superhost?

MS: This one I know! I’ve recited it several times! I was doing what they call floor directing. That’s where I was wearing a headset, and was talking to the director in the control room. I was out in the studio to impart those directions to people out there. It was kind of like a Dick Clark Show, called Big Beat Dance Party, and they were taping it on a Saturday. I was floor directing, and The Four Lads were coming in to sing “Standing On a Corner.” So, naturally we had a ‘corner’ set there. And they asked me to stand in four different places so they could adjust the lighting, since the Lads weren’t there yet, we were just getting ready. So I’m standing there and the director is shouting at me over the headsets that I’m unzipped! I must have looked very uncomfortable trying to cover up THAT! So Ted Bays, the program manager, happened to be in the control room when all this is going on, and everybody in the control room is laughing uproariously; I can hear them on the headset! After the show was over, Ted Bays came up and asked me if I wanted to come up with an idea for a show for a character to host a movie. And, that’s what I came up with!

Me: Was it a runaway hit? Did you know what early reactions were or how popular it was at the start?

MS: [Laughs] Yeah, it wasn’t popular at all! It took quite awhile for people to discover – back in those days there weren’t any UHF television stations, very few of them. It was TransAmerica that put it on the air, they were taking a big chance with the new technology, the ultra high-frequency television station. Their signal was a little tricky to get around, it didn’t have the coverage that the VHF stations had. So it took awhile for people to discover UHF. And when they did, they discovered the show! A lot of kids liked watching the old science fiction movies on Saturdays.

Me: You said it wasn’t very popular at first. Did WUAB give you any static? Were they complaining?

MS: No, they were selling commercials, so they were relatively happy with it. They were always after me for more ratings, but I did the best I could. But, it just took awhile for people to discover where it was and the fact they liked these old movies!

Me: Did you ever hear from viewers that just didn’t “get it” or that were complaining?

MS: I was doing a public appearance at a store in Cleveland, at that time called Uncle Bill’s. It was like a Home Depot kind of store. So I did a public appearance there signing autographs, and I’m all dressed up in my little super suit, and I’m in the middle of the store. Kids are coming up, signing autographs, and a couple young-ish men, like in their 20’s or so, were walking by. The one guy pokes the other guy, points to me and says “Oh look, there’s the guy that’s on the TV!” and the other guy looked back and said to his friend “Oh, that a-hole!” So that put everything in perspective!

Me: [Laughing] Did you say anything? I don’t know if I’d know what to say in a situation like that!

MS: Well they weren’t talking to me, I just overheard them!

Me: I’d assume that sort of thing was kept to a minimum?

MS: Yeah, that was the only time I ever heard anybody overtly describe me that way!

Me: You showed a lot of the science fiction and horror movies, did you have a favorite? I know the station probably controlled what you played, but…?

MS: They did, the program manager picked all the movies – usually on the basis of how cheap they were! Let me see, there were a lot of good movies. Forbidden Planet, I liked, where The Krell were the monsters. Who was in that? I can’t think of the name of the man now. The comic actor, did a lot of comedy. Anne Francis was the girl in that, I remember her name! Walter Pidgeon was her father in that movie. It was a good movie.

Me: Are there any other films that you particularly like?

MS: There’s been several new ones that I like. One was called The Red Planet. I like Alien and all the modern films, I like them a lot. In fact, I signed up for Netflix so I could watch them without all the commercials!

Me: How about skits? Everyone knows you’ve done some pretty famous skits like “Convoy” and “The Moronic Woman.” Are there any favorite skits you have?

MS: Well, I remember a little background story: I decided to do a little take-off on The Bionic Woman, and I was talking about it to some of the people at the station at night, and one of the cleaning ladies came up with the idea of the long arms. That was the first one, where The Moronic Woman grabbed the bumper and the guy took off in the car and stretched her arms out 20 feet! That was thought up by one of the cleaning ladies!

Me: Would you say that’s your favorite?

MS: I think my favorite bit was The Moronic Woman where she kicked the football and her leg went up over the goal posts!

Me: I was watching the “Convoy” skit not too long ago, and the part I found funniest the last time I watched it was the three guys kicking their feet during the chorus.

MS: [Those guys] all became directors, ultimately. Where they wound up, I have no idea, but they all became directors. The guy that directed the pilot show I did, the station wanted to see a pilot show before they decided whether to put me on the air or not. So we got together one Sunday night and taped it, and the guy was a man named Harry Kooperstein. Harry went on to Hollywood and became one of the biggest directors out there. He directed a lot of the Los Angeles symphony broadcasts and also directed all the Christmas parades out there. So, Harry became a big deal in Hollywood.

Me: Is his name where you got the alter-ego name [Henry Brookerstein] for Superhost?

MS: Well, we had three directors at channel 43: Henry Briggs was one, Harry Kooperstein was the other, and Brooke Spectorsky was the third.

Me: So you just put them all together?

MS: Mashed ‘em all together!

Me: I know you did a couple Big Chuck & Hoolihan/Lil’ John skits. Were you guys friends off-camera?

MS: Oh yeah, they were good guys. We weren’t direct-competition, anyway. They were on Friday night and I wasn’t on till Saturday, so we weren’t at loggerheads. And they’re nice guys; they came over to the station once to do a commercial for their show because it was too busy there at [WJW] 8. And they stole my phone booth as a gag!

Me: [Laughing]

MS: And I think it’s probably still over at channel 8!

Me: Did you ever do commercials for companies/products?

MS: I did one for some boat company in Cleveland. They sold fishing boats and pleasure boats, and I did a few for that guy, but I don’t remember what the name of the outfit was.

Me: Were you in costume?

MS: I’m not sure now. It’s been so long ago! I think I was, but I don’t have a clear memory of it.

Me: Okay, maybe not necessarily a “favorite” moment, but do you have a most-memorable moment from the whole 20 year run?

MS: Well, probably when I finished the last show. Taping the last show, I thought I’d get emotional, and I was doing pretty good. And then we were breaking down the set and I’m walking out and one of the crew members said “How you doing?” and that kinda got to me. Then it all came to me in a rush: this was the end.

Me: I came around sort of at the end of Superhost, I was just a little guy at the end. And actually, the most endearing memory for me, because they would play the commercial during all the cartoons I’d watch, it’s the promo of you doing “The Curly Shuffle.”

MS: Oh, yeah!

Me: I still have it on my old tapes from when I was little, but I guess that was really my introduction to the whole Northeast Ohio movie hosting thing.

MS: Well that’s great, I’m glad you liked it! We always had fun doing the commercials. I remember right in the middle of that I had to go and have triple bypass surgery.

Me: Oh geez!

MS: St. Vincent’s. And of course it took awhile to recupe from that. I remember the first show I did [after that], I made up a great big band-aid out of colored paper and pasted it on me! Everybody was fussing about the surgery, so I had to put them at ease!

Me: The show’s timeslot: The most famous was an hour of Three Stooges and two movies?

MS: Yeah, originally it was two movies and some other stuff. Sometimes it was Stooges, sometimes it was Superman, the live-action Superman with Steve Reeves or George Reeves or whatever his name was. It changed around over the years, but for the first, I don’t know, 7 or 8 years, 10 years, it was like two movies and short subjects on Saturday.

Me: I read that you ended up showing the Adam West Batman series at one point.

MS: Yeah.

[NOTE: And so, a new video hunting obsession is born. Recordings of Adam West Batman hosted by Superhost are now waaaaay at the top of my “really, really want” list!]

Me: What did you think of those programming changes?

MS: Well, ultimately, when my ratings started sagging, just because people were used to it and all the little kids who used to watch grew up and got a job. They couldn’t spend all day watching the movies! So, that was fine with me.

Me: Was it your decision to end Superhost, or was it WUAB’s?

MS: Well, it was kinda mutual in a sense. We had a new station manager who was brought in from the sales department, and he decided that he‘d do away with Superhost because he could do better with putting wrestling on Saturday. So that was what ultimately caused the end of Supe. And I had told the new program manager that I had rather just kill of Superhost than have him die a slow miserable death. So, he agreed.

Me: I was watching that last one not too long ago and it really does have a, I’d guess you’d say, bittersweet ending. You know how it says “Good Luck, Supe!” at the end.

MS: Yeah. That was the director, his name was Paul Nickerson, who added Thanks” or “Goodbye” or “Good Luck” or whatever it was they put on. I haven’t watched that show in a long time. I’ve got it somewhere on a disc, I think.

Me: what did you do after Superhost ended? You stayed in broadcasting for a few more years, right?

MS: I did, yeah. I stayed at channel 43 still doing the announcing. It was about that time that they put in a whole evening news thing at 10 O’clock on channel 43. I was the only newsman they had for years; I would just change out of the super suit and go out there and do 5 minutes of headline news at 10 O‘clock at night. But then they decided to put in a news department – that took about 35 people to replace me! So that made me kinda smile!

Me: You retired in, 1993, was it?

MS: Right, 1993 and moved over here to Oregon.

Me: Can you still do the Superhost voice?

MS: Yeah, sure! “Hello dere! This is Supe!”

Me: [Laughing] Can you do “Gimme dat shoe?”

MS: Sure! “Gimme dat shoe, y’know!”

[NOTE: I don’t mind telling you I was dying with laughter at this point.]

Me: Would you ever consider coming back and doing a one-off special, or is that sort of…?

MS: No, I don’t think I want to bother with that. Besides, the super suit is getting a little tight around the middle!

Me: Is there anything you miss about broadcasting or Northeast Ohio?

MS: Well, I miss Northeast Ohio. I don’t really miss broadcasting. It was a great run while I had it, but that’s over with. I do miss the people in Northeast Ohio. I mean, they’re just the salt of the earth. They were very faithful to me the whole 20 years I was on television. They were supportive, and friendly, and that applies to everybody in Northeast Ohio.

Me: Well, there’s lots of people that still admire you. You’ve still got a ton of fans here that are grateful, thankful for everything that you did. You’re still very much admired!

MS: Well thank you very much! That’s very kind of you!

Me: Well, thank you very, very much. I can’t tell you how really amazing it has been to talk with you. What a huge, huge thrill it was for me!

MS: Well God Bless you! Thank you!

********************

What an honor it was to speak with a genuine Northeast Ohio television legend. I can’t thank Mr. Sullivan enough for taking the time to speak with me. I know I speak for countless other Northeast Ohioans when I say “Thanks for all the laughs, Supe!”

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Christmas & New Year’s with The Ghoul, Son of Ghoul and Big Chuck & Lil’ John (1998/1999)

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There it is. Not the most-heralded of my many late-90’s/early-2000’s tapes, but certainly one of the more-heralded ones. Please ignore my sloppy, 12-year old handwriting (I’ve kinda sorta improved in that area), and while we’re at it, please ignore The Avenger (a 1961 Steve Reeves film) and the vague “TV Land Programs” descriptive line; those recordings are not conducive to our ultimate goal today (indeed, the TV Land stuff was recorded later, in the summer of ’99). Nope, we’re focusing on the ‘big three’ of Northeast Ohio horror hosts today, all on one powerhouse of a tape, all recorded during or around the holiday season of 1998/99, and all part of some serious nostalgia for me.

1997-1999 was probably the time period most responsible for making me, well, me. Not completely, of course; I continued to refine my goofy self (whatever that means) in the years following, but there’s little doubt that some of the things I’m a still a huge, huge fan of first took hold of me in the era this tape hails from. I had discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Son Of Ghoul in ’97, The Ghoul came back to Cleveland TV in ’98, and despite first watching them in ’96, I really started to appreciate Big Chuck & Lil’ John around ’99. Except for the absence of MST3K and the now-head scratching inclusion of The Avenger, the tape seen above is really a pretty great description of your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s interests in the late-90’s. Even the old TV Land programming is a sight-for-sore-eyes.

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The lead-off recording was The Ghoul’s first Christmas special of his WBNX TV-55 run. It’s also one of the earliest episodes I have from those WBNX years. I recorded the first couple episodes (which I still have), and a few select later ones (which I don’t), but as it stands, this is one of the earliest to survive. In lieu of any other opening credits or theme music, the specialized “Ghoul’s Christmas Special” title makes it clear that this is a ‘big deal’ in the Ghoul Power world. Also a big deal: according to a quick internet calendar search, this aired on Christmas ’98, a Friday, which was obviously December 25th (at the very tail-end of the day, 11:30 PM, but hey, it counts).

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The Ghoul loved the Christmas season and would go all out to celebrate it, including the special Christmas-themed border and groups of kids in attendance, as seen above. It’s clear he loved the holiday season, and the next year, he would even have, roughly, a month-long celebration, running the 1935 Scrooge as well as Santa Claus In Mother Goose Land (which was actually The Magic Land Of Mother Goose and was, if I recall correctly, only vaguely Christmassy) in addition to the film that was also shown that first year…

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It’s the 1959 Mexican film Santa Claus. A the time, I was only familiar with this movie via what was printed in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, and since it wasn’t listed in Leonard Maltin’s guide nor had I discovered IMDb yet, I had no idea what year it was even released in, which is why, if you scroll back up, you’ll see I have only “Mexican” listed in brackets next to the title on the tape sleeve. I wouldn’t have known even that if the opening credits didn’t mention Mexico.

The Ghoul loved running this movie during Christmastime, and I have four separate Christmas airings of it: this first one from 1998, plus 1999, 2000 and 2001. And for all I know, he ran it again and again during the rest of his WBNX run.

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Truth be told though, I’ve never much cared for the movie. If it weren’t for the fact that it was then a (to me) obscure foreign film, and one that had been MST’d at that, I’m not sure it would have survived all these years, let alone the three other airings I have. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I have all of them, the more Ghoul the better, but I’m not as enamored of this flick as others are. In fact, for a movie that’s gained a pretty impressive cult following, I really can’t stand it at all. Oh, I should love it for the incredible weirdness it presents (Santa battling the forces of evil, wind-up mechanical reindeer, Merlin, and a bizarre pair of moving red lips that are the very definition of “terrifying”), but I don’t know, it’s a movie that has always left me cold.

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Not so with the second recording on the tape, which would have aired on Saturday, December 26th. It’s Son of Ghoul’s Christmas special! At the time, SOG was on both Friday and Saturdays, 8-10 PM, so an identical episode would have been aired the day before on Christmas Day as well. It’s interesting that both The Ghoul’s and Son of Ghoul’s shows were/are so different, yet they both really went the extra mile for Christmas.

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Oooh, I’m diggin’ that swanky green border! Unlike usual episodes, SOG read the mail on the main dungeon set, as seen in that left screencap. On the right, the screencap comes from the very close of the show. As you can see, they even had a guy in a reindeer costume, and fake reindeer poop on the floor to go with him/it! Tis the season?

SOG’s annual Christmas show has become one of my favorite ‘extra’ parts of the season. Nowadays he’s only on Saturdays, and every weekend before Christmas, there’s a yearly show dedicated to the holiday. More than once (twice, to be exact, including this year), stuff I’ve sent in has been presented on the Christmas show, and it’s always a nice addition to my holiday season. I was regularly writing SOG by 1998, but nothing of mine was presented during his ’98 special. Considering I never really had anything particularly interesting and/or important to say back then, that was probably for the best.

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It hasn’t been shown for a few years, but Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (see, I told you my UAV tape wasn’t the last you’d see of it this holiday season!) was once a yearly tradition, not unlike SOG’s running of Night Of The Living Dead every Halloween. I like this movie waaaay more than Santa Claus. It’s weird, it’s goofy, it’s idiotic, but all in a good way. Some may argue that the other movie was all of that and more, but the fact remains that Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is my preferred bad movie for the Christmas season. Even the MST3K version was, in my opinion, superior to their take on Santa Claus.

Speaking of the MST3K version, when they riffed the film, their print didn’t include the title card as seen above. Apparently, because of that, many people were unaware that the film circulated/circulates with a title card. which was odd to me, because by the time I saw the MST3K episode, every print of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians I had seen up to that point had a title as you’d expect.

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I first saw this movie when SOG ran it during the Christmas season of 1997, and then right after, I got my copy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide for Christmas 1997, and learned they did the film, too. It’s a pretty weird movie, clearly aimed at the lil’ baby childrens, in which martians kidnap Santa in order liven the martian children up. It includes Pia Zadora (who, contrary to my UAV tape’s description, is not especially precocious – yes, I’m still irritated by that line), and a guy that looks a lot like Jamie Farr but isn’t Jamie Farr (much to my chagrin).

That left screencap above is either the embodiment of the Christmas season, or a truly nightmarish visage, I can’t decide. Maybe it’s both.

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At one point, SOG superimposed himself into the movie, and tried to light Santa’s pipe. I thought that was pretty funny.

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The last (applicable) recording on the tape is the New Years portion referred to in the title. It didn’t air on New Year’s Eve or Day, nearest I can figure is it was broadcast in the first half of January, but nevertheless, this episode of Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s Couch Potato Theater has some pretty strong memories attached to it (not the least of which is the image above, well familiar to me from so many Saturday afternoons).

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Ah, Big Chuck & Lil’ John on their old King Kong set. It was the same set as their usual Friday night Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show, except Couch Potato Theater was always broadcast Saturday afternoon and was called, you know, Couch Potato Theater. Couch Potato Theater was a bit of a wild-card: sometimes a full-length movie would be shown, other times old Three Stooges shorts or episodes of The Abbott And Costello Show, even skits-only if time was an issue (similar to what the revived Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show is now). In this case, though, old silent short comedies were the day’s subject.

My recording of this almost didn’t happen. At the time, I was a big, big fan of silent comedy films (still am, actually, though not quite as fervent), and trying to catch and tape some of them when they were run as unscheduled-between-programming-filler on WAOH/WAX was a common thing with me. Somehow, though, I missed the TV Guide listing for this episode of Couch Potato Theater, in which several old silent comedies were run over the course of the afternoon. To make matters worse, we had to leave soon because my brother had a basketball game. So, I grabbed the only available tape, cued it up after The Avenger, and hit record. Better than nothing, right?

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I began taping in the middle of some Keystone film, the title of which I no longer remember, but was able to capture the entire last subject of the day: Charlie Chaplin’s The Champion, a 1915 Essanay film, which was from the period when Chaplin’s movies started to get really good. From how I understand it, this particular short has been the subject of much editing and whatnot over the years, but the version Big Chuck & LIl’ John ran was the Blackhawk Films print, apparently one of the better ones. Certainly lengthier, if nothing else.

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The Champion, as the name and screenshots kinda sorta show, detail Chaplin’s Little Tramp character becoming a boxer. The subject of boxing is one I’ve always liked (having grown up on the Rocky movies), and the addition of an English Bulldog is always a plus, so yeah, I like this short. I’m sure I have many of them on cheap, public domain DVDs, but I’m not as familiar with Chaplin’s Essanay films as I am with his Mutual work, which I consider my favorite of his.

At the time, I was just then starting to appreciate Big Chuck & Lil’ John, something that would be more fully-realized when I began watching The Abbott And Costello Show on their Saturday afternoon program. Still, I recall having made a habit of at least checking the listing for their Friday night show, so I’m not sure how I missed the listing for these old silents. I can’t remember if I discovered the broadcast while flipping channels or if I came across it that day in TV Guide, but either way, I came in when most of it was over. It was one of those feelings, unfortunately well-familiar to me as a heavy-taper by then, of “Oh man, I’m missing this!” Of course, the follow-up “Well, at least I got some of it” took a bit of the sting away.

(If you go way back to the top and look at the tape’s label, you’ll see that the listing for this is off to the side and not where it should be, right after The Avenger. That’s because, for years, this broadcast was unlisted on the tape. I don’t know if it was due to the haphazard nature of the recording or what, but for whatever reason, I never labeled it properly. Oh sure, I took the time to label “TV Land Programs” later that summer, but Chuck & John got shorted on that front. It wasn’t until 2011 when I was making a concerted effort to label a lot of my tapes that had suffered in obscurity for years that this was duly notarized. It took a bit of searching, I could only remember it was on a tape with a purple Sony tape, but finally I found it, labeled it, and it is now given the proper respect it so deserves.)

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There’s just under an hour of Chuck & John action on the tape, but even so, several skits were captured. My favorite of them (tied with “The Lil’ Flash,” at least) was Cuyahoga Jones, their Indiana Jones parody. This was the first time I had ever seen one of these skits, which were part of a continuing storyline in which Cuyahoga tries to steal the “Kapusta Diamond.” Big Chuck played Cuyahoga, and Lil’ John played Shortstuff. In this one, they tried to earn $20 in order to buy supplies to help them carry the safe containing the diamond out of the castle. Pretty funny stuff!

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of memories tied into this tape, more than I could ever hope to accurately describe in print. The video itself, yeah, I fondly recall all of this stuff from that winter season, but it also brings to mind that general period in my life. All of the things/shows/etc. I was and am into, sure, but also other memories, like going to the mall with my Mom for Christmas shopping, come to mind when thinking of the era this tape comes from. As much as I love the actual recordings, I think those memories are even more important to me. Maybe I’m doing a sloppy job of getting across what I’m trying to say, but hopefully you know what I’m getting at. I’m sure you can all relate in one way or another.

And so, with that, this Christmas post nears an end. I sincerely hope all of you have a fantastic Christmas and New Years. Thank you to all that have taken the time to read this blog, and in some cases, even pass the link around. Have a wonderful holiday season and be safe in the new year.

Stay tuned, more goofy stuff to come!

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