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DVD Review – RING OF FIRE III: LION STRIKE (1995)

While in recent times the habit has reached a level that would (should) probably be cause for concern, back in the early-2000s my tendency to be a night owl was a bit more manageable, less regulated by what was on the DVR (since DVRs barely existed at the time and we didn’t have one yet besides) and driven more by what local channels burnt off in the wee hours. Don’t get me wrong, I was staying up late no matter what (particularly during the summer months), but if a new-to-me movie was running somewhere, it could very well determine whether I went to bed late or I went to bed uber-late.

Today, with a seemingly-endless stream of infomercials and/or cookie-cutter sitcom repeats, local stations seem a lot more homogenized, much more “by the numbers” to me (though the rise of the digital subchannels has been a figurative lifesaver and major contributor to my current state of night owlery). Granted, this was an issue even back in the early-2000s, but around here, even at that late date channels could still occasionally display a bout of quirkiness – something that seems utterly inconceivable nowadays. I remember WEWS channel 5 running old black & white flicks, East Side Kids and obscure 1950s dramas and stuff like that late late at night around that time on weekends (I’m pretty sure), and trust me, for a ‘big’ channel that was pretty outside the status quo at the time.

Leo Gorcey was all well and good, but you know what I really wound up enjoying during those late night sojourns? Action flicks. Some of them were ‘big’ action flicks (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran First Blood once!), while others were more second-tier fare (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran Iron Eagle II once!), but it didn’t really matter how ‘esteemed’ a movie technically was; I found myself becoming hooked on the genre, and watching each film for its own merits. The thrill of ‘discovering’ a new-to-me action film was enough in and of itself. The fact I was up late, all alone and watching in the dark only added to the, I guess, immersive thrill of it all. Or something like that.

Channel 5 (I think it was) would occasionally run some of the relatively-obscure stuff from the 1990s; that’s how I discovered the Brian Bosworth epic One Man’s Justice, which I loved (MC Hammer was in it, too). But, at the time, the place to go for low budget, oftentimes direct-to-video fare was WBNX TV-55. These kinds of movies, along with syndicated shows such as Viper and The Lost World, were easily found on the station for years. And, as I explained back in August, when they moved horror host The Ghoul to Sunday nights/Monday mornings and largely altered the movies featured, he became a repository for just such action movies. (And unlike many of the films foisted upon him in that era, the action flicks actually did work on the program – provided The Ghoul was allowed plenty of host segments to litter the commercial breaks, anyway.)

It was all but impossible to stay up and watch The Ghoul during the school year, those Sunday night/Monday morning shows were on a week night after all, but things obviously opened up during the summer months, and in mid-August 2001, it was his show that introduced me to our subject today: 1995’s Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s action opus Ring Of Fire III: Lion Strike. The movie stuck with me (it probably held a lower rank in my eyes than One Man’s Justice did at the time, though that has since flipped considerably), and thanks to the magic of this newfangled digital video technology (that’s DVD to you), it’s available for all to enjoy!

Here’s the DVD itself. Well, the cover, anyway. The disc doesn’t present much in the way of extra features; no bonus kickboxing tips by Wilson, no commentaries, no trailers, no wacky behind-the-scenes bloopers. Nope, all you get is the movie – full screen and in revolutionary stereo – and scene selection. You want more than that? Well ain’t you highfalutin! I really like that tagline, at any rate.

As you may surmise through the power of deductive reasonin’, Ring of Fire III is the third in a series of movies. I have not seen the first two entries. Madacy released these films individually and together as a box set, but they’re all seemingly long out of print. Indeed, the first two films seem to have gotten less distribution over the years than the third entry has overall; even on eBay, old VHS copies of one and two are somewhat scarce whilst the third is readily found. Indeed, as of this writing III is the only one still easily available on DVD, courtesy of Echo Bridge Entertainment and their 2005 release, and it’s that very release we’re looking at today, right now as we speak.

If you ignore that whole third designation in the title, it works just fine as a standalone feature. I’ve only read synopsis’ of the first two movies, but I didn’t need to do even that; Ring of Fire III gets by on its own. (Actually, while I’m going by what I’ve grown up knowing it as, never mind what’s on the DVD cover, the actual on-screen title for this particular release is simply Lion Strike, which only helps matters honestly). It’s not high art, nor was it intended to be, but as a low budget action thriller – hailing from the mid-1990s direct-to-video era no less – it’s a lot of fun.

World kickboxing maestro Don “The Dragon” Wilson plays Dr. Johnny Wu, an everlastingly kind, gentle physician. In addition to that, he also has a  young son (played by Wilson’s actual son Jonathan), who is motherless; Wu is a widower, his wife having been killed by a drunk driver prior to the start of our film today. (She evidently figured into the first two films, which, as previously stated, I ain’t even seen.)

Our hero, early in the film, in mid-lightnin’ quick kick!

Oh, and Wu also happens to be a first-class kickboxer, because Don “The Dragon” Wilson. This is demonstrated aptly by, apropos of nothing, an opening sequence featuring the attempted escape of a mafia figure from the hospital in which Wu works. Wu of course puts the hurt on all perpetrators involved all by himself. This open has nothing to do with the rest of the film, except to let you, the viewer at home, know that Wu can deliver a serious beat down. This is further demonstrated by him later pummeling an entire group of uppity bikers single handed, including one who suddenly bursts through the hospital doors and down the hallway riding his motorcycle, which again, doesn’t have much to do with the story proper other than let us know Wu is a force to be reckoned with when pushed.

Look, was the big boulder that chased Indiana Jones ever referenced again after the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark? No? So why can’t you afford Don “The Dragon” Wilson the same consideration you give Harrison Ford? (Unless that big boulder was referenced again; I haven’t seen Raiders in full in a long, long time. Just go with me here, okay?)

Because constant pummelin’ has to wear on even the most hardy of heroes, Wu is offered the use of a cabin in the mountains by one of his colleagues, which he accepts. Spend some quality time with his son, catch some fish, not have to beat the daylights out of people, it seems like a well-earned vacation for Johnny Wu.

Except things don’t go as planned. We wouldn’t have much of a movie if they did! Through a series of circumstances, Wu finds himself smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot: organized crime has gone global, with figures of an international variety (including famous character actor Robert Costanzo’s villain at the head of it all) conspiring together to sell nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union to the highest bidder. Plans detailing this dastardly scheme are housed on a floppy disk, which is fortuitously stolen from the bad guys by other, otherwise-unrelated bad guys – much to the chagrin of the original bad guys. Through a plot point worthy of The Brady Bunch, it eventually finds itself in the hands of Wu, which of course only further draws ire of the global mafia. Ah, the days when the fate of the world could hinge on a 3.5 floppy!

Eventually Wu finds himself and his son chased by legions of baddies, but he’s not alone; park ranger Kelly (Bobbie Phillips) is along for the ride. And guess what? She’s no slouch with the punchin’ and kickin’ and shootin’ either! (Wu joins her in beating the stuffing out of an entire group of poachers early in their acquaintance, and naturally the germ of a romance is planted, too.)

As I said before, Ring of Fire III isn’t high art, but again, it wasn’t intended to be. It apparently went straight-to-video back in 1995, and the easy-to-follow plot, relatively low budget, and mounds and mounds of fisticuffs totally point to this being a weekend renter back in the days of the video store. And given that criteria, it’s perfect. No joke, Ring of Fire III is a lot of fun!

Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. Some of the dialog is eye-glazing (You’ll hear the question “Where’s the disk?!” asked approximately 900,000 times over the course of the film), and there are a few moments that don’t quite make sense (when Wu and Kelly fight the poachers, a cowboy rides up and watches them intently, and it keeps cutting between the fight and the cowboy as if he was of some importance to the situation, but when it’s all over, he simply rides off and is never seen again. Say what?)

Furthermore, the acting is…well, it is what it is, okay? WIlson wasn’t hired to win awards in that area, (when he’s caught kissing Kelly by his son, he makes a face better suited to dodging a thrown pie, and later when it appears the baddies have killed said son, his reaction comes off somewhat less aggrieved than you might expect), but he projects a boyish, almost innocent charm…which is pretty funny considering the amount of pain he’s capable of doling out.

Which leads me to this: there’s no moral ambiguity in Ring of Fire III; the good guys are good, and the bad guys are really bad. There are no torn feelings on the part of the viewer; there are no antiheroes. Wu and Kelly are so utterly nice, and the bad guys so utterly ruthless, that you can’t help but root for the forces of good.

Despite the presence of a little kid, the overarching “good always triumphs over evil” theme, and some violent bad guys who are also presented in a loud, stereotypical, scenery-chewing manner that often comes off pretty funny (I assume intentionally), Ring of Fire III ain’t exactly for the children. As you may expect, it’s pretty violent, with lots and lots of punching, kicking, and shooting. The bad guys aren’t adverse to killing innocent people to get what they want (except when sparing them advances the plot, of course).

And there’s lotsa ‘splosions too. Helicopters blowing up, cabins blowing up, cars blowing up, cars flying through the air and then blowing up. Ring of Fire III may not tax your mental capabilities with complex character studies, but it’s certainly never boring!

Funny enough, compared to the action movies of today, or even just prime time television, it’s actually a somewhat tame movie. There’s a little bit of gore but it’s not particularly graphic in that regard. There’s no sex, no nudity, and except for some unsavory language, I really don’t think anything was edited at all when I first caught this on The Ghoul so many years ago. Indeed, bleep the salty talk and this could easily run on prime time network TV today. (Hey NBC, how about bringing back the movie of the week…with Ring of Fire III as the inaugural revival feature? Please?)

In the end, this is a pretty meat-and-potatoes action flick. The plot is simple, the kickboxing is plentiful, you know who to root for, you know who to root against, and it’s often even a little funny. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore, but then, I’m not sure they were still making ’em like this even when I first saw it in 2001. It’s a real artifact of not only the mid-1990s video store era but also a (seemingly) bygone era in late night television broadcasting, when stuff like this could actually show up on the schedule; hard to imagine nowadays. And yet, even though it’s a throwback, it’s one that still holds up – maybe I’m just easily pleased, but no joke, I’m continuously entertained by this one. It’s a breezy 90 minutes, it won’t tax the synapses, and it features Don “The Dragon” Wilson as a kickboxing physician. Sounds like a fun night at the movies to me!

(And yes, I totally stayed up late just last night and watched this; just felt right that way. )

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!

Movie Review: Wild Horse Phantom (1944)

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?! A western movie review – in October?!

Yes, it’s true: Right in the heart of Halloween month, we’re looking at a 1940s poverty row western. But wait! Don’t go closing the tab just yet! This fits, trust me!

Back in the 1940s, Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC for short, made movies with, erm, not a lot of money. They were, you know, a cheapie outfit – just one of the many poverty row studios that littered the cinematic landscape in that era. At the time, westerns of the budget variety were churned out nigh-continuously by these poverty row players; no joke, westerns were perhaps the preeminent “poverty row product.” So, it stands to reason there wound up being more than a few horse operas sporting the PRC branding. (See what I did there? “Branding!” Because it’s a…oh never mind.)

On that front, PRC had a long line of “Billy the Kid” B-Westerns, the first few with Bob Steele but the vast majority starring Buster Crabbe as the titular character. (Unlike the real-life outlaw, this Billy the Kid was a bit more of a heroic figure; this was matinee material, after all.) Crabbe was no small potatoes at the time, having portrayed Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Tarzan. Dude even made it to the Olympics – twice. Of course a studio would be all for him headlining an action-packed film series such as this! (Al “Fuzzy” St. John also starred in these as the comic sidekick, and truth be told, I had forgotten what a spaz his character could be.)

And that brings us to today’s subject, Wild Horse Phantom. Title cards to the left, yo. Released in 1944 (according to Wikipedia and its IMDb page, on October 28 – right before Halloween!), this entry falls, roughly, in the middle of the series – by which point “Billy the Kid” had become “Billy Carson.”

Now look, I really, really love B-Westerns; they’re some of my favorite movies to watch. BUT, I’ll never claim they could vary a whole lot. I mean, these were old west stories filmed on the cheap; how many plot lines could there be? Watch enough of these, and you start to see the same basic story lines repeated over and over, though when the action was good and the stars engaging, it didn’t really matter – bills that seemed to fit Crabbe pretty well, actually.

All that said, when you’ve got a long-running series such as this one, well, sometimes things had to be shaken up a bit, and that’s just what PRC did with Wild Horse Phantom – this is not your typical B-Western! The usage of “phantom” in the title isn’t really an indicator of horror-themes in a western (lotsa them used it), but make no mistake, our movie today has unmistakable horror movie undertones – and overtones! This one really breaks out of the mold, and it’s a lot of fun because of it. Read on!

The movie starts out normally enough: A fellow named Daggett, along with his gang, break out of prison. These guys were busted for robbing a bank, and, it turns out, the breakout has been orchestrated by Billy so he can trail them and recover the stolen money. (Along for the ride is another prisoner, an acquaintance of Billy and Fuzzy, who is unwittingly dragged with the gang; Daggett shoots him dead soon after. While it provides a moment for Fuzzy to grieve early on, it seems to be forgotten in fairly short order.)

At this point, I’d like to mention that this is a “modern day western,” meaning it was (ostensibly) set in the time it was produced. Sure, there’s still six-shootin’ and horses and whatnot, but there’s also then-modern automobiles present. When I was growing up and discovering B-Westerns on WAOH/WAX, I was always put off by these. To me, a western should be set in the old west; in the 1800s, maybe early-1900s tops. While I still prefer my westerns to adhere to my arbitrary standards, I will say I’ve softened on these “modern day” efforts – somehow the 1940s matinee charm is made all the more visible when then-modern accoutrements are present. Does that make any sense? No? Well, whatever.

Anyway, after that non-eyebrow-raising start, the setting get dark – literally. Billy and Fuzzy track Daggett’s gang to an old mine, where Daggett hid the stolen money before their incarceration. As seen here, our heroes skulk about in the dark (right), and eventually wind up spying on the gang as they futilely try to find the dinero. (Daggett can’t remember where exactly he hid it.) It’s at this point where things take a turn for the spooky; y’see, for all intents and purposes the mine here is the equivalent of a haunted house.

No joke – there’s mysterious, cackling laughs, provided by a “phantom” (our titular character, duh!) with a knife. This phantom seems to be on the side of good, even helping Billy and Fuzzy when they’re captured by the gang in surprisingly short order. Still, can you ever really trust a guy that runs around a dank mine and cackling? It’s gotta be a little unnerving, even if you are Buster Crabbe.

Eventually Billy makes it outside (while Fuzzy waits in the mine; more on that momentarily) and does a little investigating. The town in which the mine is located has been essentially wiped out by the aforementioned bank robbery, as the nefarious banker in charge is threatening to foreclose on everyone. You can probably see where things are going here. This moves the plot along, of course, but really, the best scenes are all in the mine. They really do manage to attain an aura of, I guess, an old dark house thriller – an intriguing and nice change of pace for a budget western!

Wild Horse Phantom probably can’t be deemed a ‘famous’ movie; B-Western fans might know of it, but it’s not like you’ll hear it spoken of in the same sentence as, say, Stagecoach. Still, there is one scene that almost has to come up when Wild Horse Phantom is mentioned, not only because it takes the horror elements of the film from a mostly-background presence to front and center, but also because it’s just so, well, PRC.

Because the scenes in the mine are, by necessity, dark, and the object in question was (almost) constantly in motion, capturing satisfactory screenshots was all but impossible here. I tried over and over, too. What you’re seeing to the left is The Devil Bat. Yes, that Devil Bat. As in The Devil Bat, the 1940 PRC horror flick starring Bela Lugosi. To showcase the hidden dangers of the mine, PRC reused the prop!

The scene: Fuzzy is wandering around the mine when he stumbles upon something lurking in the shadows, eyes glowing menacingly. That’s the top image on the left, and believe it or not, it manages to come across genuinely creepy!

The bat of course attacks Fuzzy, though the shots of him scuffling with it are incomprehensible in screencap-form, so the bottom image is the bat showing off its impressive wingspan. How does Fuzzy repel the creature? By biting it. (Don’t ask.)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the bat doesn’t get much screen time. His scuffle with Fuzzy is it (though there’s a semi-related incident at the conclusion of the film that’s too dumb to not love). And why exactly is it there? Are we left to surmise that they just get that big in the mine by natural means? Or do we assume it’s one of Bela’s escaped experiments? Questions like this keep me up at night. No matter though, because the fact PRC reused the creature is just too awesome, and really sets Wild Horse Phantom apart from other B-Westerns.

As a whole, it’s a fun movie, and at under an hour (normal for these B-Westerns), it’s fast-paced by necessity. Granted, the breeziness of the film doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for further fleshing out of the story. For example, there’s what seems to be a love interest here, except the whole plot point just kinda peters out and goes nowhere after the initial germ of the idea. Plus, there’s that whole giant bat thing, too.

Still, B-Westerns weren’t high art, and they weren’t meant to be. This was matinee entertainment for the kids, not a serious horse opera. There’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Wild Horse Phantom, a movie that mixes the western, horror, and comedy genres far more adeptly than it should be able to. I really liked it! It’s harmless 1940 poverty row cinema, with plenty of action and, for our purposes today, horror to make it fit during the Halloween season. It’s not the kind of movie that would come to mind first for sure, but it’s a nice, unexpected option if you’re looking for some offbeat entertainment for your Halloween party.

Wild Horse Phantom gets your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter’s full-approval, and as we all know, my full-approval is of tantamount importance. Check it out!

(By the way, where’d I get this movie? This copy comes from Mill Creek’s 20 movie DVD set dedicated to the Billy the Kid series; however, as I haven’t been able to fully devour the entire collection yet, I’m labeling this as a “movie review” instead of my usual “DVD review,” as notating it the latter implies, to me anyway, a review of the whole set – something I can’t satisfactorily do yet. I take solace in the fact that anyone reading probably doesn’t care about trivial matters like this.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, where’s Dracula, man?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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