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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Alpha Video’s Sons of Kong DVD Set (2005) Review

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Look, y’all know I loves me some King Kong, and with a brand new Kong epic hitting US theaters today (Kong: Skull Island, for the three of you that have apparently been holed-up in that sad, makeshift tree fort in your backyard for who-knows-how-long), what say we take a look at an artifact from the last time a brand new Kong epic hit US theaters? That was Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, for the six of you whose accumulative memory has failed the past 12 years.

I saw the 2005 remake in theaters, and I liked it quite a bit. Super long, yes, but it was a film that, I feel, did justice to the 1933 original in a way that the 1976 remake did not. (The jury is still out on 1998’s animated The Mighty Kong, mainly because I haven’t seen it.) It wasn’t better than the ’33 original, but then, few movies are. Still, as far as remakes go, 2005’s King Kong was a winner, in my opinion.

And beyond the film itself, there was the merchandising. It wasn’t a little either; it was a lot. Sure, there was the officially-sanctioned stuff, but like any good blockbuster, companies the world over came out to get in on the action. It happened with 1998’s Godzilla remake (we got a lot of cool ‘stuff’ from that flick, including plenty of fresh new video releases of old Godzilla outings), and needless to say, it happened with Kong ’05, too. I haven’t been paying much attention, but I imagine it has happened, or will happen, with Kong ’17, as well.

Longtime readers will know that some of my favorite DVDs aren’t the high-end ones accompanied by a monster-sized (see what I did there???) promotional-blitz, but rather, the budget issues. That is, the single-disc or compilation sets that find a life in bargain bins for $1, $5, $10, whatever, and happily stay there for the duration. Typically consisting solely of public domain fare, these DVDs may not have the panache of major label issues, but where charm is concerned, baby, it’s off the charts. Well, sometimes, anyway.

Back in 2014, we looked at a budget Gamera DVD set that found a shelflife-spotlight during all the hoopla that was the ’14 adaptation of Godzilla, and this past July, I babbled incessantly about my love of Pop Flix’s 8-movie Bela Lugosi set. And now, I’ve got another DVD collection that reaches the upper-echelon of my personal “budget favorites,” and boy is it a doozy: Alpha Video’s 2005 release of Sons of Kong, a 10-movie collection that does proper service to the big legendary ape, despite not actually featuring the big legendary ape. Rest assured, if you were to capitalize on Peter Jackson’s King Kong via old, ape-themed movies, this is the way to do it.

That’s it above, before I wrestled it from its shrinkwrap prison. It’s a double-wide DVD case, housed in cardboard slipcase, featuring some impressively cool, lightning-tinged artwork and a 3-D gimmick so awesome that it automatically ranks this set above 99.9% other budget compilations. (Heck, it automatically ranks it above most “big time” DVDs, too.) Frankly, I can’t believe it took me the better part of 12 years to pick this up, because based on looks alone, this is quite obviously a must-have. Hey, better late than never, and trust me, you’ll need this in your life too, if you haven’t done so already. Read on!

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Alpha Video put out some neat stuff in the VHS years, but man, they’ve been positively amazing in the DVD era. As I described in a review this past September, they’ve been responsible for issuing to the general public (on legit factory-pressed silver discs, no less!) a ton of movies that in previous years were pretty much the sole domain of specialty video dealers – if they were available at all. I am constantly amazed to discover what they’ve put out on DVD, and at terrific prices to boot!

In this particular set, there are 10 ape-related films, and while half of them are veritable staples of the public domain, the other half are not as commonly found. They’re all welcome though, and to have them in one concise, Kong-themed package, that’s just awesome. Take a look at that line-up above, though we will go disc-by-disc in just a bit. Put on the brakes amigo, we’ll get there.

On a semi-related note, Alpha gets my everlasting thanks for not including King of Kong Island. I hate that movie; it’s not fun-bad, it’s just bad, and since it’s public domain, it’s pretty much everywhere. I initially thought it was a lock for a set like this, though much to my delight, it was excluded. Instead, the featured films span from the 1930s to the 1950s, some horror-themed, some jungle-themed, some both. Bela Lugosi shows up in three of them, Boris Karloff in one, Dixie from Emergency! is here, Buster Crabbe makes an appearance, and Lon Chaney Jr. and Ironside are also in attendance. When it comes to star-power, Alpha nailed this one.

“Hey, where’s King Kong, man?”

King Kong is not a public domain film, and thus the chances of it showing up on a set like this are effectively less than nil. The title of the set links it to Kong, or at least the idea of Kong, but it doesn’t state Kong himself will be there. Dig?

“So no Son of Kong either, then?”

No, that’s also not public domain. I can see some confusion there, as King Kong‘s sequel was, you know, titled Son of Kong, but this is the Sons of Kong, with the “sons” obviously being in a figurative sense.

I only mention all this because there’s usually that one person that asks “where’s so and so?” with sets like these; not everyone gets the budget, public domain thing, I know. At any rate, Alpha did a great job of definitively playing into the hype of Kong ’05 without making false promises. As a tie-in, you couldn’t ask for a cooler piece! And speaking of cool…

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LOOK AT THAT!

The cardboard slipcase and the DVD case itself share the same artwork, but the slipcase features one of, maybe even the, coolest gimmicks I’ve ever seen in a DVD set of this nature: the cover opens up to reveal a 3-D pop-up image of the artwork! That’s awesome. You just don’t see companies go that extra-mile with compilation sets like this very often; it really does give the whole package a mighty, Kong-ish vibe! Sure, there was that sticker on the shrinkwrap (scroll back up and see!) that promised this feature, but I had no idea how neat it would be until I saw it for myself!

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The DVD case itself is a sturdy, double-wide deal, with disc one housed on the left, and discs two and three overlapping each other on the right. Also included is a warranty card of some sort and a big thick catalog of other appropriate Alpha Video titles that seriously gave me flashbacks of the old Sinister Cinema catalogs I used to thumb through endlessly.

I really like that Alpha went with single-sided DVDs; with movies like these, the dreaded double-siders are often the case. Even though two of the discs feature three per, and one has four, and thus some compression is probably a danger, I still prefer this method to double-sided discs. I hate double-sided discs. Though not as much as King of Kong Island.

Also, the disc fronts are eye-catching, with nice colorful artwork. They look good!

Each disc kicks off with a cool menu featuring the ape artwork from the cover, tabs for the movies themselves, and a tab for Alpha’s movie catalog. It’s a simple, but attractive, menu.

As you’d expect of a set like this, the sound and picture quality varies from film to film, but all are watchable, and some are surprisingly sharp. Alpha does have their I.D. ‘bug’ somewhere on-screen for the start of each feature, but that’s not a big deal; when you’re dealing with public domain movies, you don’t need some clown copyin’ your material scot free and all willy nilly, after all.

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See, Mantan Moreland. Did you think I was lying? I wasn’t.

DISC ONE: Unfortunately, this is the disc I’m least familiar with, and I haven’t had time to fully digest it as of yet. It’s apparently the most “jungle-y” of the set, however, with White Pongo, The Savage Girl, and Law of the Jungle being the three features. White Pongo, as you may surmise, is about a mythical “white gorilla” (not the last time that idea will be found in the collection), The Savage Girl is basically “female Tarzan,” and Law of the Jungle is a wartime comedy featuring Mantan Moreland (look to the right if you don’t believe me), so you just know it’s full of wildly outdated humor.

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Nabonga = Gorilla. Update your diaries accordingly.

DISC TWO: Nabonga, The White Gorilla, The Gorilla, and Bride of the Gorilla are the four features of the second disc. I’d call it the most “gorilla-y” of the set, but that’s only because I just had to type the word “gorilla” 9000 times while listing the contents; I don’t think it’s really any more gorilla-y than the rest of the collection. Nabonga, a word which evidently translates to “gorilla” (as per the title screen; left), features Buster Crabbe, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, and, would you believe it, singer and Emergency! star Julie London! Cool winnins! As for The White Gorilla, somewhere in the back of my cluttered mind I recall it being an infamously bad movie, and thus one that I need to spend some actual time with here. The Gorilla is a Ritz Brothers comedy featuring Bela Lugosi that, frankly, I’ve just never been that fond of. But Bride of the Gorilla (with Lon Chaney Jr. and Raymond Burr), I go way back with that one; that was the movie shown when The Ghoul blew up my Fantasy Mission Force tape! It’s sort of a play on the werewolf theme, but, you know, with an ape. And Perry Mason.

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Not exactly Bela’s most esteemed work, but it IS fun…

DISC THREE: The third and final disc is my favorite; there’s only three movies on it, but it’s a powerhouse three. Relatively speaking, anyway. It kicks off with the poverty row Boris Karloff opus The Ape, a movie I also go way back with. I taped it off AMC (back when AMC showed these kinds of movies!) many, many years ago. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting (I think I was hoping for more of a King Kong knock-off, instead of the killer-ape-who-Karloff-makes-a-suit-out-of horror film), and thus I didn’t really dig it, though it has grown on me over the years, largely due to Karloff. After that, there’s Lugosi’s The Ape Man (right), which you know is a flick I love, as per my previously-linked Lugosi DVD set review. And to finish the collection off, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, also one I looked at in that previous review. It’s a painfully-stupid-but-entertaining-nevertheless horror/comedy featuring a fake Martin & Lewis team, with an ending so dumb you’ll be tempted to sit right down and sob.


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There it be, Alpha Video’s Sons of Kong DVD collection: 3-D slipcase, stylin’ double-wide DVD case, and painfully cool artwork. A proud new addition to my collection! What a neat set! Simply put, you just don’t see budget collections of public domain material presented as regally as this one; Alpha totally went above and beyond, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park. Even if the movies themselves are only sporadically “Kong-like,” the treatment given to them here feels appropriately larger-than-life. There were a lot of tie-ins to the 2005 remake of King Kong, but as far as I’m concerned, Alpha was one of the closest in doing justice to the Kong mythos with this collection – and the real Kong doesn’t even show up on it! That Alpha could pull this off is something to be celebrated. Now, nearly 12 years after it was first released and with a new Kong movie now upon us, it still feels special, and somehow, despite the material presented, fresh.

I heartily recommend Alpha Video’s Sons of Kong, and should you want your own copy (and you really should), they can still be had brand new (and currently very, very cheap) on Amazon. Get yours here and now!