Tag Archives: dvd set

REVIEW: Mill Creek’s 16-Movie John Wayne “The Duke” DVD Set (2010)

Hey, know what it’s time for again? If, without glancing at the title of this post, you guessed another budget DVD compilation of public domain movies, you’re, uh, right. I love collecting these DVD sets, but there’s only certain instances where they enamor me enough to, you know, give them a review. Needless to say, this is one of the good’uns.

This is the cover of the set, if you couldn’t figure that out. Keep your eyes peeled for it, pardner!

Dig this: it’s a John Wayne comp featuring a load of his pre-stardom poverty row westerns. On the surface that may not seem so unusual; there are countless releases like this out there, after all. The difference here is that the line-up of movies included in this one is, well, pretty stellar. (For those of you with long memories, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a budget western DVD set here on the blog.)

No joke, I don’t think I’ve come across one of these sets with such an “all killer, no filler” movie selection. Put out in 2010 by Mill Creek (a company I love, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen them hit it out of the park), this particular release, while still focusing on works that have loooong been in the public domain, forgoes the inclusion of later, sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb flicks or earlier, non-western features and/or serials (or, as some sets include, documentaries on The Duke).

Nope, instead this collection focuses solely on Wayne’s poverty row oaters of the 1930s. Again, that may not sound so unusual on the surface, but in this case, at a whopping 16 movies spread over two DVDs, Mill Creek has included nearly all of Wayne’s output for Lone Star Productions (which was really just Monogram), and while they didn’t include every one of them, instead filling out the line-up with a couple of his other B-Western efforts from the 1930s, they got most of them here.

Garnering nearly all of Wayne’s Lone Star flicks in one fell swoop and without having to sift through a bunch of stuff I quite honestly have no interest in is, for me, what puts this one over the top. I’m considering this one comprehensive-yet-concise, if that makes any sense. I’m no stranger to public domain movie compilations of John Wayne, but given the solid, ‘unbroken’ line-up here, I dare say this is the best I’ve come across.

I explained my fascination with the Lone Star series in my article covering an old VHS release of Texas Terror, a movie we’ll see again in this set. Check the link out for a more-detailed explanation if you’re so inclined, but real quick: these Wayne Lone Stars are less “John Wayne movies” and more “poverty row westerns that happen to star John Wayne.” He’s not really The Duke as we’ve come to know him, but rather more of a generic B-Western star – and that’s what’s so fascinating with these. A raw, unformed, but undeniably captivating John Wayne, post-The Big Trail and pre-Stagecoach (which is to say, pre-stardom).

Don’t get me wrong; the reason these films have so endlessly been released over the decades is obviously due to the namesake of their star. In action they’re really not so different from a thousand other cheapie westerns of the period – but if you love the budget oaters like I do, that’s just part of the fun!

(Also, the Lone Stars have terrific opening fanfare for their flicks, complete with a charging-towards-the-screen sheriff’s star, exciting music, and neato titles. Indeed, it was this opening that first captivated me when I came upon a television airing of Blue Steel some 20 years ago.)

I first stumbled upon this DVD set about two years ago. I was out Christmas shopping with my mom, she looking for a good gift for my presumably movie-lovin’ uncle. When she showed me this, I used my powers of useless knowledge to inform her that the movies included made for a pretty strong line-up. (Though I imagine I wasn’t as verbose about it in reality.) Well, there was only one copy left, and I technically didn’t need any of these films again, so on my recommendation she bought it for him. I wound up wanting such a decent all-in-one collection for myself however, and eventually, as you may deduce, said collection became mine. And so here we are.

The famous Lone Star opening fanfare.

There are 16 Lone Star features in Wayne’s oeuvre. As previously stated, there are 16 movies present on this set, and two of them ain’t Lone Stars. West of the Divide and Randy Rides Alone (both 1934) were omitted in favor of Winds of the Wasteland (Republic, 1936) and Hell Town (Paramount, 1937). I’m not quite sure what I want here; on one hand, a complete collection of the Lone Stars would be pretty baller (and neither of the missing films are even remotely hard to find – they’re even on other Mill Creek DVD sets). But on the other hand, the two non-Lone Stars are flicks I’m always happy to see included in collections like this and do provide nice, albeit brief, changes of pace here. Maybe we could have had an 18 movie set instead? Though that may have bumped this to a three disc collection instead of two, though in that case Frontier Horizon (released in 1939 – after Wayne hit it big with Stagecoach) could have then been included, along with perhaps one other public domain western of his from the same rough time period to make it an even 20 movies. Yeah, I don’t know what I want here.

Like most DVD collections of this nature, the sound and picture quality varies from feature to feature, but they’re all watchable. I’ll point out aspects of the prints used that I feel need, uh, pointed out, but unless otherwise noted, consider these to mostly look like your common, garden variety old public domain movies. That is, there will be scratches, splices, dust, dirt, too bright, too dark, etc. etc. etc. Typical, but like I said, they’re all watchable.

(You may wonder if I, your Northeast Ohio Video Hunter, have stumbled across consistently good prints of these films. I’d say that disregarding later colorized efforts and/or releases that added newly-implemented scores to the soundtrack – so they could be more easily copyrighted I’d imagine – the best ‘traditional’ versions of these movies I ever saw were the copies AMC would occasionally run in the morning back in the late-90s/early-00s. They weren’t pristine, but they were very, very good. I wonder what happened to those prints? Were they ever officially released?)

Also, being B-Westerns, none of these were intended as high art; these are breezy (typically less than an hour) poverty row matinee outings. Don’t go in expecting Red River, okay? Taken for what they are though, these are still fun, entertaining films! Some Lone Stars are better than others, I have my own personal “Lone Star spectrum” that I’ll occasionally make reference to, but really, even the weaker ones are worth watching. They’re all so charmingly cheap, sometimes so scatterbrained, and despite featuring plenty of shootin’ and whatnot, somehow so innocent, that they’re all worth your time here. Once again, Mill Creek has knocked it out of the park, I say!

So, what say we now go through the set, movie-by-movie? As in, I’m going to watch each and every one here and provide my stupid thoughts on ’em. Hunker down gang, this is gonna be a long, loooong read. I want this to be the budget John Wayne DVD set review to end all budget John Wayne DVD set reviews!

(Oh, by the way, there’s going to be a few spoilers present. I’ll give a warning here and there, but hey, you’ve had 80+ years to watch these movies, so I darn well better be in the safety zone by now!)


DISC ONE

(There are no special features on either disc in this set; a scene selection is your only option. Besides the movies proper, I mean.)

Blue Steel (1934) – I’m going to say right up front that, for as much as I love these Lone Star outings, I hadn’t seen every film in this set beforehand, and even with some of the ones I have, well, it’s been awhile. That’s not the case with Blue Steel, however; this was the flick that introduced me to this series long, long ago, and I’ve watched it numerous times over the years. Y’all need to recognize that I know my Blue Steel; no joke, I practically know it backwards and forwards. Even though from an objective standpoint it would probably be generally considered only “pretty good,” I don’t care; it’s far and away my favorite film in this set, and my favorite Wayne B-Western period. And you can’t change that.

Wayne, Gabby, and some pretty decent print-quality.

Wayne plays Cahill John Carruthers, U.S. Marshal, who finds himself teamed up with Sheriff Jake Withers (George “Gabby” Hayes, minus the whole “Gabby” persona – that came later). Together they must save a small town that is being intentionally kept short of supplies by a nefarious would-be landowner. He wants to buy up all the property to get to the sweet, sweet gold found just below the surface (unbeknownst to the actual landowners, as you may well imagine). Also, thanks to a case of wacky mistaken identity, Withers spends the majority of the film thinking Carruthers is “The Polka Dot Bandit,” a subplot that converges with the main plot in a manner worthy of Seinfeld.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mill Creek got one of the better prints of Blue Steel I’ve seen. Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t pristine; I doubt Criterion winged this copy over Mill Creek’s way. Sure there’s some dust and scratches and such, BUT the picture is *relatively* clean, and with fairly good balance and depth. It’s not exactly HD, but I could actually make out some fine details that I wouldn’t have expected to. You can actually see Carruthers and the heroine riding off into the sunset (because of course) at the end.

The fairly nice picture quality comes with a caveat, however: splices. Not that there’s a ton of them, or at least not really any more than you’d typically expect for a picture of this age and nature, but they do rear their head. Indeed, Blue Steel should run around 52-54 minutes, but the print here only runs about 50. There’s one pretty big splice early in the film that cuts out Withers’ entrance into Carruther’s abode and sharing some beans with him. They just automatically appear ‘teamed up’ to take on some bandits that enter the picture (literally and figuratively) at about the same time. To a first time viewer, this would naturally be a “wait, say what?” moment.

That aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the print quality otherwise. As far as budget releases of Blue Steel go, Mill Creek has released one of the better ones I’ve come across.

The Dawn Rider (1935) – These films weren’t placed in chronological order across the two discs, and therefore what is the second feature in the set was in actuality the penultimate John Wayne Lone Star western. Not that it really matters, I guess; it’s not like there’s an ongoing arc to these films. They ain’t the Hill Street Blues of the western set. Anyway, this is one I’m almost positive I’ve never seen before.

First things first: it doesn’t hold the same “hey, that’s pretty good!” picture quality standard as the preceding film. Indeed, The Dawn Rider looks more like you’d expect a public domain movie on a budget DVD set to look: either too dark or too bright, and quite a bit blurrier than Blue Steel. There’s also some frequent jittery video artifacting throughout that, I guess, is a fault of the master tape, I guess? I don’t know, but it’s kinda distracting.

Getting held-up, early in the film.

Wayne plays John Mason, who has just come into town to visit his father (appropriately deemed “Dad Mason” throughout; was that his birth name?), who is some big muckity-muck in the freight industry. And wouldn’t you know it, Mason walks in on pops being robbed. His father is shot and killed, and Mason injured in the ensuing chase. Obviously, there’s gonna be some vengeance at play once he recovers.

Further complicating matters is a love triangle that develops between Mason, leading lady Alice and Ben, Ben being the guy to get into a drag down brawl with Mason at the start of the film, which (inexplicably?) leads to a friendship. Oh, and Alice’s brother is the guy who killed Dad Mason, so yeah, it ends up being kind of a mess. There’s a happy ending for Mason and Alice (because of course), but honestly, getting to it is a bit of a guessing game, with how much of the film plays out. That’s to the film’s credit.

This really isn’t a bad movie, but in my eyes it’s a little uneven. The revenge plot and love triangle held my attention, but it’s – ironically – an action sequence in roughly the middle of the flick that kinda stops things dead. It picks back up afterwards, and there’s what looks like it’s going to be a very cool climatic shootout in town that doesn’t end up as satisfying as it could have been, but it all still manages to work more than it doesn’t.

Some humorous bits are found in The Dawn Rider as well. The local undertaker is the comic relief, and his dismay at the start of the film (apparently the town is “too healthy” for his liking) and obvious interest when it looks like someone is about to die (never mind when someone does die) is darkly funny. And at the end, there’s a too-long laugh shared between the undertaker and local doctor that, in conjunction with the undertaker’s stilted way of laughing, is pretty funny. Seriously, it goes on just long enough that I’m not convinced it wasn’t made to be intentionally awkward – in which case The Dawn Rider could be argued as the precursor to all of the ‘awkward humor’ single-camera comedies of today. If, you know, you wanted to perform enough mental gymnastics to make it fit, that is.

Oh, and apparently this film was remade in 2012, which honestly kinda blows my mind.

The Desert Trail (1935) – Obviously I’m not watching all of these films all in one single sitting; there are exceptions now and then, but generally speaking I can’t “binge watch” any show – or in this case, movie series – for hours on end. One or two of whatever a night is usually my limit.

You know, after The Dawn Rider, I found myself genuinely looking forward to some more new-to-me cheapie oater action the next night, which needless to say was The Desert Trail. Unfortunately, I chose to watch when I wound up having very little sleep the night before. I wasn’t exactly dozing off during the movie, but my general level of exhaustion kept me from getting as much from the flick as I could, and that was something I recognized as I was watching it.

Under normal circumstances, I *hate* re-watching a movie soon after, erm, watching it. Doesn’t matter if I loved the flick or not, I don’t like to ‘repeat’ a film in short order. Some people can do that, but I can’t. (While on the subject of my movie-watching habits, I firmly believe films should be watched at night; there have been exceptions, but generally, the idea of an afternoon movie viewing just does not sound right to me, which is ironic since the subjects of this DVD set were probably seen mainly as matinee offerings.)

So, I watched The Desert Trail again a few nights later. I probably didn’t need to, I got the gist of it the first time around, and while I liked it well enough then, I came away appreciating it a bit more after watch #2.

Scott and Kansas Charlie, typically competing for the affections of a lady.

This one is a bit unique as far as these John Wayne Lone Stars go. Instead of the usual law enforcement agent/vengeful loner/ etc. etc. etc. that Wayne usually played in these, here he’s John Scott, a rodeo rider. (Wait, a rodeo rider? Is that what they’re called? Look, he’s a rodeo guy, okay? Buckin’ broncos and all that.) He and his partner “Kansas Charlie” (who’s a gambler, not a rodeo rider/guy/dude) are falsely accused of murder in one town, which is trouble that follows them to another. They also get blamed for robbing a stagecoach, and are after the man who robbed them, as well.

Plot-wise this all may not sound too out of the ordinary (though perhaps a bit convoluted), but what sets The Desert Trail apart is just how comical it is. It’s not technically a comedy, but large portions of it are played for laughs. Scott and Charlie, while buddies, are also constantly at odds, fighting with each other, competing over women, insults, that sort of thing. And it’s to the film’s credit that some of it I did find pretty funny. Early in the film, after Charlie has sworn off going after women (he proclaims himself “deaf and dumb” to them), Scott takes the opportunity to rag on him in the presence of one they both find attractive, until Charlie can’t take anymore and blows up. Funny stuff!

One other difference: Wayne, well, he kinda plays a jerk here. Oh, he’s the protagonist alright, but his jousting with Charlie does occasionally approach being mean spirited. And heck, he basically robs a guy (who, granted, was trying to rip him off), and later, actually fires at a sheriff and his posse! They don’t know any better, but they’re still, you know, the good guys! Yikes! Naturally he still gets the girl in the end, because of course.

By the way, the titles of these Lone Stars often don’t make a lot of sense. I mean, we can assume there’s some steel that is blue in, uh, Blue Steel, and I guess John Mason could be referred to as “The Dawn Rider” for some reason. Point is, though they sound cool, there’s often little in the movies to directly connect them to what they’re titled. The Desert Trail is unique in another way there; the titular desert trail is actually referenced in the movie, albeit only once and briefly at that. Still, it’s there, and that’s…something.

The Lawless Frontier (1934) – In stark contrast to the jokey Desert Trail, The Lawless Frontier is a much more serious movie, with some seriously dark undertones – and overtones.

The villainous Pandro Zanti (a half-white/half-Apache who poses as Mexican, so you decide which group the character is most insulting towards) and his gang are terrorizing the land. One of the first things we see is Zanti busting out a window and shooting a pair of homeowners in cold blood so his gang can steal their cattle. We don’t see the homeowners shot, only their cries; the scene takes places with the camera focused solely on Zanti breaking the window and firing his gun. It’s an unsettling start to the picture.

As it turns out, Zanti has killed the parents of John Tobin, naturally played by Wayne. Yep, he’s back to playing the vengeful loaner. His distraught discovery of his parents is effectively filmed; like how we saw Zanti kill them, the camera is focused entirely on Wayne and his reaction upon discovering their bodies.

(Also, notice how he’s played a character with the first name “John” in each film so far? Such things were common with B-Westerns, Ken Maynard tended to play a “Ken” after all, but it’s something that would have made including Randy Rides Alone in this set a small-but-nice change of pace.)

Tobin’s pursuit of Zanti crosses paths with Dusty (Gabby’s back!) and his daughter Ruby, who are being pursued by Zanti. Zanti wants to kill Dusty for his cattle or land or something like that, but for a film of this nature, the more shocking aspect is that he wants to kidnap Ruby to be his new “romance.” It doesn’t take too many mental jumps to figure out what that means, and wow is that dark for a B-Western.

Tobin doggedly pursuing Zanti across the desert terrain.

This is a very good movie. Some of the usual Lone Star elements are here, such as Wayne’s character being mistaken for one of the baddies (by the town’s incompetent sheriff, who takes unearned credit for the capture of Zanti and then all but lets him go), but the overwhelmingly serious nature of the film really makes it stand out. Zanti is a vicious, brutal outlaw in a way that most bad guys in these cheapie oaters aren’t. He’s an unlikable dude, that’s for sure. You always want the good guys to win in these flicks, but here, you’re also really, really wanting to see Zanti get his comeuppance.

(Here comes a big spoiler where Zanti’s comeuppance is concerned: he doesn’t go down in a hail of bullets or John Wayne opening up a righteous can on him, but rather by accidentally drinking poisoned water! It’s…unexpected, that’s for sure. The scene leading up to his demise is a very cool panning long shot of Tobin doggedly pursuing the dazed Zanti across the desert. Along with the aforementioned scenes of Zanti killing Tobin’s parents and Tobin’s discovery of such, this is probably about as artsy as these Lone Stars get. Also, the film concludes with a rather abrupt ending: it’s revealed that John has married the heroine, because of course, and is now the new sheriff – thankfully. The old one was a dunce.)

Watch for the scene where Dusty gets a knife in the back, appears totally dead, and then shows up later claiming it was only a scratch! Ah, poverty row logic!

The Lucky Texan (1934) – Here’s my personal story regarding The Lucky Texan: waaaay back in the day, 1998 or so, after I had first discovered and become enamored of these Lone Stars via Blue Steel on WAOH TV-29, Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS section was also a big part of my movie-goin’ life. As luck would have it, they had a copy of Blue Steel, and it became mine. Oh how happy I was to have it for my very own! During that same trip, as we traipsed through Target next door, I looked at the newer, big budget ‘real’ John Wayne movies on their VHS shelf, thinking to myself “why have that when you could have Blue Steel?” Hey, I was like 12. I was one proud papa!

So I get home, immediately and happily watch Blue Steel, and then suffered extreme  heartbreak – the tape wouldn’t eject! This wasn’t a fault of the VCR – I hadn’t run that into the ground just yet – there was something wrong with the tape itself. Eventually it was removed without harm to the deck, but needless to say the tape had to be returned as defective to the store. It’s not like I could, or would, watch it again! Too much risk, man!

Anyway, I can’t remember if it’s what I got in return in that instance or if I found it there later, but eventually The Lucky Texan, via that same $2.99 VHS section, was my Lone Star consolation prize. This one played and ejected just fine, but still, it wasn’t Blue Steel. Either that tape was sold long ago or it’s seriously buried somewhere in my parent’s basement, but either way, I’ll always remember the movie for being Blue Steel‘s also-ran. In my eyes back then, I mean; this viewing here was my first since back in about 1998. (Some 21 years ago as of this writing!)

I spoke too soon about that Randy Rides Alone thing last entry; here Wayne plays Jerry Mason (any relation to The Dawn Rider‘s John Mason???) who along with old family friend Jake Benson (Gabby!) finds a rich vein of gold in a riverbed. Their frequent big money hauls attract the greed of the local (and quite shady) assayers, who trick Jake into signing over the deed to his ranch and set out to find this gold deposit to net the big big profits for themselves.

Skiing (?) down an aqueduct (?)

I remembered very, very little of this film beforehand, though certain scenes did reemerge in my memory as I watched. Jake’s big ol’ mustache, Jerry digging grime out of a horse’s shoe (this leads to the discovery of gold), Jerry skiing down an aqueduct (I guess that’s what it is) and Jake masquerading in drag to fool the assayers during Jerry’s wrongfully-accused-of-murder trial, all jogged my faded memories.

There’s a sequence in the body of the film in which Jake is accused of killing the local banker (who turns out to be alive) and Jerry apprehending the real culprit, who turns out to be the sheriff’s loser son. It feels like filler, and really, the film would have flowed just fine (albeit shorter) without it. Its main purpose seems to be adding some suspense for Jerry to get Jake out of prison without Jake’s just-arrived-in-town granddaughter finding out.

That bit aside, it’s a decently-paced flick. It held my attention, it wasn’t bad, but it probably falls more in the middle of the Lone Star spectrum, though that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining; it is. It’s nice seeing Wayne play a slightly different character from what we’ve been seeing – excepting The Desert Trail. He still gets the girl in the end though, because of course. (Thus far we haven’t seen a flick here in which Wayne’s character isn’t at least engaged to the leading lady by the film’s conclusion, and I’m going to keep making that “because of course” quasi-gag until we do. There’s a strong possibility I’ll be saying it for each and every entry.)

While watching, I did remember something that didn’t sit well with me then, and actually still doesn’t sit well with me today: the appearance of power lines and and an actual automobile near the end points to this being a more ‘modern day’ western, if not set in 1934 then at least somewhere in the earlier years of the 1900s. I always preferred my westerns to be in the old west, somewhere in the 1800s. Just feels more authentic and westerny to me, and that feeling goes back to when I was around 12 years old and discovering all this stuff for the first time. Arbitrary? Well sure it is!

By the way, the title implies this is set in Texas, but boy, there’s an announcement during a courtroom scene that sure sounded to me like “Omaha County.” Maybe I heard wrong (entirely possible), or maybe the title was added later without regard to the movie proper. It’s not like B-Westerns weren’t thrown out to the public quickly.

Anyway, The Lucky Texan is certainly no Blue Steel, but methinks I just didn’t appreciate it enough on its own merits back in the late-90s. A solid, watchable Lone Star outing. (Strangely, the opening “Lone Star” card is omitted here, instead starting directly with the title.)

The Man From Utah (1934) – Okay, the first thing you’ll notice with this one is that the title credits music has been very obviously replaced with something of a more-recent vintage. A ‘bigger’, more-dramatic theme that clearly wouldn’t fit with a movie this old. Say what?! A background score has also clearly been added throughout as well. The later colorized versions of these movies from the 1990s (more info on those in the next entry) replaced the credits music and added a score (these movies don’t normally feature any kind of music beyond the opening and closing titles, as was typical of B-Westerns in the early/mid-1930s), so was this the colorized version reverted back to black & white? And if so, WHY? It’s not even remotely hard to locate the original cuts of these movies, so yeah, I’m puzzled with the alterations here, especially since none of the other movies in the set feature these additions.

Wayne with a guitar that he really shouldn’t have.

The surprises don’t end once the movie starts proper, either. As soon as the story starts, we’re treated to John Wayne riding along – and singing! That’s right, he plays a singin’ cowboy in this one! Okay, so it’s just one song at the beginning, and his voice is very obviously dubbed by someone else, but nevertheless, putting John Wayne in the same arena as Gene Autry or Roy Rogers is highly eyebrow-raising.

Here, Wayne plays John Weston (I like to imagine him as the great-great-grandfather of Dr. Harry Weston), who rides into town, is almost immediately deputized, and is put in charge of figuring out if a big-time rodeo is being fixed by the people running it. To do this, he goes undercover by entering said rodeo, besting every event, and naturally running afoul of the gang behind the whole thing. (Apparently the bad guys have injured or killed outsiders who’ve done too well in the past.)

The added background music really takes me out of things with this flick; not that it’s bad, it’s not, but it just doesn’t fit. It sounds too new, and lays ‘on top’ of the film rather than being part of it. (The composer does get a credit at the very end though, which is nice.) Besides that, while I found the rodeo scenes fairly interminable (they were probably fine for the kiddies back in 1934, but for me they just drag things to a halt), the rest of the movie isn’t bad. I found the plot fairly engaging, though like the last movie, it’s probably more of a middle-of-the-road Lone Star entry than a top-tier feature.

Something I found odd: at the very end, right before it’s revealed they’ve become engaged (because of course), the leading lady forgives Weston for going off with another woman, who unbeknownst to her was part of the gang Weston was investigating (which was also unbeknownst to her). Didn’t they put the cart before the horse a bit there? I mean, wouldn’t they have solved this issue before pledging to spend their lives together? From what I know of women (which admittedly isn’t much, given my constant inability to relate to them), spending time with another girl would probably be an obstacle needing cleared before getting engaged. But hey, I’m no expert in these matters, so what do I know?

Unlike most of our other movies seen so far, there are several references to Weston as “the man from Utah,” so that was a factor of the film deemed important enough to be shared with the title of the movie. (Or maybe vice-versa.)

The Man From Utah got a pretty clean print. There’s expected dust and scratches present, but by and large it’s a fairly clear picture, albeit one that’s not as sharp as you’d hope. Also, some odd video ‘interference’ is seen throughout, though not enough to be distracting, and certainly not to the extent of The Dawn Rider‘s picture issues. Overall it looks pretty nice. I just wish I didn’t find that newly-implemented musical score so distracting.

(By the way, the copy of this DVD set I’m reviewing was still sealed new when I got it, but I found it at a thrift store, and judging by the amount of dirt/dust on the shrinkwrap, I’m guessing someone got it closer to 2010 than not, and obviously just never did anything with it. As such, I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of the video issues seen in this movie or The Dawn Rider weren’t fixed in subsequent pressings of the set. But, I can only review what’s in front me.)

The Star Packer (1934) – This is one I had the colorized VHS edition of looong ago. Still have it actually, though I haven’t watched it, or this movie in any form, in probably 20 years. The Star Packer was my second colorized Wayne Lone Star; the first was The Trail Beyond (which we’ll be seeing next, as the last movie on disc one), and naturally both came from Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS section.

The colorized VHS editions of these movies (not to be confused with the new colorized DVD editions) were neat, but even back then kinda head-scratching. I mean, did these movies really warrant the expense of colorization? Not to mention the newly-added musical scores? From how I understand it, these full movie releases were taken from a syndicated TV series that used edited versions of them to make up the installments, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway, VidAmerica first released these on VHS in the early-90s, and UAV re-released them in the late-90s. For me, The Star Packer was the former while The Trail Beyond was the latter, not that it really matters, since I *believe* the content was the same regardless.

That was pretty much my only personal recollections of The Star Packer; I couldn’t remember anything specific about the movie itself, so I essentially went into this one ‘fresh’. Though like The Lucky Texan, certain scenes jogged my memory when I saw them.

Wayne plays Cahill John Travers, U.S. Marshal, who is after the murderin’ scoundrels responsible for, uh, thievery and the like (you know how it is). He becomes the sheriff of a town where this gang of hoodlums happens to be headquartered. They’re led by a mysterious head honcho known only as “The Shadow,” who speaks through a fake wall safe.

Getting instructions from “The Shadow.”

I’m going to be honest with you; I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. The movie tries to add a novel twist by adding mystery elements regarding the identity of The Shadow, but it’s so painfully obvious who it is early on that it doesn’t really count. He turns out to be – (spoiler!) – local rancher Matt Matlock (besides his slightly redundant name, I like to imagine him as the great-great-grandfather of…oh you know who I mean). Well, someone who has assumed his identity, anyway.

The usage of the name “Matlock” is delightful, and it along with Travers’ faithful Indian companion Yak (played by stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt, who we’ve been seeing all throughout these Lone Stars), who is fairly insensitively portrayed but at least he’s a good guy, well, there’s not a whole lot else that really stands out about this one. The whole “Shadow” aspect is a real missed opportunity for a stronger mystery element to the movie, or possibly even a (light) horror element.

Not really a bad movie, but fairly run-of-the-mill as far as the Lone Stars go; a real programmer, even for a series that was, by definition, made up entirely of programmers. Though, Gabby Hayes playing a villain and the conclusion featuring Travers married to the leading lady (because of course) but several years after the events of the movie proper (by then they’ve got a kid that’s old enough to walk and talk), that’s all kinda unique…I guess.

The Trail Beyond (1934) – Like I said last entry, this was my introduction to the world of the colorized Lone Stars. I still remember the night I found it: it was the summer of ’99, and the next day my brother and I were off with my dad and his friend to the Brickyard 400 in Indy. The race was on Saturday, August 7, and we got there the day before, so the night The Trail Beyond in blazing color came into my life had to be Thursday, August 5, 1999. It was a banner night at Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS racks, netting me not only this but the restored-to-original-color Zorro opus The Bold Caballero, and not one but two (single episode each) VHS releases of the black & white Dragnet. Having only heard of the 1950s iteration beforehand but being a rabid fan of the 1960s revival that was then-running on TV Land, the Dragnet tapes were the big finds of the night, but it was pretty cool winnins all-around.

Like The Star Packer and The Lucky Texan, I remembered little of this flick beforehand, though a bit more than the those. Probably because the novelty of having a colorized Lone Star was so great at the time, more of it stuck with me.

In what seems like the first time in ages on this “Lone Star Journey” (as dictated by the line-up of this DVD set, I mean), George “Gabby” Hayes is not in this one…but two Noah Beerys are! That’s right, Noah Beery Sr. and Jr. are both in this one! Neato!

The surprises don’t end there, either. While the plot isn’t too out of the ordinary, the setting certainly is; The Trail Beyond primarily takes place in Northwestern Canada! Oh sure, there’s plenty of gunfightin’ and horses and such, but just the presence of a different backdrop alone really helps set this one apart.

Wayne and Beery Jr., extricating a map from a skeleton’s hand (!)

Wayne plays John Rod Drew, who is enlisted by an old family friend to find out what happened to his estranged brother and never-met niece. (The friend’s brother and niece, I mean.) So, off to Canada Ron goes! Along the way, he runs into old college chum Wabi (Beery Jr., and yes, that’s really the name of his character), who is almost instantly blamed for a murder. Rod helps him escape, though luckily they’re in the general vicinity of where Rod needs to be anyway. Thanks to poverty row logic, almost as quickly as Wabi was blamed for murder, they discover what happened to the brother (and his mining partner): their bone-dry skeletons are found in a cabin, along with a map to a gold mine. That part of his mission near-instantaneously complete, it’s off to find the niece.

As you may well imagine, the revelation of the mine map draws the attention of the local hoodlums (one of whom is Lone Star regular Earl Dwire, though he adopts an exaggerated French-Canadian accent for this role), and don’t forget, that murder rap is still hanging over Wabi’s head.

Even without the scenic locales it’s a pretty captivating plot, as far as these B-Westerns go. I really liked this one, far more than I did back in the day. Some of the dialogue is pretty eye-rolling; the family friend positing that it’s likely his niece is named Marie since that was her mother’s name is a real “huh?” statement, though it provides for a red-herring moment later that, truth be told, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Just one of the scenic backdrops in this movie.

Of course, the pine trees, cabins and rivers (and Mounties; this movie’s got Mounties!) of what was supposed to be Canada are what help things stand out even more. The scenery is beautiful! Indeed, while the print here isn’t bad, mostly good-not-great, this is a movie that would really benefit from a crystal clear transfer. As I recall it, my old colorized version featured a pretty nice base print…

And that brings us to the end of disc one. By and large, it’s a fun line-up. I’d say the first half is stronger than the second, which dips a bit before finishing strong with the excellent Trail Beyond, but there’s no true dud movie in the bunch. Considering this is a budget DVD set and thus probably not commanding much dough wherever you may find it, disc one is worth the price of admission alone, but disc two is certainly no afterthought; there’s more neat stuff just ahead!


DISC TWO

Hell Town (1937) – The second disc kicks off with a real gear shift from we’ve seen so far! Originally released by Paramount as Born to the West, Hell Town, while still decidedly a B-Western, has something resembling an actual budget. In stark contrast to the Lone Stars, which are fun but can be a kinda creaky, Hell Town just looks and feels so much more professional. There’s even background music throughout, which makes a huge difference.

Dare and Dink, after some bar-brawlin’.

Wayne is Dare Rudd (yes, really), who along with his lightning rod salesman buddy Dink (yes, really) wander into Wyoming and wind up working for Rudd’s cousin Tom (Johnny Mack Brown!)…but not before running afoul of some cattle rustlers. Rudd already doesn’t have a great standing with his cousin, further exacerbated by his brawling and generally wild ways. Rudd also falls for Tom’s maybe-fiancee Judy – an attraction that is evident to Tom but weirdly never seems to concern him as much as you might think. (Judy is played by Marsha Hunt, who as of this writing is still with us – how neat is that?!)

Rudd is eventually promoted to heading a cattle drive for Tom (think of a proto-Rawhide, minus Clint Eastwood, cause, you know, he was only like seven years old at the time of this film), lands in a crooked poker game, and gets in a big ol’ shoot out. Eventually it all works out for the better, because you don’t expect a nihilistic ending in a B-Western. Rudd winds up with Judy (because of course…and basically at the behest of Tom, so you know it ain’t exactly a flick grounded in realism) and Dink continues to babble about lightning rods.

This is a goooood movie! Not that I haven’t been enjoying the Lone Stars but the higher budget and better script here, needless to say, make a big, big difference. And what’s more, whether it’s due to the script or simply because a few more years of experience had elapsed, but Wayne exudes an easygoing charm and style that makes him seem more like the ‘real’ John Wayne people tend to think of, instead of the generic B-Western John Wayne we’ve been seeing and are about to see more of.

This, my friends, is a very entertaining B-Western, real fun matinee stuff; I like it a lot!

‘Neath Arizona Skies (1934) – Back to the Lone Stars. I taped this one a zillion years ago but I’m pretty sure I never actually watched it, so I’m basically going in fresh here.

The good guy, the bad guy, and the leading lady – who happens to be the sister of the bad guy, who switched clothing with the unconscious good guy prior, unbeknownst to the leading lady but known to the good guy. (Got all that?)

Wayne plays Chris Morrell, who is in charge of a little half-Indian girl that stands to inherit some big oil money – provided he can find her father, or provide proof that her father is dead. Needless to say, this attracts the attention of local hooligans, who want to find the father or kidnap the girl or both so they can steal them big big bucks. Complicating matters is a hold-up in which the robber switches clothes with an unconscious Morrell – and who happens to be the brother of Morrell’s destined-to-be love interest. The little girl’s father is eventually found, and relatively easily, and naturally he runs headfirst into this mess, as well. Look, the way this stuff all intersects isn’t very realistic, but hey, Seinfeld got away with that sort of thing all the time, right?

(Also, I assume this all takes place, say it with me, beneath Arizona skies.)

Oddly enough, despite being in the film and having a fairly visible role, Gabby is uncredited in the, erm, credits. I hope he still got paid! Naturally, Wayne gets the leading lady in the end (because of course), but for once there’s no mention of automatic engagement or marriage, so there’s that. (Hell Town had no mention of marriage either, but that wasn’t a Lone Star so my babbling doesn’t apply there.)

Coming off such a big change of pace, and with an annoying little kid in the cast, I wasn’t expecting to like this one very much. To my surprise though, I found this one pretty entertaining. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not bad either. But boy, coming off Hell Town, the poverty row-ness of ‘Neath Arizona Skies really stands out more than it probably would have otherwise. Much more stilted, much creakier.

(Also, while not as frequent as The Dawn Rider way back early on disc one, there are some moments of heavy compression/artifacting/pixelated break-up in this one.)

Paradise Canyon (1935) – Like I said before, these Lone Stars aren’t in order of release on this set; we haven’t even seen Wayne’s first Lone Star entry yet. But here, we have the last Lone Star picture Wayne made. Were all the stops pulled out for one last grand shoot-’em-up at Monogram, or did the series unceremoniously peter out like a spent river bed in some dry dusty gulch somewhere?

Unfortunately, it was the latter. I found Paradise Canyon, while not terrible, to certainly be on the lower end of the Lone Star spectrum.

Wayne is government agent John Wyatt (just once I’d like his last name to be “Hiatt” in one of these, simply because it would amuse me) who is sent to stop whoever is passing counterfeit money. Wyatt follows and later joins a traveling medicine show he suspects of the crime, only to run smack dab into the real counterfeiters.

You know, this one initially looked like it was going to be a manhunt-type film, with Wyatt following the medicine show from town to town, progressively closing in on his target. Even when the typical Lone Star three cent budget is factored in, that plot, to me, shows some promise.

Trick-shootin’ with a mirror.

That’s not what we got though. In short order, Wyatt finds Doc Carter’s medicine show, helps them escape the local law (he’s a government agent, I guess he can get away with that?), and then joins the show under an assumed name. Did you ever want to see a long, interminable demonstration of the medicine show’s entertainment? If so, you’ve come to the right place! Complete with trick-shootin’, terrible songs and pitching of Doc Carter’s supposedly-Indian-concocted medicine (whatever it is, it’s 90% alcohol), in short order you’ll be tempted to shout at the top of your lungs “hey, this is total filler!” And you’d be right!

Much about this one, to the plot to the dialogue to even the sound effects, filled me with, if not disgust than at least a vague forming of disgust somewhere in the back of my psyche. Or something like that. It kinda annoyed me, okay? I’m not totally sure why either, since one thing I love about B-Westerns is their reliable predictability, but there’s not much that worked for me with this one. And to top it off, the medicine show used a real drivin’ truck to get around; if necessary, go back and read my Lucky Texan take to see how I feel about that. Also, despite the title, I’m not sure if any of this takes place in an actual canyon. But then, admittedly there were points where my attention was slipping and I just didn’t care, so maybe?

The conclusion has Wyatt and the leading lady waiting for the Justice of the Peace to wed them (because of course), only for the film to reveal that he and Doc Carter are off getting drunk on the ‘medicine’ somewhere. What a way for Wayne’s Lone Stars to go out!

I wonder if Wayne and/or Monogram knew this would be it for his Lone Star series? Yes or no, it wasn’t a great way to end things. (By the way, there’s an odd solid border around the screen for the opening credits, which disappears when the movie proper begins. Why?!?!)

Rainbow Valley (1935) – I’ve been looking forward to this one. Y’see, back in the day, some time after that initial Blue Steel caused my VCR to explode and The Lucky Texan became the consolation prize, I found a four-VHS John Wayne box set at Best Buy. It wasn’t a $2.99’er, but it finally gave me a copy of Blue Steel I could hold onto, along with Randy Rides Alone, The Lawless Frontier and this film, Rainbow Valley. Rainbow Valley never overtook Blue Steel in my eyes, but became one of my go-to Lone Stars back then nevertheless.

Every single print of Rainbow Valley I’ve seen has shared the exact same maladies, namely that the quality is pretty wasted and scratchy, as if there was only one extant copy out there and everyone keeps passing it around. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but my curiosity was peaked as to whether the trend continued with this Mill Creek set or not.

In short, it did. Unfortunately, it’s not a unique print of Rainbow Valley here, and by this point I’m not convinced there is another print of the flick out there. Prove me wrong? And oddly enough, something I noticed on this viewing: you can often hear shouting/talking/action in the background of the soundtrack, and it doesn’t correlate to what’s happening on screen. A mistake with the existing print, or was Monogram filming something else nearby which Rainbow Valley got some residual audio evidence of? I wouldn’t be surprised in either instance, honestly.

Wayne and Gabby, sitting in “Nugget Nell” the automobile.

John Martin (Wayne, duh) is an undercover government agent (again), sent to protect the residents of the titular location from the local gang, who are, as you’d expect, terrorizing the populace. They want to drive people out and buy the land up cheap, again, as you’d expect. Martin must put a stop to this. Along the way you’ll get the usual misunderstandings as to who Martin really is, and a leading lady who hates him until she doesn’t. (Because of course.) Oh, and Gabby; Gabby’s in this one too.

Not gonna lie, all I really remembered about Rainbow Valley, besides the trashed quality of the print, was that dynamite played a big role, and I remembered correctly; at one point Gabby drives around in his rickety automobile (grrrrr…) and lobs sticks of dynamite at bad guys, which sounds like it’d make for a cool mission in an original Xbox game, truth be told.

Rainbow Valley is…alright. Re-watching it with a more objective eye nowadays, I wanted to like it more than I did, but, it’s strictly mediocre. I found it to be a better movie than Paradise Canyon (I compare both because that’s the movie immediately preceding this on the set and because both titles share similar a motif, which I only now just realized), and I like the general idea of the film, but in practice it’s pretty by-the-numbers. And yet, I’d still be interested in seeing a cleaned up, or at least better, print of the film.

The unique billing of Wayne as “Singin’ Sandy” on the title card.

Riders of Destiny (1933) – This was actually the very first Lone Star picture Wayne did, and it differs from later productions in a few ways. In contrast to later programmers for the studio, Wayne is specifically billed as “Singin’ Sandy” on the title screen; this is the only time his character is given such a shout-out. I assume Lone Star/Monogram was attempting to create a film series around this character, something which obviously never happened.

Wayne is indeed “Singin’ Sandy” Saunders, and as the feature opens, he lives up to his namesake, riding along and singing a cowboy tune – one of the very first singing cowboys of the movies! It’s an achievement not typically credited to Wayne, and for good reason; we saw him sing in The Man From Utah earlier on this set, and like that film, his singing voice is very obviously dubbed here by someone who sounds absolutely nothing like Wayne.

Anyway, the opening song here isn’t the usual paean to love or lonesome cowpoke lament; no no, this song is all about brutality. No kidding, Saunders sings a tune about total bloodshed. Seriously, it’s all about gunning his enemies down; only a pre-Hays Code flick could get away with something like that in what was probably considered mainly kids fare. It’s a really dark “say what?!” moment, and it’s even repeated later in the film, like a vocal calling card. Yikes!

Saunders is a gunman with a Billy the Kid-like reputation, though in actuality he’s a government agent sent to rid a local town of bad guy Kincaid, who is using both a near-total control of the water supply and the usual strong arm tactics to drive the other ranchers out and buy their land up for cheap. This, needless to say, won’t do, and so it’s up to Saunders to help the townspeople out of this mess.

The plot may not sound all that unusual, but it’s handled pretty well here; Riders of Destiny seems to generally be considered the best of Wayne’s Lone Stars, and while it may not *technically* be my favorite, I think I have to agree with that. As these things go, it’s excellent. After watching the last two movies for this review, I was wondering if I was simply burning out on these flicks, but the more I watched Riders of Destiny, the more I found my attention focused on it. This is a good, good poverty row oater!

Shootout in the street…

Although there’s the usual temporary case of mistaken identity and stabs at comic relief found (they’d be no stranger to later Lone Star entries), what really sets Riders of Destiny apart is how surprisingly dark (as in tone, not lighting) it can be at times. Sandy’s aforementioned song, of course, but later in the film there’s a scene where he lassos two inept baddies together and drags them along the ground behind his horse! Even more shocking, Riders displays the typical shootout in the middle of town at one point, but rather than just having Sandy blow the guy away, he instead quick draws and shoots him twice, then declares that the guy will never handle guns again. There’s then a quick close-up of the baddie with blood trickling down both his hands; Sandy put holes through his wrists! It’s not particularly graphic in this day and age, but for a B-Western it’s shockingly brutal, and almost unthinkable in later Lone Stars, never mind later 1930s poverty row westerns in general.

Even the conclusion of the film, in which Sandy kisses the heroine and promises to be back in time for dinner before riding off, is a little different. It’s a happy ending, but with, to me, a vague, bordering-on-bittersweet undertone. I’m not even giving this a “because of course” declaration this time around, because the romance, while not much (if any) of a focus during the film proper, at least doesn’t conclude with a random engagement and/or marriage.

For as much as I love Blue Steel, objectively I have to admit Riders of Destiny is the premier (as in best) Lone Star flick. Kinda funny that it was also the premiere (as in first) Lone Star flick, though that’s not to say later entries were all wastes. As we’ve seen throughout this review, there were a few dips, but by and large these are still movies worth watching!

Sagebrush Trail (1933) – In a nice bit of continuity with the preceding movie, this was the second Wayne Lone Star. Methinks this was a coincidence; I was trying to figure out if there was any rhyme-or-reason to Mill Creek’s placement of these movies on this set, and then I realized that, per disc, the movies are in alphabetical order.

Like Riders of Destiny, this is an excellent film. Just as good? Maybe, maybe not; I can’t decide. It’s close. It’s certainly a less brutal movie, and Wayne doesn’t fake sing in it, so there’s that. But like Riders, Sagebrush Trail plays out a little differently from how most of these Lone Stars went, or eventually went. And, even though there’s a scene early in the film that places the events in a then-more-modern setting, that doesn’t even really bother me this time around, because I enjoyed the rest of the movie so much.

Wayne is John Brant, and as the film opens, he’s an escaped convict. Seems he was put away for murder, and since we know how these B-Westerns generally go, it can reasonably be assumed that he didn’t do it. We don’t know that right away though, not for sure, and it’s a nice change of pace to have Wayne playing someone who isn’t a sheriff/marshal/government agent – he’s just some guy, running for his life, trying to find who committed the murder he’s been blamed for.

Utilizing the “world is only populated by a couple dozen people” economy that these poverty row oaters, or at least Lone Stars, practically turned into an art form, Brant stumbles upon a gang of thieves and befriends the real killer – unbeknownst to him at first, or course. It seems like the kind of place he should be searching anyway, so he joins up with them, both to find the real baddie and to thwart whatever crimes they hatch.

Broken eggs and Sally, the former being an object of comedy and the latter being the object of Brant and Conlon’s affections.

Lane Chandler plays Joseph Conlon, the man Brant becomes buddies with. The rapport between the two is evident; during a scene in which they goof on each other in a general store, I caught me genuinely smiling to myself! And even though Chandler is technically a bad guy (he was in the store to scope it for a robbery later that night, after all), he never really seems totally bad. He likes Brant, and even towards the end of the film when he finally becomes convinced Brant is a good guy and sets him up for an ambush by the other gang members, there still seems like something redeemable in him. There’s a likability in Chandler’s Conlon that I wouldn’t have expected beforehand!

Naturally (spoiler!) Conlon gets plugged and spills the beans to the law before expiring, thus exonerating Brant once and for all. Then, with Conlon’s body only feet away and still warm, Brant kisses leading lady Sally (because of course), the object of both Brant and Conlon’s affections. It’s kind of an awkward, inappropriate way to end the film, honestly. That aside though, Sagebrush Trail is a terrific movie as far as these Lone Stars go; attention-grabbing and generally fun, it’s among the upper-echelon of these flicks in my opinion.

(I was also pleased to see that Sagebrush Trail got a pretty decent print here. The quality of the preceding films on this disc have varied but mostly stayed in a standard, expected PD movie camp. Sagebrush Trail, however, while not exactly Criterion-quality, is relatively sharp and balanced. I’d say it falls safely within the realm of “good,” as opposed to the usual “well, it’s watchable.”)

Texas Terror (1935) -We’re nearly done with this journey through Mill Creek’s set. The penultimate movie on it is also the last Lone Star we’ll see; the final movie is a Republic offering. If you remember 600 years ago during my intro to this article, you’ll recall my link to my VHS review of this movie. Here, have it again.

I wasn’t real big on the flick following that viewing, and the print used was pretty wasted, which didn’t help matters. But because I’m firmly in “Lone Star” mode right now, Texas Terror can (probably) only go up in my opinion.

And the print? Luckily, Mill Creek does have a different and better print of the movie here.  Like Sagebrush Trail before it, Texas Terror looks surprisingly nice! Granted, it would be hard to look worse than that old VHS copy I reviewed. But while I’m not claiming Texas Terror to look pristine on this set, it sure looks better than I expected it to. It’s relatively good, at least on the higher end of the public domain Lone Star spectrum. It has its issues, no doubt (there’s an annoying ‘pop’ on the soundtrack whenever a scene/camera angle changes, for example), but nevertheless, Texas Terror doesn’t look too bad here. (Something I didn’t notice or don’t recall noticing last time, during an early scene with Wayne’s character and his friend sitting in an office: look close, there are flies noticeably buzzing about, landing on their hats, etc.)

Higgins, thinking he’s accidentally killed his friend Dan.

The plot: John Wayne is John Higgins, and not the one that was always yelling at Magnum, either. No no, this one’s a sheriff, ostensibly in Texas, and apparently a pretty good one – until he believes he’s accidentally killed his friend and father-figure Dan. This causes Higgins to leave the job and became a loner, friend only to Indians. Of course, he didn’t really kill Dan, and after a year-long (!) sabbatical, he returns to town to help Dan’s just-returned daughter Bess run the family ranch as well as find out the whole truth behind Dan’s death. Bess winds up loving Higgins until she doesn’t until she does again, because of course.

Did my opinion of Texas Terror go up this viewing? Well…not really. I want to like the plot so much more than I do; there’s the germ of a decent idea there and the usage of Native Americans as dependable and heroic characters is a plus (even if their dialog is rendered a somewhat offensively), but man, after an okay start, the film devolves into typical Lone Star  fare. A long dance and cow milking contest (!) sequence provides a few moments to further the plot but is really more filler than anything, for example. Even the grand climax with the Indians coming to Higgins’ aid, I found my mind wandering. After that decent opening, the movie is either by-the-numbers or outright dumb. Oh, and there’s another then-somewhat-modern automobile present, which doesn’t help matters in the eyes of yours truly.

Texas Terror is strictly mediocre, probably middle-of-the-road as far as B-Westerns in general go, but probably in the lower-tier as far as these Lone Stars specifically go.

Winds of the Wasteland (1936) – And so we come to the last movie on Mill Creek’s 16-movie “The Duke” set. Like the flick that kicked off this second disc, this isn’t a Lone Star film, but rather one of Wayne’s other pre-Stagecoach B-Westerns that also subsequently fell in to the public domain. Released by Republic less than a year after the final Lone Star, the differences are, like Hell Town, pretty striking. Mainly as far as the budget goes; I have no idea what any of these films cost, I’m assuming Winds of the Wasteland was substantially higher than any of the Lone Stars, but less than Hell Town. Don’t quote me on any of that though.

At any rate, like Hell Town, Winds of the Wasteland has something resembling a budget. Decently filmed action sequences, a good plot and an actual background score, Winds looks less like an uber-poverty row oater and more like a, uh, run-of-the-mill B oater. Or something like that.

Like Sagebrush Trail, Wayne is teamed with Lane Chandler as his buddy. There’s no hidden agendas or secret identities between them this time around though, and oddly enough, I didn’t see the same chemistry here. Maybe they needed that ‘torn between two worlds’ thing? Oh well, it’s nice to see them partnered up again anyway.

Wayne is John Blair, who along with his friend Larry Adams (Chandler) decide to go into the stagecoach business together. Instead of buying fresh though, they wind up purchasing a coach and line for “Crescent City” from the unscrupulous Cal Drake; you can pretty much tell he’s unscrupulous from the get-go, but Blair and Adams evidently can’t, because they buy into it all sight unseen. Naturally they’ve been ripped off; there is indeed a stagecoach and city, but the coach is rickety (and home to a skunk), and the city is almost entirely uninhabited.

The climatic stagecoach race.

Using ingenuity (and a little B-Western luck), they start turning the stage into a success, progressively drawing more people into the city and, naturally, attracting the ire of Drake – who they still owe some installments on the deal to. It all culminates in a stagecoach race between Blair and crooked Drake for a $25,000 mail subsidy, which is of course the final push Crescent City needs to put things over the top. Also, the daughter of Crescent City’s doctor hates Blair until she doesn’t, because (for the last time) of course.

The final action sequence goes on a bit too long for my tastes (I found my mind wandering more than it should have, though the matinee kiddies of 1936 probably loved the whole thing), but for the most part, Winds of the Wasteland is a pretty good flick. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hell Town or some of the higher-ranked Lone Stars on this set, but it’s a very solid Republic offering. (It’s interesting to note that Wayne displays a bit more “John Wayne-ness” here than he did with the Lone Stars, but not as much as he did with Hell Town, where he came off much more like the John Wayne people think of when they think “Duke.” Experience or scripting or both? You decide!)

(Oh, and that border around the screen during the opening credits of Paradise Canyon? It’s back for this one.)


So there you have it, Mill Creek’s big ol’ 16-movie John Wayne DVD set, “The Duke.” No, as far as his public domain works go, it’s not the most comprehensive set out there. Even Mill Creek themselves have released 20+ collections that not only include all 16 Lone Stars but a bunch of his other PD stuff as well. But like I said at the start of this review, I like the quick, all killer no filler approach of this set. I just don’t want to wade through a John Wayne serial, His Private Secretary or a documentary on The Duke! Sure, I could always just skip those entries, but there’s something to be said for a no-nonsense, concise two disc approach to these things, and that’s what attracted me to this collection in the first place.

Would I have preferred that this set stuck to all 16 Lone Stars, preferably in order of release, and left things at that? Well, yes, I think so. But, Hell Town and Winds of the Wasteland are such enjoyable B-Westerns, and they do provide a nice change of pace, that I can’t really complain too much.

And you know what? Even though some of the Lone Stars dip in quality or fall into the trap of ‘sameness’, the fact of the matter is that I genuinely enjoyed going through this collection, film by film. Like I said before, B-Westerns weren’t/aren’t high art, nor were they intended to be. This is real matinee stuff; fast, simple and easy to digest. By and large this is a very good collection in demonstrating that, with even the weaker films being worth a view.

Mill Creek’s “The Duke” DVD set gets my enthusiastic recommendation, and as we all know, my recommendation is of tantamount importance. Pick it up and let the pre-stardom waves of a young John Wayne take you on a trip to depression-era filmdom!

(Boy, that last line borders on being outright stupid, but this review is now over 11,000 words; I’m spent, man!)

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!

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. 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!

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

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, 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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DISC 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DISC 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DISC 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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