Tag Archives: classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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]

Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice VHS Series: 1941’s The Wolf Man (1987)

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You know, I had an entirely different, non-seasonally-themed post in mind for this week, until I realized that next week is Halloween. Next week! October is flying by, a realization that is bittersweet for me; I love this month and this time of year, and I hate to see it all zoom by so quickly. But on the other hand, the big day is at the very end of it all, and at least in my situation, you gotta make it through most of October to get to Ghoulardifest. And then there’s Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and on and on it all goes. I love this time of year!

Anyway, with the season being in the full swing of things, I figured I may as well stick with a horror theme until the end of month (not so hard to do; barring the Tarzan post and Big Chuck & Lil’ John pre-game one, all of my recent posts are more or less seasonally-appropriate. I didn’t plan things that way, it’s just how it all worked out).

On that front, nothing screams “spirit o’ da season!” quite like Gene Shalit’s mustachioed visage plastered all over a VHS release of The Wolf Man. Behold: from 1987, it’s MCA Home Video’s release of 1941’s The Wolf Man, as part of their Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice series! It’s not a particularly rare video, it can be had on eBay for a few mere dollars, but any time Gene Shalit himself shows up out of nowhere to tell me to watch a movie, well, that’s worthy of a post. Plus, The Wolf Man, Halloween, it just fits.

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The movie is a classic for sure, but for this particular post, it’s really all about the cover art this time around. Yeah, we’ll take a brief look at the film itself, but seriously, the cover art makes this one.

First off, you’ve got that great image regarding the movie itself: Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular character, gripping Evelyn Ankers, surrounded by fog, foreboding trees, it’s all just great. Really, you don’t need much more to sell The Wolf Man in my opinion. Later VHS releases, including one that’s an illustrated close-up of Wolfie’s face and one that used the original gol’derned poster art as a template, failed to improve upon the spooky vibes emanating from the cover art of this 1987 release.

Annnnnd then, in waltzes Gene Shalit. And make no mistake, it’s all about the Shalit here. Now granted, there was a whole line of these Critic’s Choice tapes for MCA featuring him, some more befitting his image than others, but in the case of this particular entry, it’s just such an odd combination. You’ve got Gene Shalit, longtime Today Show movie critic, with his big giant mustache and even bigger bow tie, busy mugging for the camera while Lon Chaney Jr. is busy committing wolficide mere inches away. You can almost hear him making a pun. “Now that’s what I call a hairy situation!” That’s the kind of pun he used to make, right?

And I love the film strip at the bottom of the cover, showing what I like to call “The Four Stages Of Gene.” From left to right, you’ve got apprehensive Gene, jokey Gene, spooked Gene, and knowledgeable Gene. It’s any kind of Gene for any kind of movie!

Keep in mind, I’m not criticizing any of this, either. I’ve got nothing but respect for Gene Shalit, I think he’s a cool guy, and he was (and is) such a well-known personality that it makes perfect sense to have him pitch what are, ostensibly, his top-home video picks. But like I said before, when it comes to this particular movie, it’s just such a jarring combination. Heck, when I first stumbled upon this video, that’s precisely what attracted me to it. It’s the kind of tape that really could have only come out in the 1980s, and again, that’s not a criticism.

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I give ’em props for Shalit-izing the back cover, too; supposedly he himself write the synopsis, and even if he didn’t, it gives a pretty good idea of his style. Go ahead and click on the picture for a supersized version. Read that description and then tell me it’s not the greatest synopsis The Wolf Man has ever had or will have.

First off: puns! Gene Shalit loved him some puns, and he gets off some good ones here. He totally makes a “hairy” gag (having only glanced at the description beforehand, I promise you my joke earlier was entirely coincidental or subconscious or some crap like that). And “…all howl breaks loose” alone is almost certainly the greatest thing ever written on the back of a Wolf Man release. This is a statement I comfortably make, despite having not read the descriptive synopsis on the back of each and every one of them.

Beyond the patented Shalit style, however, is the fact that it’s just a really great description: there’s enough humor to keep it from being dry, and just enough information to make it sound interesting without giving too much away. Remember, this tape came out when rental stores were the places to go for movies; while it’s hard to imagine anyone not having some idea of what The Wolf Man was about, the truth is that the description on the back of a box could and often did make the difference between what wound up being a weekend rental and what continued to languish on the shelf. The cover art (which, as I said, this release also has nailed) got the people to pick the tape up, but the description could be the swaying factor in a real, honest-to-goodness rental.

Or maybe I’m just totally full of it, who knows.

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Why’d you write your name all over my collectible VHS tape, Lisa M.?!

The absence of Gene Shalit’s name anywhere on the tape itself leads me to believe there was a ‘regular’ VHS release of this movie, and the same tapes were used both for that and this Gene Shalit-branded-sleeve version. (Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s a ranch anywhere that brands their cattle with Gene Shalit’s face. If there’s not, there should be.) But then, looking at online auctions, most of the ‘early’ releases tend to be this exact one; I’m not seeing any non-Shalit version from the time period. Maybe more people bought this one for the exact same reasons that I’m so enamored with it. Or maybe I’m just totally full of it, who knows.

By the way, do you like the way I snapped the picture with Shalit overlooking the proceedings? Totally intentional, yo. I like to imagine those are the stages of his reaction to Lisa M. writing her name on the label. He starts off irritated and then learns to live with it. Seems plausible.

(If you’re reading this Lisa M., I’m just kidding.)

Okay, Gene Shalit may not be on the tape itself, but he is all over the sleeve; dare I dream that he hosts the actual movie as well? Oh I dare. Hey, if Elvira can host movies for home video, why not Gene Shalit too? (He asked as if there’s any real comparison between Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark and Gene freakin’ Shalit.)

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Aw shucks. Bitter sadness: Gene Shalit appears on the VHS sleeve only. Apparently he said all he had to say about the movie on the back cover.

Of course I kid. I didn’t really expect Gene Shalit to pop up on-screen and intro the movie, although the idea of his providing running commentary not unlike Mystery Science Theater 3000 just popped into my head and bizarrely amuses me.

But then, The Wolf Man is a movie that doesn’t need anything extra. This is a genuine Universal horror classic! It’s a terrific, engrossing film, and coming from me, that’s a telling statement.

Why’s that? Well, It may be anathema to admit this, but I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m not a big werewolf guy. Werewolf movies in general I’ve never much cared for (you probably won’t see Gene Shalit lending his mug to Fury Of The Wolfman anytime soon!), and as far as the Universal classics go, for me personally The Wolf Man generally finds a lukewarm place somewhere in the middle. While I always liked The Wolf Man more than The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Phantom, he’s still markedly below my favorites of Frankenstein, The Gill Man, and Dracula (in that order). Luckily, many of those other monsters that I am more fond of appeared in the sequels to this movie.

That’s the title screen up above, by the way.

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This original 1941 The Wolf Man is really the exception to all that, though. While I’m not as enamored with the character as others are, this movie is fantastic. Unlike the sequels, in which Universal apparently felt Wolfie couldn’t stand on his own, it all works wonderfully here. It’s not a movie I watch terribly often, but when I do, I enjoy it.

The plot as it is may not sound too revolutionary; this sort of thing has been done over and over so many times throughout the years that some of the bite (see, I can pun too HAW HAW HAW) has been taken out of this original film, but if you can overlook that and just watch this one on its own, it’s great.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, who is returning to his family home in Wales. His brother has died and he wants to make amends with his father (Claude “I is the invisible mang” Rains). One night he tangles with a wolf, which turns out to be Bela Lugosi (who somehow I totally forgot was in this movie) in the form of a wolf. Talbot is bitten, and, well, you can see where this is going. Larry is now unwittingly a werewolf (whom you can see above in the handy screencap).

Look, if you haven’t seen it, just go watch it, okay? It’s a great flick.

You know, I spend so much time looking at home recorded tapes or ancient budget videos that I forget how clean some movies can look on VHS, and The Wolf Man is one of them. Sure, it’s an old videotape, it’s a little grainy, but it’s an officially licensed MCA/Universal tape. That is, it’s a clean, nice looking print of the movie, recorded in SP mode. It’s not a remastered DVD, I know, but compared to most of the crap I look at, it might as well be. Plus, you know, Gene Shalit on the cover and everything.

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I was actually pretty happy to add this one to my collection. Sure, I usually prefer my Universal monsters horror hosted (see: here and here), but there’s something to be said for (relatively) quirky older releases such as this. By 1987, home video, VHS in particular, was pretty well entrenched in the public consciousness, and tapes like this were what the people wanted; clean, uncut, commercial-free classic movies they could watch any time they darn well pleased. Nowadays we have the film on DVD and Blu-ray, but for a cool late-1980s/early-1990s throwback, it may not be a bad idea to bust out the ol’ VCR and fire this (or any horror flick of your choice really) up this Halloween. Something about it just seems so right. To me, anyway.

Plus, Gene Shalit. I strongly feel Gene Shalit plastered all over movie covers should totally be an ongoing thing. Heck, why’d they stop at VHS? DVD, Blu-ray, digital downloads (somehow), there’s no format not worthy of the Shalit bow tie guarantee of greatness!

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – Crown Movie Classics VHS Release

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I haven’t talked much about Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis on this blog, but in the league of my all-time favorite films, it is way, way near the top. I like a lot of movies, but we’re talking a top five’r, here. Not only is it a genuine silent masterpiece, but it’s also a movie I just never get tired of.

Kino’s 2004 DVD release of a terrific restoration and, even better, their 2010 DVD and Blu-ray release of a virtually complete version have obviously made earlier editions obsolete, but during the VHS-era, there were a myriad of different releases of the film, exacerbated by a public domain status (that apparently no longer holds). Needless to say, this Crown movie Classics edition (undated, but almost certainly from the mid-1980s) is one such release.

Y’see, following the original 1927 theatrical release, for various reasons the movie almost immediately began being cut down, the end result being that for years the complete original cut of the film was considered lost, and by the time of the home video era, there were a ton of differing prints out there, in varying degrees of quality and completeness. Barring few exceptions, most of these releases weren’t all that good, suffering from poor print quality, incompleteness, and so on.

By the late-1990s/early-2000s, the conventional Metropolis wisdom was that the two best releases to have were 1) the then-out-of-print Vestron Video release of the 1984 Giorgio Moroder restoration, which for all of Moroder’s tampering (modern tinting and effects, subtitles instead of intertitles, a then-modern rock soundtrack, even a few newly-filmed bits), had beautiful print quality and more scenes restored that any other version up to that point. It was a polarizing restoration, for sure, but just from a viewable footage/coherent story standpoint, it was worth the high prices used copies were regularly commanding on Ebay at the time (it has since been released on DVD and Blu-ray). 2) The 1989 Kino VHS release. It wasn’t as complete as Moroder’s, but it was absolutely the best ‘traditional’ version of Metropolis out there, in glorious black & white and fantastic print quality. The only downside was a semi-jazzy soundtrack that didn’t fit all that well and actually dragged the whole film down.

Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to find a good print of the film (and make no mistake, for years the quality of a print made all the difference as to whether a viewer ‘got’ the movie or not), but back then, Moroder and Kino were the ones to go after. The thing was, by the late-1990s/early-2000s, the Moroder version had been out of print for years, and while it was readily available used online, the popularity frequently made prices range from $30-$60 (depending on condition) for the VHS release, and if you wanted the Laserdisc edition, you were going to have to really pry open the wallet (contrary to what many claimed, the VHS was never that rare, just very highly sought-after, but the Laserdisc was a whole different story). And, to make matters worse, the ’89 Kino VHS was becoming increasingly harder to find around this time, too. Over time, these tapes began costing more and more to acquire, but they were worth the effort, because while neither was perfect, they were the only ones to do Metropolis any kind of justice in the home video market (in regards to the mainstream home video market, I mean; there were probably some specialty mail-order retailers that released decent VHS editions, but most people shopping in the video stores never saw those kind of copies).

So, besides Moroder and the 1989 Kino VHS, there were tons of varying video releases out there, and the differences between them could be pretty drastic. Metropolis had long since attained “legendary film” status, and with the movie then in the public domain, it was an easy target for low-budget releases. Many (most?) people may have been satisfied picking up one of these releases and calling it a day, but personally, after acquiring Moroder’s (and having already had a bargain-bin version), I began buying as many variants of the film as I could come across. Sure, most of them were crummy, but it was actually kinda fun to see how they differed from each other. From quality to beginning/end cards to soundtracks to completeness, they could vary wildly from one copy to the next. I still have all of my different VHS copies I’ve acquired over the years (in a box dedicated almost entirely to just Metropolis), and while my collecting has become more sporadic in recent times, I do still pick up obscure releases or ones I otherwise haven’t come across before, even though it goes without saying that I own all of the new, definitive restorations.

And that brings us back to the Crown Movie Classics VHS (remember when this article was supposed to be about it?). Oddly enough, despite my being aware of it for years through online searches, this Crown Movie Classics release is actually a newer acquisition of mine. In this day and age it’s not particularly rare, maybe uncommon at best, but much to my surprise, it’s one of the more interesting video releases from the era.

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As previously stated, there’s no date anywhere on this tape, but the mention of it being released in theaters on the back of the box (they probably should have said “re-released,” but I nitpick) points to around 1985. Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 release wasn’t just a great restoration, it also brought the film back to movie theaters, which is almost certainly what the summary on the box is referring to.

My own quick synopsis: Metropolis is a seminal silent sci-fi (how’s that for alliteration?!) classic from Germany, enormously influential, not only in the science fiction genre, and not only in silent films, but in film making period. Falling into the German expressionist category, it details a futuristic city in which the rich and privileged live in a towering city above ground, while workers keep the city running through endless manual labor below ground. Plotlines involving the son of the man who runs the city, a girl from below ground who wants to unite the two classes of people, a robot created by a mad scientist, as well as some simply phenomenal special effects that are still impressive, it all combines into a not only a terrific sci-fi movie, but one that works as a social allegory, even today. Not only was Metropolis ahead of its time in many ways, it’s also still frighteningly prescient.

That’s an extremely streamlined rundown of the film, which is intentional. My reasoning? if you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you are already familiar with it. However, if by some chance you haven’t seen Metropolis and are reading this, go watch it. Nothing can replace experiencing this film for yourself, even more so now that we have practically the complete film restored and available.

I first actually saw the movie in the summer of 1998 (July 4th or thereabouts, as I recall), when I found a budget video release of it at Best Buy, back when their budget VHS sections could yield untold numbers of “good stuff.” Metropolis played into my love of both sci-fi movies and silent movies, so it was a no-brainer purchase. Unfortunately, the tape I bought was the version released by Madacy, which unbeknownst to me at the time was widely considered one of the worst versions to have. Madacy, who were no strangers to such things, repackaged this particular print endlessly in the VHS era, and in the late-1990s it was by far the most commonly found edition. Combining abysmal print quality and a score comprised entirely of classical music with no attempt whatsoever to sync it with what was happening on screen, well, it wasn’t exactly Metropolis as it was meant to be seen.

While I appreciated the film for what it represented and the achievements it made, truth be told, it wasn’t until I caught a TV broadcast of Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 restoration that I truly fell in love with the film, and I’ve been there ever since.

One thing about collecting Metropolis: the more differing copies you’d get, the more you’d start running into the same prints over and over again after awhile. I’ll explain more in a bit, but that aforementioned Madacy release actually shares some heritage with this Crown Movie Classics one, though one isn’t a carbon copy of the other. Read on, you’ll see.

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Ignore both the 120 minute running time on the back of the box and the 139 minute running time printed on the tape’s label, because the movie as found here only runs about 95 minutes. Not so unusual, since the running times of these earlier, lower-budget VHS releases generally ranged from 90 minutes to 120 minutes. The running times were rarely a gauge of how complete a respective print was, though; rather, this being a silent, the speed at which the film was run varied from version to version, and that more than anything dictated the total running time of a particular release.

Also, this release is recorded in SP, which of course is preferable to the EP and LP recordings of a good many other copies out there at the time.

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W-w-what’s it say?! The various problems of this release are immediately evident as soon as the movie starts. The introductory card is so blurry, it’s basically unreadable! This does not inspire confidence in the product that’s to follow.

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As I mentioned, this Crown Movie Classics VHS actually has quite a bit in common with that old Madacy release that was my first Metropolis. It clearly comes from the same source, though the two are hardly identical. Because Madacy’s was such a widely distributed version, comparisons between the two are, for me, inevitable.

Madacy presented one of the worst prints out there, but Crown Movie Classics’ release, well, it’s not exactly good either. The picture quality is uniformly terrible; blurry, washed out, off-center (just look at the title above!), it’s pretty rough going. Madacy’s version was pretty terrible looking, too, though I’m honestly I’m not sure which is worse here. Both present pretty poor versions of Metropolis. I never thought I’d say it, but based solely on that introductory text we saw, I may have to give the edge to Madacy as far as better print quality goes! At least the intro was kinda readable in that one!

Besides some editing differences, the chief example of which you’ll see in the next screencap, Madacy’s took the beginning cards, end card (in fact, Madacy’s end card looks to be some modern, cheesy cartoon-like thing; it’s completely different from the one on this tape) and intertitles and freeze-framed them, ostensibly so they’d be more readable. It ends up looking incredibly cheap, especially with all of the dust and scratches frozen in the frame. Crown Movie Classics’ version, however, leaves all of these unchanged, which if nothing else looks much more natural.

Soundtracks: Madacy decided to use random classical music with no connection to what was happening on-screen. Crown Movie Classics, on the other hand, used a soundtrack that seems like it would be more at home in a Laurel & Hardy short than Metropolis. It’s almost funny to hear happy-go-lucky music during some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie, except that it’s effectively taking you out of a scene instead of drawing you into it. Like the print quality, I can’t really decide which is the worse soundtrack, though I think I’d take Crown Movie Classics’ over Madacy’s…by a hair.

(To be fair, the same exact same print as what showed up in the Madacy VHS’ also appeared on tapes from other companies, and I really have no idea who the actual originator of the offending print was, but Madacy repackaged and released the version so many times that in time it appropriately became known as the “Madacy version.”)

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For as crummy as the print quality and soundtrack are, there is a factor that, believe it or not, puts this version of Metropolis above most others on the market from the mid-1980s up through the 1990s, and you’re looking at it above: it’s the “stadium scene,” one of the hallmark “restored scenes” found in Moroder’s restoration. It wasn’t exactly exclusive to that restoration, but it turned up so rarely in other home video versions that it might as well have been.

It’s not really a long scene, just a fairly short moment of some of the upper-class citizens having a quick race at the start of the film. It’s placement in this print is a bit out of order from where it should be, and quality is so poor that a first-time viewer would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly was going on, but the fact that it’s here at all is a pleasant surprise. It’s amazing how stuck-in-2000 my Metropolis sensibilities are, because I got pretty jazzed upon finding this scene in this VHS release, even though I already have, you know, the complete restoration of the movie on DVD.

When DVDs were just starting to take off in the late-1990s, Metropolis began finding a presence in that format just as it had on VHS. But for a time, there were only two real DVD releases out there: Madacy’s, which was just a DVD version of their poor VHS, and one put out by a company called Classic Media Holdings, which was the same print as this Crown Movie Classics VHS – except the picture quality was infinitely better (I have a copy somewhere, but I don’t remember if the soundtrack is the same or not). Until the 2004 Kino release, it was really the best DVD version out there. It came out around 1998/1999, and by 2001, it was out of print and not easy to find. When a copy did turn up on Ebay, it went for pretty big bucks (in the summer of 2001, a copy popped up there, and I had a pocket full of dough from my recent grade school graduation party; it still wasn’t enough to win the auction. We’re talking well over a hundred bucks here. I finally got a copy some years later, though truth be told, it wasn’t much cheaper). The relatively excellent picture quality was certainly a selling point of the DVD release, but this stadium scene, this one little short scene that happened to be included, was also a big part of that.

Which brings me to this point: if someone, back in the glory days of the late-90’s/early-2000s Ebay when these types of tapes were actually selling, had listed a copy of this Crown Movie Classics edition and specifically mentioned this stadium scene, preferably in the auction title, there’s a good chance that not only would they have made a sale, they also would have made a bit more money than usual. That’s how starved some Metropolis fans (myself included) were for better, more unique, more complete versions of the movie at the time.

And despite sharing the same source, no, this scene is not in the Madacy release.

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There are some scenes that, no matter how terrible the print and/or sound quality are, that remain amazing. Despite the blurriness of the picture, the early scene of the underground workers walking zombie-like to work is unbelievable. The machine-like dehumanization of the scene is unmistakeable, and it has become one of the defining images of Metropolis.

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Ditto for the scene in which the scientist Rotwang (save the snickering, please) gives the image of heroine Maria to his robot. The special effects used, particularly as the persona is being grafted to robot (consisting of animated rings moving up and down the robot and growing progressively in number), is remarkable for a 1920s film.

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The print quality obscures many of them in this version, but the panoramic shots of the city itself are still pretty awe-inspiring. According to legend, the various shots of the city were inspired by the towering skyscrapers of New York as Fritz Lang first entered the city via boat. The inspiration shows time and time again in Metropolis.

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Even though you almost can’t read it, according to the end card, this was a Thunderbird Films release. I don’t know when they first put out their version of the film, but they released a lot of movies like this. I’m pretty sure I have a copy of Buster Keaton’s The General by them somewhere. Or maybe that was Blackhawk Films, I don’t remember.

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It’s not really a ‘good’ version of Metropolis, but it is an interesting one. In fact, for those curious to see one of the cheaper, varying prints of the film out there when there wasn’t (much) better available, well, I guess you could do worse. The abysmal print and sound quality, clashing with the more-complete print (relative to other similar releases), the whole thing is entertaining in spite of itself. Though, to be fair, Metropolis is such a monumental film that even these old, disrespectful prints, despite trying their best, can’t completely hide what a masterpiece the movie is. If nothing else, it’s worth having just to see what fans by and large had to put up with in the home video market until things were more widely done right by Fritz Lang’s classic.

Geez, there’s an essentially complete DVD/Blu-ray release out there, and I just spent 47 hous talking about an incredibly obsolete VHS version. I have, how do you say, too much time on my hands.

ProScan VHS VCR Model No. PSVR81

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It’s all about the contours with this one. I’ve got so many VCRs at this point that anything outside of the mid-1980’s ‘sweet spot’ almost has to be all about the contours (in other words: it’s gotta look cool, or have enough features to make up for not looking cool, which in and of itself is cool. Dig?). And boy, this unit has “style” to burn; the sleek black casing and overall elegant design practically scream “classy product, yo!” Which is why I pretty much flipped when I happened upon this deck at a thrift shop recently. It actually took me a moment to realize it was a VCR; at first glance the design, as well as the fact that the flap-door blends right in with said design, fooled me into thinking this was a stereo receiver or something. The second I realized it was instead a slick-lookin’ VCR, it became mine (well, I held on to it for dear life; it didn’t *technically* become mine until the appropriate amount of cash was thrown down at the register, but you know what I meant).

I have only limited experience with ProScan products, but according to this Wikipedia article, they seem to be on the higher-end of things. The sole ProScan product I had prior is the best Laserdisc player I’ve ever owned: a really terrific unit with auto-flip (i.e., no getting up to flip the disc) and some other snazzy features. This is the player I always have hooked up (yeah, I still watch Laserdiscs from time to time; love ’em) and it has always performed like a champ. So yeah, what experience I have with ProScan has been 100% positive.

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I don’t know what year this hails from, but my gut told me around 1995, and this page more-or-less confirms that feeling with a “1994-1995.” It looks like a product of the 1990s, but in a good way. I’ve mentioned time and time again my ambivalent feelings towards the electronics of the era, but there are exceptions, and this unit more than any other qualifies.

(The deck I talked about in this post exemplifies the “cheap 1990s” look I usually avoid; strangely, that post and the VCR it’s about I had both completely forgotten about until it showed up on my WordPress dashboard as having been viewed by someone recently. It took me a moment to even remember where I stored the thing; that’s how forgettable some 90s electronics were/are!)

Eagle eyes will notice that this deck uses the VCR Plus+ get up. I never had any first-hand experience with VCR Plus+, but basically you could input the number codes found next to listings in TV Guide and whatnot into the VCR and it would automatically record the program. I don’t think I ever had a deck that used VCR Plus+ (back in my ‘real’ taping days, I mean), I always manually set the VCR timer, which wound up being a good thing, because I got complete versions of programs that would have been cut-off by running over their timeslot otherwise (VCR Plus+ didn’t adjust for that sorta thing, from how I understand it).

Oddly enough, despite the fact it means fairly little in regards to a VCRs functionality, at least nowadays, I’ve seen units with the VCR Plus+ moniker marked higher than other VCRs at thrift shops and the like. Maybe that’s just skewed perception on my part, but it sure seems like that’s what folks are doing, and if so, it fills me with a burning rage you can’t begin to fathom.

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The thing actually says “Hello” when you turn it on. That’s adorable. It’s a small touch, but it adds an even more classy quality to a machine that already looks pretty darn spiffy. Sure, it’s just a small gimmick that doesn’t really mean anything, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

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Remember that time I gushed about the audio level readout in this post? Of course you don’t. Anyway, I always get a kick out of it, particularly on newer (relatively speaking) units such as this one. I could be dead wrong on this, but it seems like this was a feature that was by and large phased out on VCRs as the 1990s progressed. Again, I could be dead wrong on that, but I know that I’ve found far fewer 1990s decks that sport audio levels when compared to 1980s VCRs.

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In addition to the usual fast forward/rewind/play/stop buttons, the PSVR81 also features this stylin’ jog wheel, though I still call these “swing shuttles,” which was Sony’s (and others?) name for the feature. It lets you access pause, slow-motion, etc. Admittedly, I never really use the jog wheels, but I also admit that they look really cool to me. Anytime I come across a deck with a jog wheel, it’s almost assuredly a must-purchase (unless preliminary testing proves that the deck doesn’t work correctly).

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The not-immediately-noticed panel along the bottom of the front features a number of other options, including a button that awards the ability to record in all three speeds (SP, LP, SLP), blank search, input select, and a set of AV input jacks. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing tracking control anywhere on the unit, which means it was almost certainly a feature accessed via the remote, which was MIA with this particular VCR.

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On the back: AV inputs and outputs and antenna in-and-out jacks. See, PSVR81. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t.

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As with any thousand-year-old VCR, the million dollar question is “how does it work?” This PSVR81 runs incredibly well. Maybe it was serviced at some point in the past, but I have a feeling it was just well-maintained on top of being high quality in the first place. All of the functions perform like new, and the picture is terrific. Me being me, of course I used an old Magnum, P.I. tape for screencap purposes, because no VCR would dare chew up Magnum (but just in case, I tested tapes I didn’t care as much about beforehand).

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This really is a fantastic machine, and it must have looked swanky as all get-out in mid-1990s entertainment centers. While the design isn’t identical, it actually would compliment my aforementioned ProScan Laserdisc player nicely, if I didn’t already have too many things hooked up in that particular center. I don’t know if I’d take take this deck over some feature-packed models from the mid-to-late-1980s, but this is certainly up there as one of the best 1990s VCRs I’ve ever found while out and about. Personally, it’s probably a tie between this and that Goldstar as my favorite *as far as thrift/second-hand store finds go* (a high-end Sony Hi-Fi VHS VCR from 1990 that I bought online is my best and favorite of the decade, period).

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Just for fun, there’s my three latest thrift store VCR acquisitions. The Goldstar I talked out before is on the bottom, this ProScan on top (duh!), and in the middle a fairly decent Toshiba I nevertheless couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to write about. It’s a nice machine, but the real reason for my purchasing it? Jog wheel man, jog wheel.

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Adorable.